Indie-pop Manglish

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Over the weekend, one of the guests on the NPR show "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" was the Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi, who has managed to convert YouTube buzz into an indie recording contract and a well-received debut album. Most of her lyrics are in English, but one of her songs, which she performed on the show, code-mixes Malay and English. As she explains, the song "Kantoi" (meaning "Busted") is in "a hybrid of Malay and English called Manglish." I talked about Manglish a few years ago in the post, "Malaysia cracks down on 'salad language,'" where I discussed measures taken by the Malaysian government to ban Malay-English mixtures. I wonder how government officials feel now that Manglish is getting international exposure, thanks to a diminutive, ukulele-strumming songstress.

Here is Zee Avi's "Studio 360" performance of "Kantoi":

And here are the lyrics, with an English gloss (courtesy of a tribute video on YouTube). I've italicized the Malay items in the original. Zee Avi's code-mixing includes such typical Manglish features as the Malay particle lah attaching to an English phrase ("No wonder lah"), and also includes the interesting reduplication "last last," evidently a calque of Malay akhir-akhir ('in the end, finally').

Original Manglish: English gloss:
Semalam I call you, you tak answer Last night, I called but you didn't answer
You kata you keluar pergi dinner You said you went out for dinner
You kata you keluar dengan kawan you You said you went out with your friends
But when I called Tommy he said it wasn't true. But when I called Tommy he said it wasn't true.
So I drove my car, pergi Damansara So I drove my car to Damansara
Tommy kata maybe you tengok bola Tommy said maybe you're watching football
Tapi bila I sampai, you, you tak ada But when I arrived, you weren't there
Lagi la I jadi gila. The crazier I became.
So I call and call sampai you answer So I called and called until you answered
You kata, "Sorry sayang tadi tak dengar" You said, "Sorry darling, I didn't hear you"
"My phone was on silent, I was at the gym" "My phone was on silent, I was at the gym"
Tapi latar belakang suara perempuan lain. But in the background was another woman's voice.
Sudah lah sayang, I don't believe you Enough darling, I don't believe you
I've always known that your words were never true I've always known that your words were never true
Why am I with you, I pun tak tahu Why am I with you, I really don't know
No wonder lah my friends pun tak suka you. No wonder my friends don't even like you.
So I guess that's the end of our story So I guess that's the end of our story
Akhir kata she accepted his apology Last word, she accepted his apology
Tapi last last kita dapat tahu she was cheating too But in the end we found out, she was cheating too
With her ex-boyfriend's best friend, Tommy. With her ex-boyfriend's best friend, Tommy.


  1. Christopher Sundita said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 3:00 am

    Interesting to see that while it's looked down upon in Malaysia while in the Philippines, even the president uses Taglish extensively.

    Here's a video from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's State of the Union Speech this past summer:

    Examples at 4:30, 5:50, 8:04…


  2. Lou Hevly said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    I'm an American song writer living in Catalonia. Years ago I wrote a song in English in which certain Catalan idioms were literally translated, basically because the meaning and the scanning worked out better that way. For example "She knew just where I wanted to go to stop" is the literal translation of "Sabia on volia anar a parar" (She knew what I was driving at).

    Not exactly the same thing, but still something I thought at the time was unique. You can hear it at

  3. Faber said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

    It's interesting that a lot of her lines are in Malay with the English pronouns I and you used according to Malay syntactical rules (eg. "kawan you" for "your friends"). Are English pronouns considered more appropriate than Malay ones for BF-GF exchanges?

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    @Faber: The use of I and you in Malay has been discussed in great detail by Jordan MacVay on his Macvaysia blog. Check out his 2004 post, "I OK, You OK: English Pronouns in Malay."

  5. Faber said,

    January 26, 2010 @ 2:37 pm


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