Melanau - Orientation

Identification. The Melanau have no name to cover all Melanau-speaking people: they refer to themselves as "A-Liko X," meaning "the people of a river, a district, or a village," according to context. "Melanau," they assert, was given to them by the Malays of Brunei. The name possibly signifies "coast-dweller" in contrast to "inland-dweller."

Location. The areas of Sarawak inhabited by Melanau speakers stretch from Bintulu on the northwest coast of Borneo to the Rajang Delta in the southwest, and up the Rajang River to Kanowit. Beyond Kanowit are closely related Kajang peoples, who also are found on the River Baluy. The inhabitants of the coastal area live along rivers (Balingian, Mukah, Oya, and Igan) that run parallel to one another through dense tropical-rain-forest swamp, and frequently are referred to as the Coastal Melanau to distinguish them from Melanau speakers on the Rajang. The swampy environment, in which the only reliable food crop is the sago palm, is frequently flooded during the northeast monsoon from November to March, which virtually stops fishing from the coastal villages in January and February.

Demography. In 1980 the population of Sarawak was 1,233,103. The Melanau numbered 69,578, of whom 53,689 were Muslim; 8,486 were Christian; 1,749 were tribal; and 5,328 were registered as having no religion, which in practice means they adhered to tribal religion.

Linguistic Affiliation. Melanau is an Austronesian language of the Western Malayo-Polynesian Branch. It has no standard orthography; today individuals use their own spelling and the roman script. The Melanau language is divided into dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. The Coastal and Rajang dialects are linguistically related to those of the Kajang groups and groups on the coast between Bintulu and Brunei and the interior, groups sometimes referred to as Kelemantan. All Melanau people, even Muslims, speak a Melanau dialect, although today most are bilingual in Malay and Melanau.

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