Introduction to Malaysian English

Introduction to Malaysian English

The use of English in present day Malaysia traces its beginnings back to the British presence in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore, and Melaka from the 18th century. English was used in public administration, the law courts, and business. An increasing number of English-medium schools were also established during the British colonial period. Many of these were Christian mission schools. 

When Malaysia (then Malaya) became independent in 1957, the Malay language was made the national and official language. Malay began replacing English in public administration and the courts, as well as replacing English as the medium of instruction in national schools and public universities. Today, English remains a compulsory subject up to the fifth form (15-16 years old) in secondary schools. It is also still widely used in the private sector, business, private higher education, and the media. There is now an increasing number of international schools, private colleges, and universities where English is the medium of instruction. It is also common to find both Malaysian print newspapers (e.g. The StarThe New Straits Times, and The Malay Mail) and online news portals in English (e.g. Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today). Unlike some countries, television programmes and movies in English are not dubbed in Malay.  

Because it is taught in schools, most Malaysian can speak English, some more fluently than others. A small minority of Malaysians of various ethnicities consider English to be their first language because they grew up speaking English at home. Malaysians who are fluent speakers of English can easily switch from using the more standard variety of English to the localized form of colloquial Malaysian English. For example, at a formal work meeting they will use the more standard form of English, while with friends and family they will switch to the colloquial form of Malaysian English.  

‘Had your lunch already ah?’ or ‘Had lunch already ah?’ instead of ‘Have you had lunch?’ 

The use of the more colloquial form of English can also be found in text messages or Facebook posts. For instance: 

‘What time you leaving?’ instead of ‘What time are you leaving?’ 

An example from a Facebook reply to someone who has achieved something might be: 

‘Wa so terror lah u!’ (‘Wow, you are really great!’) 

Like other varieties of English, local terms can be found in newspapers written in standard English. For example, terms such as the following are used in Malaysian newspapers written in English: 

  • Aidilfitri (‘Eid al-Fitr’)  
  • buka puasa (‘breaking fast’)  

The use of such terms and the colloquial use of English reflects the fact that the English used in Malaysia has developed its own characteristics since the 18th century. Although the term Malaysian English is sometimes used to refer only to the local form of English (also sometimes referred to as Manglish), it is actually an umbrella term for all the varieties of English used in Malaysia. Both the educated and local or colloquial forms of English are used in Malaysia depending on the context and the person being spoken to. Malaysians also speak English in a variety of accents. This may depend on their first languages (e.g., Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and a host of other languages), social, geographical, and education backgrounds.  

Vocabulary 

Malaysian English incorporates local vocabulary to describe local food and ingredients, flora and fauna, religious and cultural references, royal and honorary titles, and other local references. For example: 

  • Agong, n. (first attested 1976) – (an abbreviated title of respect for) the Malaysian head of state. 
  • bumiputra, n. (1966) – A Malaysian of indigenous Malay origin. 
  • dadah, n. (1980) – illegal drugs. 
  • Datuk, n. (c1615) – a landowner or chief; also as a title of respect.  
  • durian, n. (1588) – the oval or globular fruit of the tree Durio zibethinus, family Sterculiaceæ; it has a hard prickly rind and luscious cream-coloured pulp, of a strong civet odour, but agreeable taste; also the tree itself. 
  • halal, adj. (1797) – of food, a person’s diet, etc.: conforming to Islamic dietary laws; (of meat) spec. slaughtered and prepared in a way which conforms to these laws. 
  • joget, n. (1895) – a Malay popular dance, in which a couple improvises to the accompanying music. 
  • pandan, n. (1770) – a tree or shrub of the genus Pandanus (or, occasionally, of another genus of the family Pandanaceae); a screw pine. 
  • rendang, n. (1948) – a dish of meat, usually beef, slow-cooked in coconut milk and various spices until fairly dry  
  • roti canai, n. (1974) –fried unleavened bread, having a chewy, flaky texture and typically served with a curried dipping sauce as a light meal or snack.   
  • songkok, n. (1960) – a close-fitting rimless cap with straight sides and a flat top, typically black in colour and made of silk, felt, or velvet, worn chiefly by Muslim males in South-East Asia. 

There are also English words and expressions which are used differently in Malaysia. Some of them are used in newspapers. These include: 

  • blur, adj. (1977) – slow in understanding; unaware, ignorant, confused. 
  • hand phone, n. (1992) – a mobile phone. 
  • hawker centre, n. (1966) – a food market at which individual vendors sell cooked food from small stalls, with a shared seating area for customers. 

Other English words and expressions used differently in Malaysian English are more common in the colloquial variety. These include the following verbs which have the following meanings, in addition to their normal usage: 

  • chop, v. – to use a rubber stamp on a document, e.g., Don’t forget to chop the document. 
  • fill up, v. – to fill out a form, e.g., Everyone has to fill up the forms by tomorrow. 
  • follow, v. – to go with or accompany someone, e.g., You want to follow me to the restaurant in my car? 
  • pass up, v. – to hand in, e.g., Please pass up your homework tomorrow. 
  • send, v. – to take someone somewhere, e.g., I have to send my daughter to school every day. 
  • shift, v. – to move house, e.g., I am shifting into my new house next month. 
  • SMS, v. – to send a text message, e.g., SMS me your address. 
  • stay, v. – to live, e.g., She has been staying in Kuala Lumpur since 1993. 

Grammar 

In general, non-standard syntactic or grammatical features are more common in the colloquial spoken variety of Malaysian English than in the standard written form. Some examples of these features are as follows: 

Not marking tense and aspect 

The past tense form of the word is often used instead of the present perfect form, usually with the words alreadybefore, and last time.  

  • ate already.  (I have eaten.) 
  • went there before. (I have been there.) 
  • saw her last time. (I have seen her previously.) 

Deletion of be 

In colloquial Malaysian English, the verb be is sometimes dropped in the continuous form, such as in: 

  • We cooking chicken tonight. (We are cooking chicken tonight.) 

The use of got  

The word got is commonly used in place of is, are, was, and were, such as in: 

  • Got onions at home. (There are onions at home.) 
  • Got meeting last night. (There was a meeting last night.) 

Got is also used to indicate possession or in place of have: 

  • got three sisters. (I have three sisters.) 
  • got fever. (I have a fever.) 

Isn’t it tag 

The isn’t it tag tends to be used in all tag questions: 

  • You know her, isn’t it? (You know her, don’t you?) 
  • You took my book, isn’t it? (You took my book, didn’t you?) 

Yes/No questions  

In yes/no questions, Malaysian speakers tend not to use the questions form, and instead use tags like: ah, or not, can or not, and is it. 

  • You going to her house later ah? (Are you going to her house later?) 
  • You want rice or not? (Do you want rice?) 
  • Come with me can or not? (Can you come with me?) 
  • You don’t like her is it? (Don’t you like her? or You don’t like her, do you?) 

Wh questions 

In colloquial Malaysian English, questions beginning whowhatwhenwherewhy, or how generally do not use verbs like is, are, wasweredo, did, have, and had

  • When you going home? (When are you going home?) 
  • What movie you watched? (What move did you watch?) 
  • How long you lived here? (How long have you lived here?) 
  • Where you work now?  (Where do you work now?) 
  • Why you so angry? (Why are you so angry?) 

Dropping of pronouns 

There is a tendency in colloquial Malaysian English to drop pronouns, such as in the following examples: 

  • Can go now lah. (I can go now.) 
  • Need to eat rice every day one. (They need to eat rice every day.) 

Pronunciation 

View the OED’s pronunciation model and key to pronunciation for Singapore and Malaysian English. 

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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