Manglish "lah" and its affinity to Arabic "muhibbah"

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Dwight Reynolds called my attention to this extraordinarily apropos article from the Travel section of the Beeb (3/9/21), by Charukesi Ramadurai :

"Malaysia's harmonious approach to life"

While Malaysia generally stays under the radar, it is one of Asia’s most friendly and tolerant countries where its three major ethnic communities live mostly in harmony.

The serendipitous article jumps right onto the "lah" wagon:

As a newly minted resident of Kuala Lumpur, the first Malaysian word I learned was “lah”. Each time I used it in conversation, both locals and expats exclaimed in delight, “you have become a Malaysian so soon!” For that short, simple sound used as a suffix in everyday conversations encapsulates the ease and warmth with which Malaysian society embraces everyone within its fold. Indeed, although it is believed to be of Cantonese or Hokkien origin, lah is used most commonly in what is known as Manglish – Malaysian English – a delightful patois of formal English with casual smatterings of Malay, the national language.

Lah is added to the end of sentences to soften or strengthen an assertion, to state an unequivocal opinion, to offer a sheepish apology or to imply that something has been said in jest. But what is most significant is that the word is a great equaliser, used by practically everyone, cutting smoothly across barriers of language, race and religion in Malaysia. I hear it in air-conditioned shopping malls and in sweltering fresh food markets, uttered by the young and the old alike. And when I spot the lah at the end of any sentence – even ones that convey anger, dismay or rejection – I know the speaker means well.

That's a wonderful encapsulation of the malleability of the modal particle "lah", which we already looked at in some depth yesterday:

"Singlish 'lah', with a possible deep connection to colloquial Arabic" (3/9/21)

Ramadurai's article provides a lot of valuable information concerning cultural customs and social relationships.  Here I will focus on what it has to say about more strictly linguistic matters.

The profound Indianization (before Islamization) of the region is revealed by such terms as "Bumiputera" or Bumiputra (Jawi: بوميڤوترا‎) (meaning "son of the soil"), another name for the majority ethnic group, Malay.  It comes straight from Sanskrit भूमिपुत्र (bhūmiputra, son of the land).  Similarly, "bahasa" as signifying "national language" for Malay and more than a dozen other Southeast Asian countries also derives directly from Sanskrit, viz., bhāṣā भाषा ("spoken language").

"Bahasa and the concept of 'National Language'" (3/14/13)

Ramadurai continues:

What keeps them [VHM:  the three major ethnic groups — Malays, Chinese, and Indians] together is not just a shared love for their country, but the spirit of muhibbah. In the Arabic language, where it comes from, muhibbah (also muhibah) means love or goodwill.

See Wikipedia's "List of loanwords in Malay", which begins thus:

The Malay language has many loanwords from Sanskrit, Persian, Tamil, Greek, Latin, Portuguese, Dutch, certain Chinese dialects and more recently, Arabic (in particular many religious terms) and English (in particular many scientific and technological terms). Modern Malay loanwords are now primarily from English, Arabic and Javanese — English being the language of trade and technology while Arabic is the language of religion (Islam in the case of this language's concentrated regions), although key words such as surga/ syurga (heaven) and the word "religion" itself (agama) reflect their Sanskrit-Hindu origins. Javanese elements on the other hand are incorporated from the variant of Malay used in Indonesia through the consumption of media from said country.

Ramadurai's observations on language in relation to trade and transactions are particularly insightful:

Not surprisingly, the streets ring with the official language of Malay as well as Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hainanese, and Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati and Punjabi, among other Indian languages. In fact, my Malaysian friends take great pride in a unique concept called Bahasa Rojak, meaning mixture of languages (after rojak, a local salad with often contrasting textures and flavours), often lapsing into a Malay phrase or a dismayed “Aiyyo!” in Tamil in the middle of English conversations.

Bahasa Rojak came into existence in the early 15th Century, as did the concept of muhibbah itself. Mukherjee explained that Malacca (and other port towns like Kedah) was an important trading hub on the spice route, and for the sake of commerce, the local governments were always accepting of new languages and cultures. “Traditionally, migratory routes were never policed in the same way as mainstream cities, and in Malacca too, it was easy for communities to intermingle, for instance, through business transactions and even marriages,” she said. The conversational pidgin adopted by traders to communicate with each other lingers on as easy code-switching among Malaysians. Add to this intermarriage among communities, and contemporary Malaysia’s multicultural DNA was created.

We have our own versions of "la", as in French "ooh la la" and even in Old English:

interj. Chiefly Dial.

(used as an exclamation of surprise or emphasis).
[before 1150; Middle English, Old English; weak variant of lo1]

Random House Dictionary

Well, la-di-da and lardy-dardy!


  1. AntC said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 4:41 pm

    [Malaysia's] three major ethnic communities live mostly in harmony.

    Who writes this rose-tinted rot? The Chinese minority are resented by ethnic Malays, because they're seen as the exploitative moneymen and shopkeeper class — which is of course not true. It got particularly bad during Mahathir Mohamed's domination in the '80's/'90's. As wikipedia says " His political career …, starting with his participation in protests against non-Malays gaining Malaysian citizenship. " That is, against ethnic Chinese who had lived there for generations.

    I've worked in Singapore and Britain and Australia (and anywhere they could escape to) with ethnic Chinese who have left Malaysia because of the hostility and structural discrimination.

  2. elmajal said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 7:07 pm

    i didn't go to Malaysia before but i think "Lah" is not Arabic word as u describe it, in other way
    Malaysia is great tourism country in East Asia

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 8:50 pm

    I don't think "lah" is an Arabic word either, and that's not what I wrote in the Singlish post or the Manglish post. On the other hand, it may have been borrowed into one type of colloquial Arabic already a thousand or so years ago, as I hypothesized in the Singlish post.

  4. matt regan said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 10:42 am

    When I first directed Merry Wives of Windsor, back in pre-internet days and only my trusty Arden in hand, I wondered why Slender kept throwing in "la" in odd places. The actor had no idea either, so I told him to use it as a nervous interjection.

  5. Yastreblyansky said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 7:42 pm

    Isn't that English "la" a hypereuphenism for "Lord!"?

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