This is the third in a series of blog posts from Western Herald writers in Malaysia. Check this space every week for posts from Ranchithaa Anatory and Daing S. Nasir on their summer back home.
I have heard numerous stories from friends traveling in numerous countries of the language problems they face, but have yet to hear such complaints from people who visit Malaysia. Bahasa Melayu (Malaysia language) is the national language of Malaysia. However, English is taught as a second language in every school here. Since Malaysia was once colonized by the British, our education system applies the British English spelling in its syllabus (e.g. colour instead of color).
If right now you’re imagining people walking the busy, often dusty streets of Kuala Lumpur speaking Queen’s English to road-side vendors, you are dead wrong. Since Malaysia is built of three main races, the Malay, Chinese and Indian, one hears a variety of languages being thrown out in a crowded street. While the Malays have Bahasa Melayu as their mother tongue, the Chinese have numerous, depending on which part of China their ancestors are from.
There are Mandarin-speaking Chinese, the Cantonese-speaking Chinese, the Hokkien-speaking Chinese and so on. This applies to the Indians as well. Although Tamil is the commonly spoken language among Indians in Malaysia, there are also Malayalam-speaking Indians, Telugu-speaking Indians, Hindi-speaking Indians and so on.
And these mother tongues are often spoken with a generous dose of English and Bahasa Malaysia inserted here and there in almost every sentence. Also, the sight of watching a Chinese person speaking Tamil or an Indian person speaking Mandarin should not surprise you. Having been in a melting pot long before our independence in 1957 has made all the races mingle with each other’s culture to the extent of having some who are able to converse in another’s mother tongue fluently.
Now, having given a rough idea of how mixed and wonderfully blended all the various languages of Malaysians can be, I would like to present to you Manglish. If you are pulling down a huge dictionary to look it up, save yourself the trouble–such a word doesn’t officially exist. It is basically short for Malaysian-English. You see, Malaysians have this unique way of speaking English. The various races that live in this country deal with each other so much that they have come to speak English with bits and pieces of everyone’s mother tongue engraved in their speech.
For example, the most common slang used in Malaysia is the lah. It comes from the Malay language as a way to emphasize certain words. So, if you were in Malaysia and heard someone say “no-lah,” it basically means “Of course not!” Among youngsters, “let’s go lepak” is a common phrase for “let’s go hang-out.”
Similarly, many words used by Chinese and Indians are incorporated into the spoken English of Malaysians. For instance, yam cha which means ‘drink tea.’ Among the Chinese, it is commonly used as “let’s go yam cha,” especially when it’s tea time.
Another example are the Chinese terms leng-lui and leng-chai, meaning pretty girl and pretty boy. So, if you were a guy walking in a Malaysian street and found a bunch of giggling girls whispering “Oh, what a leng-chai!” take it as a compliment: your gene-pool has done you good!
Among the Indians, the term macha is usually used in reference to one’s brother in-law. However, in Malaysia, that very term is used among boys when calling their friends. “How are you, lah macha?” is something one hears almost every time a group of boys gather, regardless of race.
Just like that, over the years, Malaysians have pretty much created a language all their own. As much as it is of no use where official and legal paperwork are concerned, Manglish certainly sets us apart from the rest of the world. It gives every Malaysian an identity, and it symbolizes the acceptance of each other regardless of race and religion.
Yes, just like every other multi-racial country, Malaysians have moments when their differences get in the way, but at the end of the day, when one watches a group of multi-raced youngsters put aside their differences and hang-out at the mamak, speaking English the way only Malaysians know how to, the only race that stands out is the Malaysian race, and the only language that is heard is the Manglish. So, macha, what say you to a quick yam cha? Come-lah!
Ranchithaa Anatory is a junior at Western Michigan University studying economics, mathematics, and journalism.