WHO dunno how to speak Manglish?
Don’t be a bladiful-lah! Learn how to speak it!
Welcome to Malaysia. Where conversations are peppered with words borrowed from Malay, Chinese, Indian and other dialects, popular mass media and plenty more; grammar is subjective and dubious phrases like “four-eyed meeting”, “Holding Room” and “smart casual” have wormed their way into our formal written English and even the newspapers!
Some will be immediately obvious to English speakers: Who dunno, meaning “who doesn’t know?”; bladiful, Manglish for “bloody fool”. And of course, the ubiquitous lah, a typical Malaysian suffix to our words that has stumped many a foreigner who’ve run into the likes of us here or abroad. “What’s a lah?” they’ve asked wonderingly. And to be honest, it’s not something easily explained – “It’s just the way we speaklah, bargger!”
Others offer small insights into youth culture: Abuden– stating the glaringly obvious, posed sarcastically. Handphone, not a headphone, neither is it a thumbphone. Elsewhere, it’s called a mobile phone or cellphone! Paktorlogy – Paktor means “to date someone” in Cantonese. Paktorlogy is a playful poke at someone who’s in the throes of a relationship.
Dialects have bent, broken and downright flipped the bird at the rules, offering not only musicality and freshness, but new ways of conceiving a language that staunch protectionism and what advocates for the “pro-pah” English Language do not allow for. Rules have been broken, leading to the formation of identities, cultural protests and unique means of expression that’s ours to celebrate and treasure.
English language specialist Dr Lee Su Kim and her husband, linguist Dr Stephen J. Hall have teamed up to record these colloquialisms in their latest book Manglish: Malaysian English At Its Wackiest! which attempts to unlock what they acknowledge as “one of the funniest and interesting English varieties in the world”. This is the second edition to Lee’s first book with the same title that came out almost two decades ago.
Has much changed since then? I ask. “Yes, but that holds true for every other human language!” she exclaims. “Language is always changing, evolving and adapting with new words being borrowed or invented. We’ve come across brand new words, idioms and expressions that are included in this book.”
CELEBRATING A SHARED HERITAGE
To some, Manglish can initially sound like a broken variation of more commonly spoken languages and as Hall asserts, it’s faulty to categorise it as incorrect or a sub-standard form of English. “In reality, Manglish is a historically-rich testament to human ingenuity, Malaysia’s rich culture, a natural evolution of language and the simple need for communication.”
We may not be native English language speakers, adds Lee, having inherited a language originating from thousands of kilometres away due to our colonial history. “But because we’re cultural beings, our own influences have definitely seeped in!”
Sitting at their home in Subang Jaya, the charming tea service laid out before me is so typically English, complete with scones and jam. “Come makan!” she invites with a smile. Therein lies the quaint normalcy that I’m used to. The typical Malaysian invitation to makan and the steaming pot of kopi-O kosong (instead of Earl Grey tea) that somehow goes brilliantly with scones.
There’s comfort in the familiar. Manglish always makes me feel at home, I tell her and she laughs, nodding in agreement. “It’s who we are as an amazingly diverse nation.” It’s self-expression, points out her affable husband as we feast on scones generously slathered with jam.
English grammar has always been in flux: both in its native land and abroad. When it comes to “offshoots” of the language, whatever label we apply – be it dialect, patois, creole or pidgin – each exists as a yardstick for linguistic evolution, and ought to be celebrated as such.
“We’re not encouraging ‘bad’ English and poor grammar,” assures Hall. “We’re celebrating the heritage and connection shared by all Malaysians. Language can be such a unifying factor of communication and key to the hearts of people.”
FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS TO SAY
Research took a couple of years, they reveal. “As an outsider and a linguist, I’d make sure I’d have come across at least four separate incidences where a Manglish word or phrase has been used, before presenting it to her,” says Hall, a New Zealander, waving at his wife.
“It cannot be idiosyncratic,” chips in Lee. Some people do create their own rojak words, she reveals chuckling. But new words, she says, have emerged since the publication of Lee’s first book.
There are new words? I repeat, surprised. “What new words?” I ask. “Mosquito biker!” answers Hall triumphantly. Mosquito biker? I stare at him. What’s that? “Oh, it’s a Mat Rempit apprentice using a push bike!” he explains blithely. Looking at my face, he adds: “Well, there are three newspaper articles that used that term… including The New Straits Times!” They’ve had to authenticate that the words have been used widely as Manglish words before these could be included in the book, shares Lee.
Undoubtedly, this project has been greatly interesting to the duo, who have a profound interest and love for languages. “It’s a lot of fun drawing from my own background as well as keeping an open ear on conversations around me,” shares the sixth generation Nyonya.
She has so far published 10 non-fiction books including Malaysian Flavours: Insights into Things Malaysian and A Nyonya in Texas: Insights of a Straits Chinese Woman in the Lone Star State. Most of Lee’s work uses humour as a conduit to bring across cultural characteristics. Most humour, and certainly humour that involves greater cognitive effort, is deeply embedded in language and culture, she says. It relies on a shared language or set of culturally based constructs to function.
Idioms are obvious examples. Manglish idioms, she says, do just that – using humour and creating obvious pictures in your heads. “Hoi! Your grandfather’s road ah?” I used to yell, scolding a road-hogger who slows down traffic on the fast lane. Lee laughs at that example and agrees. “How many mums would furiously whisper to their daughters who sat with their legs splayed open: ‘Eh, sit properly. Your coffeeshop is open!’” she adds, chuckling.
With governments frowning upon the informal use of English, is there a chance that Manglish might meet its untimely end in the near future? “Not likely!” responds Hall, adding emphatically: “You can never stop language development or what people want to speak. You can’t stop people from communicating in ways that work for them. Manglish bridges the gap and acknowledges our national identity like none other.”
Most English-speaking Malaysians, writes Lee in her preface, know when to use the international style and be perfectly intelligible. The issues of standards of international comprehensibility are not part of this book, she insists. “We simply want to celebrate the unique words, idioms and expressions that belong to Malaysians,” she says, smiling. I agree.
Manglish is my go-to language because it makes me feel so quintessentially Malaysian. I mean, it’s Malaysia after all – land of YBs who wayang all the time, Mat Rempits terrorising our highways, VVIPs ensconced in a Holding Room and where we’re told to dress smart casual (as opposed to dumb formal?) for events. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Manglish: Malaysian English At Its Wackiest!
Authors: Lee Su Kim and Stephen J. Hall
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Editions
Available at all leading bookstores.