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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Our unique fusion language

When we travel, we meet various kinds of people of different cultures. But we can often recognise a Malaysian quite easily by their Manglish! Who else would say, “Aiyoh! So hot lah! The summer here is worse than Penang’s heat lah!”

That was what I heard as I was sitting in a boat which cut a soft ripple on the flat ebony water that mirrored the dense forest foliage over our heads on a river in Melbourne.

If one hears an utterance which goes like this: “Gostan! Gostan! Wait! You hit the lamp post!”, it probably indicates that a car reversed into a lamp post.

The word “Gostan” should in fact be “Go astern” in proper English, as in the original nautical term.

Manglish is basically English with a unique fusion of words from Malay, Chinese and Indian languages. It shares substantial linguistic similarities with Singaporean English (Singlish), although there are distinctions, particularly in vocabulary.

Speakers of Manglish tend to intersperse varying amounts of expressions and interjections from their mother tongue, which in some cases qualify as a form of code-switching.

Verbs, nouns or adjectives from other languages are often used with English affixes, and sentences may be constructed using English words in the syntax of another language.

People tend to translate phrases directly from their first language into English. For instance, “Turn on the light” often becomes “On the light” or “Open the light”.

Chinese students who are weak at English may say “Open the light”, which is translated directly from Chinese (for example, in Hokkien, khooi hoey).

Another example is the use of the noun “chop” to mean “stamp” (as in, of approval). People often say, “I got the chop for my letter today.” This is caused by the confusion of the Malay word cop.

The word “bahsket” is a Malaysian word coined or derived from “bastard”. It is a phantom word that cannot be found in any dictionary. It generally is a derogatory term used by some Malaysians to express themselves when they feel angry. It is also a term that is expressed just for the sake of fun and if one feels like teasing another friend.

Nowadays, young people do not use this word any more. It belongs to the lexicon of an earlier generation.

Sometime ago, “jinjang” was a popular Malaysian term to describe someone as being out of fashion or old-fashioned. Occasionally, it referred to people who were rude or acted in an uncivilised manner in public. One could say, “The guys over there are so jinjang.”

In fact, Jinjang is a suburban area of Kuala Lumpur.

Here are some examples of Malaysian lingo:

1) A: This food good or not?

B: Boss, I guarantee this makan is good lah.

2) A: Alamak! I forgot to buy the book for the boss. Matilah ... I won’t be promoted. Gone lah, my future in this company is gone.

B: Don’t worry, man! The boss is quite chin chai.

Chin chai means “it is okay, no problem, anything goes”.

Example 2 is an instance of mixing English with other languages. One might call it “campurisation”, from the Malay word campur, which means “mix” and adding the suffix “isation”.

3) A: Let’s makan at the mamak stall.

B: Nah ... I prefer gwailoh chicken chop tonight.

A: Aiyah, pokai already. We eat cheap food like fried rice better.

Some dictionaries acknowledge the word mamak as Indian Muslim male. Gwailoh refers to the Cantonese word for Westerner.

4) A: Why is my baby so naughty one?

B: He no sleep enough law.

5) A: Let’s yam seng tonight. We must booze this brandy.

B: Ya ... don’t be a pondan, drink up.

C: What lah? I’m not pondan ... I will bottoms up two glasses of brandy. No problem, man!

Given the preponderance of Manglish, teaching English can be challenging in Malaysia.

A few years ago, I was teaching at a secondary school in Tanjung Piandang, in the northern part of Perak. It is a pristine fishing village with sun-kissed coconut trees swaying against a blue sky. The fishermen would laze in a Chinese temple every Sunday afternoon or play mahjong.

“Teacher! Teacher!” my students initially called me. I told them they should call me “madam” for it is a deferential term for a married woman. After that, some would call me Miss Tan. “No, I am Mrs Loo,” I pointed out. But they could address me as Madam Tan.

One fine day, this was heard. “Madam! I have to go and throw water!”

“What?” I thought.

“Oh, madam, he means buang air!” chirped another student named Rusdi. Buang air means to pee, in Malay.

I had to explain to my class of students that literal translations of words from Malay to English were not always possible.

On another occasion, a Chinese student named Lee exclaimed to another student, “You don’t twenty-five me lah!”

“Twenty five” is the literal translation of the Hokkien word for “misunderstand”. The student should have said, “Don’t misunderstand me!”

In another incident, Lee said, “Madam, I come late because my car’s tyres have no flowers.”

“Aiyah, madam, that guy means the tyres are bald ... heehee,” explained Rusdi, who had a better command of English.


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