Manglish is a beautiful mix of Malaysian and English; a hilarious mix of languages, informal yet cryptic to the outsider. Today, it is recognized as an English-based creole. Here’s a simple guide to understanding Malaysia’s English.
Sentence Structure and Key Slang
Often times, people tell me they don’t understand the Malaysian sentence structure – and to that I say:
“Really ah? Sorry leh”
Translation: Really (doubtful)? I’m sorry (sincere).
I’m no linguist, but as a native speaker, I think I can break down the Manglish sentence structure into a few points:
- Sentence-final particles (such as ah and leh in the above example) play an important role in expressing the nuance of each sentence.
- Many words are imported from Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay.
- In Manglish, it is perfectly acceptable to speak English using Chinese or Malay sentence structure. We won’t cover Malay sentence structure today—that’s a whole ‘nother article—but just keep it in mind.
- Similar to Mandarin, it is acceptable to drop non-essential words, so long as doing so won’t change the meaning of a sentence.
Manglish Sentence-Final Particles
Manglish is famous for using sentence-final particles, little words that get tacked onto the end of a sentence to convey the speaker’s attitude towards what was said. They can be a bit tricky at first, but once you’ve figured them out, they become a major source of color for your speech.
For example, say that someone tells you about how good Harry Styles’ new album is, and then asks you what you think about it. In Manglish, you might respond:
|Good loh||Yeah it’s alright. I don’t have any particular views about it though.|
|It’s good gua||I don’t know much about it, but I guess it’s good?|
|It’s good meh||Huh, I don’t think it’s good at all.|
Instead of using additional words to convey your stance, these particles are used wherever possible. Efficiency is a major goal of Manglish communication.
Below is a list of the most commonly used sentence-final particles. I’ve also written out their origins, for reference, but keep in mind that their modern usage has more or less deviated from these origins.
|No additional meaning; can be added to the end of any emotionally neutral sentence.|
- Take care ah!
- This is your office ah?
- David ah! Come let’s have a drink.
|Can either be used to make request more firm or gentle, depending on the tone.La1 (high tone) – soften. La4 (falling tone) – harden|
- Don’t be like that lah! (Firm)
- Come out and play lah! (Firm)
- Never-mind lah, it’s ok. (Gentle)
- Drink some more water lah, the weather is hot today. (Gentle)
|Exclaiming that something is obvious, similar to English’s “Duh.”|
- If you’re tired, then stay at home loh.
- It’s made from chicken so it tastes like chicken loh.
|Indicates that the speaker is seeking agreement from the listener, similar to ‘huh’, ‘right’, ‘ain’t it’ or ‘doesn’t it.’|
- Eh, this does taste like chicken hor? (implying that you’re waiting for an answer.)
|Can have one of two meanings:1. Indicates that a speaker is surprised by what they are saying (interchangable with ‘wor’.)
2. Indicates that a speaker is uncertain about what they are saying.
- Eh, this does taste like chicken leh. (Surprised by own answer – it really does taste like chicken!)
- You really want to go and play badminton? I haven’t played in years leh. (Uncertain.)
|Expresses that a speaker doesn’t have a particular opinion about the topic at hand; similar to “probably”.|
- Mmmm. Judging from the taste, this is chicken gua.
- I’m not sure what I’ll be doing this afternoon either. Watch movie gua.
|Expesses that the speaker doubts what someone has just said, and probably disagrees with it.|
- Nasi lemak is made out of coconut milk meh?
- You said you spent new years eve alone. Really meh? (Really meh is very commonly used, as you might imagine.)
|Indicates that the speaker is seeking a yes or no response.|
- Want to eat Nasi Lemak mou?
- Nasi Lemak mou?
|le/ liao||了 (Hokkien)|
|Indicates that something has already happened.|
- I ate the fried chicken liao.
- Manchester is down 2-0 this match surely lose liao.
|Expresses a speaker’s surprise; can be used to replace ‘leh.’|
- That looks like chicken, smells like chicken, feels like chicken, but not chicken wor! It’s some vegetarian mock meat.
- Manchester was down 2-0 but now they’ve managed to catch up to 2-2 wor.
|Indicates that a speaker is seeking agreement while pointing out something they feel is obvious. Note that this particle is only used in the following sentence structure: ___ therefore/because ___ mah.|
- I ate the chicken because I was hungry mah!
- Why is he like that. It’s because he’s tired mah.
|Placed at the end of a sentence after stating a fact. Exact same usage as Mandarin’s sentence-final 的, and may be pronounced as “de” instead of “one.”|
- You can trust me one/de.
- Why is he so annoying one/de.
It’s not that hard lah, right?
If someone says, “Bro look at the girl at the corner she’s pretty cute hor,” you might respond with:
|Ya she’s pretty cute lah.||Yeah she’s obviously pretty cute.|
|Ya she’s pretty cute loh.||Yeah she’s obviously pretty cute.|
|Ya she’s pretty cute leh.||Yeah she’s pretty cute, but I wasn’t expecting that. Wow.|
|She’s pretty cute gua.||I’m not sure (maybe you didn’t see her) but I guess she’s cute?|
|She’s pretty cute meh?||Are you sure she’s cute? Because I don’t think so.|
The differences between lah and loh is that loh infers that your statement was very obvious. Most of the time its used when giving a very direct response to someone’s question. For example, “Let’s g0 0ut lah.” can be a standalone sentence, but “Let’s go out loh.” is wrong. Loh needs some sort of preface, as below:
If you’re bored, then let’s go out loh.
It could also be used in the flow of conversation:
“Let’s go out loh.”
Here are some more examples of these suffixes in use.
Abu: I handed in the work already loh.
Ahmeng: Really meh? So fast ah?
Abu: Just 2 pages wor, you haven’t finish meh?
Ahmeng: Oh ya hor. I blur blur do 4 pages already.
(blur blur indicates that something was done in a confused state, as if day dreaming.)
Ahmeng: Dinner later mou?
Abu: Can gua, let me check my plans and see can or not.
Ahmeng: Wah so busy meh need to keep track of your plans!
Abu: Eh cannot leh. I made plans liao.
Certain words like yes, no, can, cannot, sure, and never-mind are often combined with a suffix to form a complete sentence. In this example, let’s use the word can as an example.
|MANGLISH||NUANCE ADDED BY SENTENCE-ENDING PARTICLE|
|Can ah||Yes. (neutral)|
|Can ah?||Yes? (emphasises that the sentence is a question. By making the sentence just a bit longer, it’s easier to hear the sentence’s intonation.)|
|Can lah||Yes of course.|
|Can loh||Yes, sure. (expressing your agreement)|
|Can leh/hor||Yes. (expresses a realization)|
|Can gua||Yes, I think so? (indicates that you are uncertain.)|
|Can le/Can liao||Can already. (neutral)|
|Can wor||Can. (but I’m surprised you ask/want to.)|
|Can one/de||Can. (indicates that the speaker is being serious.)|
|Can meh?||I don’t believe [you can], are you sure?|
Sentence Structure and English Word Usage
As mentioned above, it is common in Manglish to take sentence structures from Mandarin but words from English. As a result, many Manglish sentences can be translated word-for-word into Mandarin.
Manchester is down 2-0 this match surely lose liao.
Manchester 2-0 落後这场一定输了.
Just 2 pages wor, you haven’t finish meh?
Oh ya hor. I blur blur do 4 pages already
If you’re tired, then stay at home loh.
For the same reason, many English words take on different connotations in Manglish:
|MANGLISH WORD||ROOT WORD(S)||CONTEXT USED|
|Issit||Is it (From Mandarin’s 是吗)||Right? (as in: you’re going to visit next week, right?)|
|For wat||For what (From Mandarin’s 又能怎么样)||What for|
|Where got||Where got (From Mandarin’s 哪里有)||I don’t see the connection; used to deny that X is Y|
|Oso||Also (From Mandarin’s 也)||Used to connect sentences|
|Never-mind||Never-mind (From Mandarin’s 没关系)||Used as a response to an apology|
|Ady||Already (From Mandarin’s 了)||Used to show that something has already occurred|
|Liddat||Like that (From Mandarin’s 这样子)||Used to mock what someone has done|
|Den||Then||Used to connect sentences|
|Steady||Steady||Used to encourage people|
|You sure bo||You sure (English) + bo (Hokkien)||Are you sure?|
Muiwoon: Rachel you ki siao* issit, chug 2 beers in one minute.
Siti: Steady lah, let her drink lah.
Rachel: I’m fine lah, you shout at me for wat. You are my mother issit.
Muiwoon: What if she blackout? Den what? Dunno how to carry her back oso.
* Ki siao is the Hokkien pronunciation of 起痟 (Crazy)
Uncle Lo: Ah boi ah, come home so late, eat ady or not.
Ben: Chiak liao loh, but den I still hungry.
Uncle Lo: Walao everytime oso liddat. But nvm uncle oso hungry we go out and eat mamak* together.
Ben: Yes lah let’s go.
* mamak – roadside supper stalls
|Gordan Ramsey encountering the Malay word “Agak-Agak”|
Other Borrowed Words
Manglish borrows words from various languages, most commonly Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay. Here are a few examples:
|MANGLISH WORD||SOURCE||ENGLISH APPROXIMATION|
|Paiseh||歹势(Hokkien)||Embarrased, commonly used as “Sorry”|
|Walao||我老(Hokkien)||Exclamation, used as a vulgar word|
|Abo||啊无(Hokkien)||What else / or what|
|Aboden||啊无(Hokkien) + then(English)||What else, then?|
|Sibeh||死父(Hokkien)||Very; used as a vulgar word|
|Woi/Wei||喂(Cantonese)||Hey (used to call for someone’s attention)|
|Boss||(Malay)||Used to refer to anyone you are working with|
|Jadi||(Malay)||And then / and so|
|Kena||(Malay)||Used to indicate the passive voice|
|Tumpang||(Malay)||Hitchhike / Carpool|
|Beh tahan||不能(hokkien)+ tahan (Malay)||Can’t take it anymore|
Ah Hwa and friends meet at a mamak stall for supper.
Ah Hwa: Eh, hello bang. You’re here ady ah.
Chee Seng: No lah. I’m sitting here but I’m not here yet – Of course I’m here ady lah, aboden. Never-mind the greetings let’s order something.
Waiter: Eh boss, what you want to order?
Chee Seng: Two mee goreng*, two teh tarik* ok liao.
(waiter starts to walk away)
Ah Hwa: Wait, BOSS! One of the teh tarik less sugar.
* Teh Tarik and Mee Goreng are both Malaysian delicacies
(A moment passes)
Weng Tat: Paiseh ah I’m late. Sibeh traffic jam. Couldn’t move at all.
Chee Seng: Walao eh, you’re late by half an hour you know. Sometimes I seriously beh tahan you ah.
Weng Tat: Sorry loh. Some more one of my coworkers tumpang my car just now so I had to drop him off first.
Ah Hwa: Aduhai you kena tumpang.
Weng Tat: Ya actually he told me last minute so I was feeling real geram, but I didn’t say anything. I heard his Toyota broke down, jadi he no car today.
Ah Hwa: Aduhai.
(waiter interrupts the conversation)
Waiter: Boss, sorry to kacau you, but what you want to order?
Weng Tat: Cincai lah, what do you have today.
Waiter: We have Mee Goreng, then we have fresh Roti canai.
Weng Tat: Give me 2 roti canai lah. Thank you boss.
*Roti Canai is another Malaysian delicacy
Generally speaking, Manglish sentences strive to be as short and efficient as possible. To accomplish this, the grammar is quite flexible. To this end:
- You can cut any non-essential words from a sentence.
- You should cut long sentences into multiple shorter ones.
English: I left the bicycle in the shop for repairing. I should be able to get it back on Sunday and we can go cycling at Teluk Kumbar then. Otherwise I guess we can go and watch a movie.
Manglish: I left the bike to repair liao. Can get it back on Sunday den we can go cycling at Teluk Kumbar loh. Abo we can oso go watch movie gua.
Seriously Manglish: My bike repairing leh. So Sunday only cycle at Teluk Kumbar can ah. Or we just watch movie lah.
English: I left my phone here just now, but now I can’t find my phone. Did someone take it?
Manglish: (looks around) My phone where. Stolen issit?!
English: Is it ok if we pay after the shipment arrives?
Manglish: Arrive den pay ok ah?
English: Remember the Star Wars movie with the droids and the clones that we watched when we were kids? They’re making a reboot. I wasn’t expecting that!
Manglish: Remember the Star Wars we watch when we were kids ah? Got droids and clones one. They making reboot leh.
While in English it might be considered rude to say something like “Arrive first, then we pay, is that ok?” Manglish speakers refuse to allow such stereotypes to hold back the efficiency of their communication habits.
Another good rule of thumb to follow is to not attempt to translate any celebrity name or complicated words between Chinese and English, because most Malaysians are fluent in both. Even if half of a sentence is in Chinese, chances are Malaysians will still understand it. For example, it is perfectly understandable to say:
Man, have you seen the new album by 蕭敬騰. It looks dope!
(Man, have you seen the new album by Jam Hsiao. It looks dope!)
昨天我去clubbing碰到 G-Dragon and I took a picture with him leh!
(I went clubbing yesterday and met G-Dragon. I even took a picture with him!)
Other Interesting Characteristics of Malaysia’s Languages
Like Taiwanese, Malaysian Hokkien originates from Min Nan Yu, and shares many similarities. However, it also includes many new words that aren’t not present in Taiwanese. This shows how language can preserves the history of the people who speak it, which I personally find very interesting. For example:
|Loke Kun||老君, Shaman (Hokkien)||Doctor|
|Mat Salleh||“Mad sailor,” an English loan word||Foreigner (was considered derogatory in the past, but is acceptable now)|
|Guai Lou||鬼老 derogatory slang (Cantonese)||Foreigner (was considered derogatory in the past, but is acceptable now)|
|Ang mo||红毛 Red Haired (Hokkien)||Foreigner/Caucasian (was considered derogatory in the past, but is acceptable now)|
|Liu Lian||Durian (Hokkien)||Just that—Everyone’s favorite fruit|
|Ang Mo Liu Lian||Caucasian Durian (Hokkien)||Custard Apple|
|Gostan||“Go a’stern” (English)||Driving in reverse|
|Jiak Hong||吃風 pronounced in Hokkien, an adaptation of the Malay proverb “makan angin”||Vacation|
In the same way, many Malay words were also taken from China. During the 1800s, many Malays and Chinese people intermarried, forming the Baba-Nyonya culture. This led to the cross lending of Chinese and Malay words, many of which can now be found in the dictionary. For example:
|Mee (Malay)||面 (Hokkien)||Noodles|
|Kuih (Malay)||糕 (Hokkien)||Babanonya cake/desserts|
|Cawan (Malay)||茶碗 (Hokkien)||Chinese tea cups|
|Cheongsam (Malay)||长衫 (Cantonese)||Baba-nonya Long Dress|
|Sampan (Malay)||三板 (Cantonese/ Hokkien)||Small Boat|
Common Question: Why Are Malaysian Names So Weird?
In Malaysia, parents name their children according to the pronunciation of their spoken dialects, meaning you can somewhat reliably guess a Malaysian’s heritage from their name. One example is the famous singer, 王光良 Michael Wong.
Despite the media commonly writing his name as Guang Liang, his registered name is Wong Kong Leong, which is the Cantonese pronunciation of 黄光良. If he were Hokkien it would be more like Ooi Geng Liu. Some other notable figures that you may know:
|黃明志||Wee Meng Chee (Hokkien)|
|杨紫琼||Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng (Hokkien)|
This method can also be applied to guess a Chinese person’s origin, as most Hong Kongers and Macanese speak Cantonese, most Taiwanese speak Hokkien, and most Mainland Chinese speak Putonghua. To that end, the same Chinese surname could have at least three standard ways of being pronounced:
This also applies to food names, street names, and everything else:
|Kar Li Mee||咖喱面(Hokkien)||Curry noodles|
|Ang Ku Kuih||红龟糕(Hokkien)||A common type of dessert|
|Bak Kut Teh||肉骨茶(Hokkien)||Pork Rib Tea, famous delicacy|
|Wan Tan Min||雲吞面(Cantonese)||Wonton Noodles|
|Dim Sum||點心(Cantonese)||Dim Sum|
|Yao Cha Guai||油炸鬼(Cantonese)||Chinese Fried Breadsticks|
There are a lot of other posts that provide good examples of how Manglish is used. I particularly enjoy this answer, by Branson Chong on Quora, where you can see how Manglish approaches certain common situations:
When assessing a tight situation
Britons : We seem to be in a bit of a predicament at the moment…
Msians : Die lah!
– English translation of Chinese exclamation “死啦!” (Dead already!)
When asking for permission
Britons : Excuse me, but do you think it would be possible for me to enter through this door?
Msians : (pointing at the door) Can ah?
There are also a lot of Malaysian content creators, from whom you can see the different faces of Malaysian culture. You can hear a wide spectrum of Manglish spoken on different channels, ranging from standard English with a Malaysian accent to incredibly exaggerated variants of Manglish. Here are a few recommendations, arranged according to how exaggerated they are.
|Exaggerated Manglish – Epicism, a dramatic Malaysian (Meme) Channel|
|Manglish – DanKhoo Productions|
|Manglish – JinnyBoy Productions|
|Accented English – Ronny Chieng’s TV Series about a Malaysian International Student Studying in Austrailia|
I’ll end the article by sharing a funny video, as I also think it is very easy to make puns in Manglish. Due to its mixed-language nature, Manglish has a huge vocabulary pool to draw from when engaging in word play.