by Gordon Reid
If, like me, you are a seasoned expat, you will have heard that unique brand of local English, Manglish, many times. You will probably feel you can understand it, at least most of the time. You may even be cocky enough to use it on occasion. Let’s face it: which of us hasn’t added “lah” to the end of our sentences; or said “can” or “cannot” on their own? But do you know why many Malaysians speak English (how to put this?) a little differently from how we do? Read on to find out!
Manglish (and its close cousin, Singlish) are in fact examples of a phenomenon well known to linguists and English teachers like myself, called “first language interference”. This means quite simply that speakers of a second or other language will try to express things in that language the same way they do in their native tongue. If the two languages are closely related, that sometimes works fine. But it can produce usages that are either incomprehensible or, as with quite a lot of Manglish, understandable but odd to our ears. We know roughly what the person is trying to say; but we also know that in Britain (or Australia or even the United States) we just wouldn’t say it that way.
“Can” and “cannot” are commonly used by Malaysians as one-word sentences (or questions). Have you ever heard these, say in a shop or restaurant, and wondered what we would say in a similar situation in our home countries? The answer is not always straightforward. It could be something on the lines of “Yes, we can do that” or, if negative, “I am afraid that’s not possible” or something even longer. What we wouldn’t ever say is “can” or “cannot” on their own.
Let me make one thing clear. I am not saying that Manglish is a wrong or inferior language. It is just different: a variant on standard English. Just like Scottish – the vernacular where I come from – or Cockney; or New York American; and so on. Used in its own context (which for Manglish means the streets, food courts and shopping malls of Malaysia), it is an entirely valid means of communication. Indeed, as we have seen, it can sometimes be cleverer – because pithier – than standard English! “Can/cannot” are one such example. Another, which I love, is the expression “Shall I on (or off) the light?” Grammatical it may not be, but it is elegantly short and to the point!
But back to my original question: where and how did Manglish originate? The answer is: from a variety of local languages. Reflecting Malaysia’s rich ethnic and linguistic diversity, these include Malay, Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin…) and Tamil – or often a mixture of these. “Can(not)” for example is clearly related to the Malay (tak) boleh, but it also has Chinese equivalents. The same applies to “off-ing” or “on-ing” the light (tutup and buka in Malay). “Spoiled”/”spoilt” (used to describe a machine that is out of order) is a direct translation of the Malay rosak. And so on.
Manglish is moreover more than just a haphazard amalgam of English and other languages. It has long taken on an identity and life of its own. Young Malaysians nowadays learn to speak Manglish not because they are translating from their mother tongues, but because they hear and copy it from their parents and others around them. In other words, Manglish has grown into a self-standing language – or, more accurately, a creole (a language fused from two or more languages).
Are you with me so far? I hope so – because now comes the tricky bit. One of the problems we expats face with Manglish is what linguists call faux amis, or “false friends”: words or expressions that look and sound the same as in our native tongues, but are used to convey a different meaning. There are a number of these in common use in Malaysia that can lead the unwary expat astray – sometimes literally.
Let’s take the verb “to follow”. No problem there, surely? Yes, there is! When Malaysians say “follow me”, they usually mean “accompany me” or “go with me”, rather than “go after me”. An expat colleague of mine tells the story of how he ran into trouble with this. His Malaysian friend said: “I know the way. You follow me.” My colleague immediately walked towards his own car, intending to drive along after his friend. He was met with a surprised look – and gestures that clearly indicated that he was expected to get into the friend’s car with him.
Let me finish with my own favourite example. Have you ever noticed that whenever you ask for directions in Malaysia, these always begin with the immortal words “go straight…”? Sometimes this means what it says: you do indeed need to go straight ahead. But very often it does not! I think I finally realised this, after living in Malaysia for a good couple of years, when I asked a security guard in a shopping mall the way to a certain shop. Turning and pointing confidently (with that characteristic, and polite, Malaysian thumb-point), he began with the usual “go straight”. The only problem was…… that straight ahead there stood a solid concrete wall less than twenty paces away, at which point I would surely have to turn either right or left!
The reason for this misunderstanding is that in British or other Anglo-Saxon usage the word “straight” usually suggests that we need to keep going straight ahead for some considerable distance. Whereas in Malaysian usage, “go straight” (jalan terus in Malay) means little more than “you go along here for a bit” or “you go up this road a bit…” – to be followed, if you are lucky, by the real directions. Please remember this when you are next asking the way – especially on KL’s complex highway system, where one missed turn can mean a very long detour!
This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Expat magazine
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