Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

How Bahasa Rojak Developed

Written by johnleemk on 3:18:49 pm May 2, 2007.
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If you observe how Malaysians use our language, it's very interesting how our national language, bahasa rojak, has developed. We've really amalgamated all sorts of words from all sorts of languages to create something truly Malaysian.

Some people have a very darwinist outlook on language. They think that eventually one language will prove superior to all other languages, cultural and linguistic diversity be damned.

Now, I don't know about the validity of this view. I have not taken a single linguistics course in my life, so I don't feel qualified to comment on linguistics — but nevertheless, I think this view is flawed because it assumes languages remain static.

This is an error that a lot of people, including anti-cultural globalisation campaigners, seem to make. They assume that languages, societies and cultures are static, never changing.

The exact opposite is true — our languages, societies and cultures are always in flux. They are a reflection of who we are as people, and each and everyone of us is always changing. Every time we have a new experience, how we view the world and how we think changes in some way.

So, if there is ever a single united world language, I would bet every penny I have that it will not be any of the languages we currently have today — at least as we know them.

This language will instead be a combination of whatever is useful from any of the world's languages. Why is this? Because each language has words representing a specific concept — words which cannot be easily translated into other languages.

You might think such words are rare, but they are actually quite common. Even if the total meaning of the word is not lost, there are aspects of its character which cannot be satisfactorily translated.

This holds especially true for the many languages of Malaysia — and this explains why bahasa rojak is so diverse, so fascinating, and so varied. Every word we use in bahasa rojak has a specific meaning which cannot be adequately translated to another language.

For example, you could promise to always love your significant other. Or you could promise to sayang him/her always. How can you adequately translate the connotations of this Malay word into English without losing its meaning? It just doesn't have the same meaning if you just say you will always "love" the other person.

I can't imagine translating this word — and if I did, I'd probably have to make it at least a sentence long. And the same goes for many other words — how do you easily translate janggal or jelak?

There are some words which can be adequately translated, but when translated, just lack the panache of the original. Leng lui and leng cai are two good examples of this.

You could say "pretty girl" or "pretty boy"; "gadis cantik" or "lelaki tampan" — but how the heck can you imagine rolling off these phrases in casual conversation? The complications become particularly severe when you want to be sarcastic (e.g. calling a particularly feminine boy leng lui).

Profanities have also been very easily adopted into bahasa rojak — and I think this is probably because man can never have enough swear words to use. After all, variety is the spice of life.

That we have been able to develop a truly Malaysian national language, despite the efforts of our political and cultural leaders to maintain either an assimilative or pseudo-apartheid system, really impresses me, and gives me hope for a Malaysian nation. If our country is not run into the ground, I believe at one point or another, we can really wind up as one — and a developed national language, bahasa rojak, will play a significant role in this.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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