Friday, December 10, 2010

Bahasa Melayu, Censorship, and the Delicate Art of Manglish

So after over two years of living in a multicultural, multilingual society, I figure I may know somewhere between 120 and 150 words in the national language, Bahasa Melayu. It's not that it's a particularly difficult language; on the contrary, it's far simpler than languages such as Spanish, French, or English. No real verb conjugations to speak of, no tenses (perfect or otherwise), and no genders for nouns. Even the lexicon is far, far smaller than English. Really, it's just that learning the Malay language isn't functionally necessary for living here as a foreigner. Most people speak some degree of English (or attempt it on signs, as shown here), and as I've witnessed many, many times, English is routinely used between two people whose mother tongue is another language (like two Malays or two Chinese speaking to each other using only English). Still though, I try to pick up a few new words in Malay each month, but the problem is, if they're not common words, and I don't use them or see them regularly, I forget them easily.

One of the joys of living in a multilingual nation is that people here routinely slip in and out of various languages, even in the course of the same conversation. I think that's so cool... if you don't know how to express something in English, then you just switch over to Cantonese, or Malay, or whatever, then back to English, or vice-versa. It's very natural and common here... I think it's brilliant. And it's totally normal for me to be talking to a friend in English, when he'll get a phone call and rapid-fire jabber away in Mandarin, then will flip effortlessly right back to English for me. I've always thought that was amazing being able to switch between different languages like that — and there's no actual translating involved. I can sometimes do this at a very remedial level. I was driving in a steady rain once, and rounded a curve on the highway and saw a flashing sign, Awas! Terowong di hadapan! All road signs here are in Malay, and what was cool for me was that I didn't have to actually translate that in my head or sort it out into English. It just clicked into place exactly what it meant... I equated the words with the ideas and things they represented, rather than with their English-language equivalents. (In English, it's basically, "Caution! Tunnel Ahead!")

Ads and displays are oftentimes multilingual, too. The phrase of the actual ad will be in English, but all the other stuff will be in Malay. Movie posters will have all of their taglines in English, of course, but at the bottom, it will say Di pawagam 31 Dis 2010 or something ("In theaters December 31, 2010"). I wish Americans were as accepting of other languages as Malaysians are. English is happily, if not gracefully, woven into the Malaysian culture in a nation where all of its inhabitants' native languages are definitely not English (Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil, Hakka, Hokkien, and probably a dozen indigenous dialects), and nobody really seems to mind. But when signs are posted in English and Spanish in the U.S., some Americans tend to feel threatened. I think having multiple languages in a society is great and often find myself envious of people here who speak three or four languages easily.

However, I have to say somewhat critically, the response I get from locals when I do attempt to speak to them in Malay is not usually encouraging. They usually just laugh at me or don't understand me at all and talk back to me in English. I don't think they're doing it to be rude, but it's very different from the reaction a foreigner gets in Indonesia or Thailand when making the effort to speak the native language (they are typically delighted that you're even trying), instead of just presuming like everyone should speak English, like many Americans are prone to doing when traveling abroad. So between the lack of real necessity to learn the local languages here, and the lack of encouraging response I normally get when I do attempt it, I usually just opt to converse in English.

One of the inherent problems in a country where only a conversational level of English is typically used is a lack of understanding of some of the more esoteric words and phrases in the language (like the word "esoteric," for example!). For instance, the words "already" and "never mind" are routinely and widely misused in speech here. My mechanic will tell me that "The spark plus are spoiled already, lah." "Oh okay," I'll reply, "Just go ahead and replace them." To which he'd reply, "Never mind, never mind, I replace already and call you later, lah." It's completely understandable, just slightly... off. This is not how we use these words in American English. Nor do we add "lah" to the end of sentences, but this is a quirk of Malaysian and Singaporean English.

The amalgam of English with Malay is called "Manglish" (and "Singlish" in Singapore), and it's frequently a source of confusion, frustration, and/or amusement for me. One of my favorite things is how they use double comparatives, as in, "This is much more better," or, "That one is more cheaper." I hear this so often, it's almost starting to sound normal to me. Another thing is how the Malay language incorporates other languages into its lexicon. In English, the borrowed word is usually kept intact, such as the word "rendezvous," which retains its French spelling. In Malay, however, the spelling is changed to fit the strict phonetics of the Malay language. Science becomes "sains," ice becomes "ais," bungalow becomes "banglo," and many words ending with "-tion" in English end with "-asi" in Malay (inspirasi, inovasi, transformasi, telekomunikasi). For some reason, the word wow becomes "wah," as seen in this photo, but oddly enough, the rest of the ad is in English. The line between English and local languages here is continually blurred. Sometimes it's just mixed up altogether.

This issue is brought keenly to light when watching TV. Not only are the subtitles (in Malay) only a dim approximation of the nuance and complexity of what's actually being said, the Malaysian censors will oftentimes edit out what they think are offensive words (they just drop the soundtrack briefly), while leaving in actual profanity, or censoring the same word inconsistently throughout a program. On one episode of "Family Guy," a show I can't believe is even aired in Malaysia, they censored out the word "prostate" the first 9 or 10 times it was used (in reference to a prostate exam), but left the word in there the last few times. Never mind that it's not even remotely offensive or profane... it was just wildly inconsistent. "Bitch" and "ass" were left intact, however. It was very puzzling. It's also annoying to watch a show that airs somewhat late at night (after 10 p.m.), begins with all the warnings about language, violence, mature subject matter, etc., and then is STILL censored. Then sometimes, they'll show the same program (and same episode) from early evening again after midnight, and paradoxically, the late-night version will be much more censored than the 7 p.m. version was... wow. (Sorry, I mean "wah.") Fortunately, I don't watch a great deal of TV here, but things like this always make it an adventure when I do.