One of the near universal truths of travelling is that taking the time to learn a few words of the local language easily repays the effort. Kuala Lumpur is somewhat of an exception to that rule, as apart from helping to decipher some obscure menu items, English is so widely spoken that a knowledge of bahasa Melayu (Malay) is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
The main reason for this is that for roughly half the population of KL — everyone who is not Malay basically — bahasa Melayu is not the “local” language at all. For ethnic Indians, the mother tongue is often Tamil; while for ethnic Chinese, it’s commonly Cantonese or Hokkien. And that’s ignoring the large number of households where English is the primary language.
I say “English”, but over the years it has taken on board so many local characteristics as to be quite distinct from the original. The result is Malaysian English, or Manglish. As with many creoles, tenses and plurals are simplified, as is sentence construction. Conversely, words are added from other languages, which may have no direct translation. Here are a few of the main quirks:
Lah: means everything and nothing, used mostly to add emphasis, such as “so funny lah you”.
Like that lah!: used generally to sum up an imperfect situation which you cannot do much about.
Mah: used in much the same way as “lah”, but mostly by Cantonese speakers.
Is it?: a catch-all tag, for example, “you go out later, is it?”
Can (or not): denotes possibility, either a positive response to a request, or question, such as “I wanna go shopping, can or not?”
Cannot: the evil twin of “can”, the all too common response to a request in Malaysia.
Got: used instead of “have”, as a question often phrased as “got or not?”
What!: used to affirm or add emphasis, “I got what!”
OK: often linked with “lah”, it means moderately good rather than mediocre.
Not bad: means quite good; add “at all”, and it’s even more positive.
Take: in terms of food, it means “like”, for example “I don’t take spice”.
Already: used rather than “now”, so “he’s fat already”.
Stay: Malaysians will say “where do you stay?”, instead of “where do you live?”
Boss: a common form of address, particularly in eateries, such as “order drink boss”.
Uncle/auntie: an informal but respectful term for anyone older than you.
Outstation: any long trip out of the city, for example “wanna go outstation next week?”
Convoy: to travel in a group of cars, as “let’s convoy to restaurant”.
Send: to give someone a lift, such as “I send you home lah”.
One (wan): hard to translate, it’s generally used as emphasis, for example “why you so like that one?”
Friend: often used as a verb, such as “can I friend you?”
Aiyoo/aiya!: a term of exasperation, not always to be taken completely seriously.
All the above is mainly for the purposes of comprehension rather than repetition. While Manglish is a thoroughly charming creole when used by Malaysians, it tends to be deeply embarrassing when foreigners try their hand at it. For anyone who still wants to try their hand at bahasa Melayu, the best place to learn in KL is the YMCA in Brickfields.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 31st January, 2012.