An interesting article by Charles Foran (from the promising new Canadian magazine Walrus) on world varieties of English; nothing particularly new, but written with panache:

In a restaurant in Singapore’s Little India district I chatted recently with a man doling out bowls of fish-head curry. He called me a “mat saleh,” Malay for ‘white foreigner.’ He dubbed a woman who walked past us an “S.P.G.” a ‘Sarong Party Girl.’ Upper-crust Singaporians who put on posh accents were “chiak kantang.” “Chiak” is Hokkien for ‘eating,’ “kantang” a mangling of the Malay for ‘potatoes.’ ‘Eating potatoes’: affecting Western mannerisms.

Singapore has four official tongues — Mandarin, English, Malay, and Tamil. At street level, though, none of these takes precedence. Neither does the Hokkien dialect, spoken by many older Chinese. The city-state’s functioning language is actually Singlish, a much-loved, much-frowned-upon hodge-podge of dialects and slang.

When the man asked if I could pay for the meal with a smaller bill, he expressed it this way: “Got, lah?” I recognized that bit of language cobbling. In Hong Kong, where I was then living, Cantonese speakers sprinkle their English with similar punctuation. ‘Lah’ often denotes a question, like ‘eh’ for Canadians. ‘Wah’ infers astonishment. Once, when I was walking through that city’s nightclub district with a Chinese friend, we nearly knocked into a Canto-pop star, a young man of smouldering Elvis looks. “Wah, now can die!” my friend said, only half-jokingly.


  1. I just love this kind of mish-mash which they speak over the border in Malaysia as well, especially in Kuala Lumpur. It’s infectious and its easy to get into the swing of it. We even speak a kind of toned down version of it at our place.
    S.P.G (“Sarong Party Girl”) is one of a number of acronyms that float about. I have a pet theory that acronyms, which are commonly used in both Malaysia and India, are some sort of hangover from officious British Raj-speak. Nearly every city in Malaysia is nearly as well known by its acronym as it is by its full name (e.g. KL is Kuala Lumpur, PJ is Petaling Jaya, KB is Kota Baru, JB is Johore Baru KKB is Kota Kinabalu etc)
    “Sarong Party Girl” incidentally connotes a young sexually-active Malay woman, something that contrasts strongly with the other stereotype of the straight-laced puritanical “tudong”-wearing devout Muslim type. A quaint and euphemistic acronym is G.R.O. used in nightclubs (the word nightclub implies something more sleezy than it does in the West, in Malaysia if you want to go out and dance you can still go to a “disco”). G.R.O. is the name given to women who get paid to drink orange juice all evening while listening to boring middle-aged executives droning on about themselves. It stands for “guest relations officer”, i.e. an escort but does not necessarily imply hooker.
    An example of commonly used mish-mash term that I like is “Cina Apek” which is used to refer to old-fashioned traditional Chinese men, usually by the younger and groovier set. Cina is Malay for China (pronounced as in Italian) and Apek is Hokkien (Fujian) for uncle. Using a Hokkien word I think also carries an image of being more traditional because Hokkiens in Malaysia seem to stick more with the old customs than do other groups. “Chinaman” is also used to mean much the same thing.
    Another characteristic of Malaysian English, at least when spoken by Chinese, is the tendency to simply transpose Chinese words into English while maintaining the Chinese grammar. An example, my mother-inlaw uses (not necessarily about me!) goes like this:
    “Stupid people, where got medicine can cure one!”.
    Depending on the context one might also stick a big fat falling tone “lahhhh!” at the end of it.
    I believe an another example of this is the American greeting “Hey! Long time, no see!”

  2. When I was in Taiwan I met a Dutch-American woman who spent time in Malaysia and learned Bahasa Melayu (sp.?) She found that when she visited Indonesia it was easy to learn Bahasa Indonesia (?correct name?) because it was like Malay except with a lot more Dutch influence.

  3. Yes, Bahasa Indonesia is basically the Malay language which is spoken on both sides of the Straits (i.e. the Malay penninsula and Sumatra) and was the lingua franca of the Indonesian Archipelago before that. Indonesian and Malaysian as you say really only differ slightly in vocabulary, mainly in terms of loan words from Dutch or English and in spelling conventions. More at Wikipedia.
    Speaking of which, Wikipedia really is getting damn good. Here’s a very nice introduction to Singlish which is spot on for KL English too. Very tip-ic-al.

  4. Hat:
    This is an email I sent a couple days ago. I then remembered your saying that you don’t check your email much at all, so I’m reposting here, which as I understand is your primary inbox. No offense intended.
    “I was was sorting through some saved links and came up with several relevant to your site. I know that some of them probably originated with you but I thought I’d send them by for you to sort through yourself. The “Finnish as a world language” is the one which I am pretty sure has not been on your site. The whole Finnish info site is fun.
    Finnish as world language:
    Old High German glossary and primer:
    La maison du dictionnaire
    French language resources
    Quite a demanding piece on Old Chinese which I haven’t really read yet:
    Beowulf in cyberspace:
    Interview with Ray Young Bear, bilingual poet in English and Mesquaki (Sauk, Sac and Fox) from Tana Iowa”.

  5. Many thanks! Ordinarily I keep up with my inbox quite well, but lately, what with the new house and the holidays… you understand.

  6. ben wolfson says

    I know there isn’t much of sympathetic crowd on this site for what I’m about to say, but: “wah” infers astonishment? Humbug!

  7. Yeah, I noticed that too. I winced, but let’s face it, that distinction is being lost almost as fast as disinterested/uninterested. Language change can be a harsh mistress.

  8. I first heard “lah” when I made a couple of trips to KL in the mid-90s, and to me it sounded like the equivalent of, “Know what I’m saying?”
    Once I asked a taxi driver how he would define “lah.” He just smiled and said, “It’s bad English!”

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