Malay influence in Singlish.

Tomorrow is the Malay language examinations. While I’m partly stressed by the number of words we need to know, I’m also grateful for this intense curriculum. I can’t believe that I actually learnt so much Malay in 4 months. I’m quite happy to be able to sieve out some of the Malay influence in Singlish – I feel closer to the local culture this way. This is not an exhaustive list; it is just a glimpse of how Malay language has shaped our culture. Again I’m not a linguist but I’ll try my best to explain.

1. Repeated words.

In Malay, ‘kawan’ means friend and ‘kawan-kawan’ means friends so in a sense, the words are repeated to show quantity. While nouns are the ones which are usually repeated in Malay to emphasize that there is plenty, adjectives are repeated in Singlish for emphasis. For instance, Singaporeans said ‘big big’ to mean that the object is very big.

On a cultural note, ‘friend-friend’ in Singapore has a rather complex meaning, it’s often used when one wants to ask a favour from another person so he/ she says ‘friend-friend’ to emphasize that they are friends to make the other feel obliged to help.

Of course our familiar phrase ‘don’t play-play’ popularized by Phua Chu Kang, has its origins in Malay as well. In Malay, people say ‘jangan bermain-main’ to children to emphasize that this is not the time to play but to work.

2. Nouns made into verbs.

In Singlish, we say ‘I don’t friend you’ to mean ‘I don’t want to be friends with you.’ Essentially, nouns can also be used as verbs, preserving the meaning in a rather unorthodox manner. In Malay, nouns can easily be made into verbs by adding a ‘ber’ in front. For instance, ‘saya tidak mahu berkawan dengan awak’ means ‘I don’t want to be your friend’. Another example is ‘kereta itu berwarna jingga’ which means ‘that car is orange in colour’. ‘Warna’ means colour in Malay and it’s a noun. In this sense, Singlish is slightly more complex as compared to Malay since a word can be used as a noun or verb without augmenting it.

3. Malay words taken out of context.

There are many Malay words that have lost its original meaning when used in Singlish. This is not an exhaustive list too but some I came across when I was doing my revision.

‘Di atas’ means ‘on top of’ literally and a possible sentence is ‘kucing ini duduk di atas meja’ and that means ‘this cat sits on top of the table’. In Singlish, ‘atas’ means high-end, expensive and it is usually used to describe restaurants.

‘Kaki’ means ‘leg’ and a possible sentence is ‘saya berjalan kaki ke taman bunga’ and it means ‘I walk by foot to the park’. In Singlish, it has two meanings. It can mean ‘buddy’ and it usually is used to refer to a friend whom you do a common activity with, e.g. mahjong kaki, karaoke kaki, travel kaki. It is also used to refer to a particular type of brown pants in Singapore. I’m not sure how it came about but when you say ‘I wear kaki (khaki) pants’, people know for sure what you’re wearing.

‘Wayang’ means ‘movie’ in Malay, for instance ‘keluarga saya suka menonton wayang gambar bersama’ and it means ‘my family likes to watch movie together’. ‘Wayang’ has a very bad connotation in Singlish, it is used to describe a person who pretentiously puts on a show in a rather exaggerated manner so that people in authority will support his/ her discourse. It is hard to pinpoint but usually it describes people who narrate stories in an exaggerated manner to someone in authority so that they won’t be faulted for what they didn’t do/ did wrongly.

‘Agak’ means ‘roughly’ in Malay so a sentence can be ‘ia agak susah’ which means ‘this is roughly difficult’. In Singlish, it also means ‘roughly’ but it has a slightly different connotation and that’s what makes Singlish complex. When a science teacher says to his/ her students to ‘add roughly this volume of solution’, it still means that they have to be quite precise with the addition. But when he/ she says to the students to ‘agak/ agak-agak (for emphasis) add this volume’, it means it can be done really roughly. In the context of a science laboratory, the former demands for the use of measuring cylinder while the latter means beaker or even addition without noting how much has been added. It is hard to explain but I am sure Singaporeans will appreciate the distinction.:)


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