As written by Joseph Yabai in The Borneo Post
This article discusses the relevance of Owen Rutter’s attribution of the naming of Mount Kinabalu to the native language in 1922.
It was written so that people can appreciate that South East Asia’s fourth highest peak was named by the native tongues of Sabah
During British rule in Sabah, under the auspices of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, they interacted quite well with the natives and saw the great need for education, which was necessary to emancipate the local population from general illiteracy, bad superstitions and the fear of the unknown
Two well-known British authors of the time were Owen Rutter and Charles Bruce. The former wrote the book The Pagans of North Borneo and the latter Twenty Years in North Borneo.
One of the most glaring differences in their views can be seen in their theories on the naming of Mount Kinabalu
Bruce simply attributed it to the name of a Chinese (Kina) widow (Balu).
Rutter, supported by some knowledge of anthropology, attributed its naming to the sound of the native language and an understanding of the phonology of the mative language.
Rutter out rightly rejected Bruce’s assumption, saying it was a nonsensical name to be given to such a mountain.
According to Rutter, the name had no connection at all with how the natives perceived the mountain. He strengthened his judgment by illustrating it with a vivid example of logical thinking, that if the natives could name even very insignificant things, how much more would they do for a majestic, sacred and awe-inspiring mountain.
According to Rutter, who was an anthropologist, the word Ki-na-balu was made up of three morphemes of which the two (ki and na) were the dependent morphemes
Ki means “there is” whilst na means “already”, balu means “place temporarily allocated for placing a dead person’s belongings”
There are many examples of native words that are prefixed by ki. For example, kitulu (there is a head), kimondou (there is a lion), or kitobu (there is suagr cane) and kituntul (there is a snail) The morphemes na prefixes many stem words like napatai (dead), naaba (fallen), naawi (finished), naakan (eaten) and naraag (damaged), to cite only a few.
The natives believed that the mountain was a dwelling place for the souls of their departed members of family.
Later on, some of them preferred to just call the mountain “nabalu” as a euphemism against mentioning all the time the prefix “ki” (there is). The euphemism was probably used because the natives believed in a cruel and merciless spirit who claimed to be the guardian of all living creatures. This spirit was said to punish them with illnesses if the chose to identify things by their real names.
Thus they used euphemized words to identify almost everything. For instance, a bride or bridegroom should never call his or her father and mother-in-law by their names but refer to them as wan.
So, it was Rutter’s great contribution to the native people of Sabah, when he attributed the naming of the mountain to the mative language and that the name should be unchangeable.