Getting Around Malaysia’s Local Linguistic Minefield

Getting Around Malaysia’s Local Linguistic Minefield
Welcome to a wonderland of mixed cultures and traditions, and with these comes a vibrant melting pot of lingua franca.

Although the English language is widely and commonly used as the language of business and commerce, Malaysia's official language is Bahasa Melayu, formerly known as Bahasa Malaysia. For history and geography buffs, the Malay language is actually not exclusive to Malaysia. It is a thousand-year-old language of the Nusantara archipelago that spreads across Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Singapore and even to the tips of Indochina. Interestingly, Singapore has long adopted Bahasa Melayu as its official language.

Even within this vast geographical boundary, the Malay language has an enormous number of diverse accents, slangs and nuances. In Malaysia, between 10 to 12 so called Malay dialects exist on the surface, and even more at the village or kampung micro level. Hence, the way one speaks Malay is like a fingerprint of where one comes from.

A tip-toe into the minefield
Here are some examples of how Malay lingo sounds. In standard textbook Malay 'gate' is pagar (pronounced par garr). In the Malacca Malay, it's pagau (pronounced par gaul), and in southern Johor Malay, it's pago (pronounced par go). As for snake, standard textbook Malay calls it ular (pronounced oo lah). In Kedah and Penang, it's ulaq (pronounced oo lag), while in Johor, it's ulo (pronounced oo law).

Let's go deeper. More unusual Malay loghat (pronounced law gut), which means dialect, are aplenty and here are some. In Pahang, koi means saya in standard Malay or me in English. While letak (put down something) is taruk. In Kelantan, duit (money) is pitih, while gigit (bite) is kikih. In Terengganu, tilam (mattress) is lembek. Interestingly in Sarawak, kapal terbang (airplane) is belon (literally balloon). In Negeri Sembilan, tidur (sleep) is mumbuto, while sepak (kick) is landung. In Kedah, Penang and Perlis, degil (stubborn) is ketegaq, while senyum (smile) is ghenyeh. If you can't pronounce the last one, show your smile instead.

Many of the Malay words used are actually borrowed from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil and even Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese dialects. More recent words used in science and technology are in fact from the English language. No wonder the Malay language has often been described by linguists as one of the most melodic languages around. Just travel to the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu and listen to the localised nuances of the Malay language in full orchestra.

Rojak lingo and colourful slangs
Besides the Malay language diversity, there is also the 'rojak' language that Malaysians are all used to in daily conversation. By the way, 'rojak' is a street food of Indian Muslim fame that consists of a mixture of variable ingredients served with peanut sauce. Thus 'rojak' is often used to describe a mixture of sorts.

When you hear someone introduce you his 'member', don't be stunned. It's a hybrid slang that actually means 'friend'. This word is probably a shorthand version of 'gang member', minus the sinister connotations obviously. Open your eyes when there a 'leng lui' is spotted. It is a slang for good-looking girl, borrowed from the Cantonese version. Hence, 'leng chai' refers to the male counterpart. Frustration or spoilt expectation is often expressed as 'potong stim', literally meaning cut steam. And when things go well, you will be invited to 'yum cha', a Cantonese variant that means 'go for a drink' literally. More often than not, multi-racial Malaysians hang out at the 'mamak', a term that describes the Tamil-Muslims who operate halal eateries and stalls.

'Songlap' however is not about having a song on your lap. It's a slang to label corrupted officials. So too is imaginative description of 'makan dedak', which literally means eating husk or rice bran to describe greed actually. When in good terms, one usually refers to close buddies as 'macha', which is an Indian version of 'brother'.

In conclusion, you will realise that the Malay language is colourful and that there is always something of verbal interest to discover all around Malaysia, even for the locals. Indeed, you don't have to be a linguist, nor a Yoda, to navigate Malaysia's diverse language galaxy. All you need is a pair of good ears and throttle ahead with confidence in the spirit of 'Malaysia Boleh!'
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