A Beginners Guide to Manglish
Updated: Sep 10
“You want to makan here or tapao?” I heard this question when I entered a Malaysian restaurant for the first time with some local friends. Immediately, I turned to my friend “We want to do what and what?”. It was then that I learned my first bit of Manglish. They explained to me that makan is the Malay word for eat and tapao is a Cantonese word for take-away.
This sentence, became my favourite example when I tell my friends back home about Manglish, because it mixes English with Cantonese and Malay, two other languages that are spoken by many Malaysians.
What is Manglish?
Manglish is a charming, colourful and vibrant form of English that is commonly spoken in Malaysia. As part of the local culture, Manglish mixes English with the various other languages that are spoken in this Southeast Asian nation including Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese and of course Malay.
While not an official language, it is commonly used in informal settings among friends and family. It is in this contexts that the lah gets added to sentences and grammar including tenses and the correct pronunciation loose their importance and become more or less optional.
I have been in Malaysia for three years now and I picked up a few things that I would like to share with my fellow gweilos (Cantonese slang word for Westerners) who are visiting or moving to Malaysia. This article is written together with my fiancé, who unlike me is considered fluent in Manglish. I am still learning.
Two Word Phrases
Why wasting time when you can get across what you need to convey to the other person with two short words. See how! Also can!
Me: Do you think you can get your work done by 6pm, so that we can go buy cat food after work?
Navvin: See how.
Navvin: Let’s go to a Hot Pot Restaurant tonight.
Me: No, I want to eat Indian food.
Navvin: Also can.
When to Lah?
Lah much like loh, leh, meh is the first thing everyone who is new to Malaysia notices and sometimes tries to pick up for themselves. Often however, it comes out wrong. It takes a bit of getting used to, to know when to lah or not to lah.
Lah does not have a specific meaning but is used by Malaysians to either soften their sentences or emphasise on something. Lah is also commonly used with the words Yah (Yes) and No. Loh has the same function as lah and is usually used among Cantonese Malaysians.
Navvin: Hey, why this like that?
Me: Dont know lah. Check lah.
Me: You were right. I should have chosen chosen the cookies and cream ice cream flavour.
Navvin: Yah lah. I told you its better.
Me: Let’s go out tonight.
Navvin: No, lah I tired.
Meh is often used at the end of a question by Cantonese Malaysians.
Mindy: I want to buy a flight ticket for next week to go to Thailand.
Jessica: No, cannot.
Mindy: Why, cannot meh?
Mix it, Baby!
When speaking ‘Manglish’ often words are simply replaced by a word from one of the languages that Malaysians speak aside English.
Mat Salleh: Malay word for Westerner. Mat Sallehs are sometimes also called Orang Putih, which means ‘white people’. Cantonese Malaysians tend to use the word Angmo.
A lady approaches the counter to buy a ticket for the KLIA Ekspress train. After she left, the two ladies at the counter, chat and one says to the other: Whoa, this Mat Salleh was so prettieeee!
Atas: Malay word for sophisticated but also snobbish or condescending
Auntie: Whaaaa! We are going to be on the plane for over 9 hours! Why you stylo-milo like that? You want to impress who?
Auntie: This is used to describe or address a women older than the other person.
A dad is talking to his little girl who is blocking the way for me to pass.
Dad: Honey, let step aside and let this auntie pass.
Side note: You know you are not in your early twenties anymore when people start calling you auntie. It’s like a wake up call. Makes me feel old every sometimes. Haha. By the way, the same goes for men. Everyone from a certain age onwards is called uncle. Both auntie and uncle are used as a form of respect.
Takut: Malay word for being scared
Navvin: Do you want to drive?
Me: No, I takut lah. Too much traffic.
Jom: Jom is a word that Malaysians use extremely often. It is the equivalent to "Let's go."
Mamak: This is word is for Indian Muslims. When someone says to you “I am hungry. Let’s go to mamak.” This, however, does not mean, you are invited to a person’s house. Your friend is talking about the many Mamak Stores around Malaysia. They are popular hangout places for Malaysians, open 24/7 and serving Malaysia’s favourites including Teh Tarik (sweet milk tea), Koffee, Mango Lassi, fresh juices, different kind of rotis (flat breads) with creamy and or spicy side dishes.
Kemon: Pleople use this word aaaaaaa lot. It's the Malaysian spelling of "Come on.
Boss: Everyone in Malaysia is a boss. It can be your taxi driver, a store owner, the waiter in a mamak store or simply a guys you see in the streets. For more examples here, check out this video from Jinnyboy.
Macha: This is a tamil word for ‘brother-in-law’. It is however commonly used as an expression among guy friends.
Navvin: Ey, Macha! Want to go for a beer tonight?
Rich: Can bro.
Dey!: Dey is an exclamation that you will hear people use when someone suddenly cuts into their lane for example or tries to take over while queuing for their favourite restaurant.
Paper Lama: Paper lama means old newspaper. Every ones in a while, you may hear someone screaming over a loud speaker “Paper Lama!” This usually comes from a man, who is collecting old newspaper for recycling. Locals call him the ‘Paper Lama Man’.
Chop: To get married, we needed to submit a mountain of documents in Germany. One document needed to be stamped by two entities. We did not know that. So we got that document from person A and went to person B. Person B, however, refused help us. He said: Got chop or not? No chop cannot!
Oredy: Like I said, grammar, spelling and pronunciation sometimes go their own way in Manglish. One example is the word ‘already’.
Me: Let’s go to the pool. The weather is perfect.
Navvin: Nooooo! We went last week oredy.
Podah: The word Podah is derived from the Tamil word Poda/ Pode and means get lost. You can use this word when you are really angry with someone or as a joke among friends.
Duplication of Words
In many languages including Chinese, Malay and Tamil, words are duplicated to show pluralisation or to emphasis on something. This duplication has found its way into Manglish.
Don’t play play.
Navvin gives advice to a friend who is looking to invest in the stock market: Don’t play play. The stock market is very unpredictable at the moment.
Friend: Ok lah. I wait then. Thank you bro.
To Can or To Cannot
The words Can or Cannot are used a lot in Manglish.
Can: The word ‘can’ often replaces the word yes.
Me: Navvin, can you help me? My phone is not working.
Navvin: Caaaaan. Wait ah!
Can or Not?: This is often used to ask if something is possible.
Me: Let’s to the mall before we meet your parents for dinner. Can or not?
Can Also or Also Can: Response to say that this is also possible. The word also is often pronounced as ‘oso’.
How to Ask a Question?
In standard English, a question is formulated by starting with the question word. In Manglish, things are a bit different. The question word is added to the end of the sentence. Here are some examples.
Navvin: I am hungry, jom makan (Let's go eat).
Me: You want to go to Nandos or where?
Me: You want to take the train or how?
Me: I am hungry. I feel like eating Japanese food tonight.
Navvin: You want to eat Sushi or what?
The parking in the mall is almost full. Only one parking is left next to the entrance. Driver A is happy and is about to park his car, when driver B, cuts in and steals his parking spot. Driver A is angry and shouts: Ey, can't you see? This is my parking spot. You stupid or what?!
For more on this, I would like to invite you to watch a short clip from one of our favourite Malaysian comedians Dr. Jason Leong.
Share with us your favourite Manglish examples? We would love to hear them.