The contribution of Malay language to the enrichment and development of Singlish lexicon in 13 words and 9 typical dishes

Malay, Malay language , Malaysia , Malay food, Singlish, Singapore, Singapore colloquial english

Although Malay Language still continues to play a preminent role on Singaporean sociolinguistic chessboard, being both the official Language of Singaporean National Anthem and the sole National Language officially recognized by the Constitution of Singapore, towards the end of the Seventies – probably because of that considerable general atmosphere of resentment arisen during the Merger Years – the interest of Singapore institutional bodies towards the promotion and dissemination of Malay Language, especially in the context of Singapore educational policies, was gradually
fading, thus leaving the field clear for the impetuous advance of English Language1.

On the other hand, the impact of Malay Language on the development and enrichment of ordinary Singlish Lexicon appears to be other than negligible. In facts contemporary Singlish Vocabulary is composed by a lot of borrowed words and expressions coming from Malay Language.

Top 13 most common Malay words in Singlish

Among the most widespread Malay loans in contemporary Singapore Colloquial English, we can find:

1) Amakam (contraction of the Malay typical expression Apa Makam, it is often used instead of the American expression “what’s up?”, especially when Singaporean want to give a more familiar tone to the conversation in sentences like: «Eh, Ramili! Long time no see! Amakam?» which into Italian Language would become: «Ehi, Ramili! Da quanto tempo non ci si vede! Come ti butta?»);

2) Atas (literally “in the upper floor”, in informal communication contexts it is widely used instead of the English adjective snob);

3) Ayam (literally chicken, it is frequently used in a derogatory sense to describe coward people);

4) Bodoh (when you want to say that someone is really stupid or ignorant);

5) Buaya (literally translated it means crocodile, but in a figurative sense it is frequently used instead of the typical British English term playboy or the American English word “womanizer”);


6) Kampung (literally village, you can find it very often in sentences as: «I was born in a Kampung … somewhere in Novena.», which into Italian Language is: «Sono nato in un borgo … da qualche parte a Novena.»]);

7) Makan (instead of the ordinary verb to eat, which into Italian is “mangiare”);

8) Tombalek (in daily expressions like: «Did you see that? He wears his shirt tombalek!», it replaces the English expression inside-out) [Italian Language: «Hai visto quello? Indossa la maglietta al rovescio!»]2;

9) Teruk (often replaces the English adjectives tough  and severe as it occurs in the Singlish sentence: «The exam was damn teruck, man.», which into Italian Language becomes: «L’esame era dannatamente difficile, gente.»);

10) Langgar (usually it replaces the English verbs “to hit” and “to collide” in ordinary sentences as: «He laggar-ed me yesterday!» which into Italian Language it could be translated with the sentence: «Lui mi ha urtato ieri!»)3;

11) Barang-barang (the meaning of this term considerably changes according to the communication context in which it is used; considering a sentence like: «Please remove all your barang-barang from the empty space next to you!», which into Italian Language is: «Per favore togli tutte le tue cose dal posto vuoto accanto a te.», we might argue that this expression is replacing the English word things (cose) while, in another sentence as: «Give them their bedding and all that barang-barang.», which into Italian Language becomes: «Date loro le loro coperte e tutto quell’equipaggiamento.», we could assert that the curious Malay borrowing barang-barang in this case is replacing the term “paraphernalia”, which belongs both to the British English and American English military jargon whose Italian translation is “equipaggiamento”);

12) Ular (literally snake, in a figurative sense is widely used instead of the English adjectives sneaky [spregevole] and untrustworthy [falso] or [sleale]);

13) Bengkok (frequently used instead of the English adjectives bent [curvo] and crooked [storto] or [deforme])4.

Malay, Malay language, Malaysia, Singapore, Malay cuisine, Malay food, Malay drinks, Singlish, Singapore colloquial English

Here you are the top 9 Malay dishes you must absolutely try if you go to Singapore

Because of the strong and irrefutable historical and political ties that over the preceding centuries have united culture, history and traditions of Singapore and Malaysia, even a fair number of drinks and a wide range of typical dishes belonging to the traditional Malay cuisine have gradually become part of Singapore everyday life, carrying along a multitude of Malay lexical borrowings just like:

1)Teh-Tarik (literally pulled tea, which translated into Italian Language becomes “tè tirato”, it is a typical Malay drink prepared with tea and condensed milk, in whose preparation process are performed many repeated decantings5);

teh tarik, Malay drinks, Singapore

2) Ice Kacang (literally ice beans, which translated into into Italian Language could be rendered with the expression “fagioli di ghiaccio”, it’s a really charming lexical hybridation derived from the English substantive “ice” [ghiaccio] and the Malay word Kacang [fagioli], as well as the typical name of a colourfull Malay dessert very popular in all those attractive coffeehouses [caffetterie] and stalls [chioschetti] you can find in Singapore. It’s prepared with grinded ice, condensed milk and syrups, on which are disposed some very sweet typical red beans, corns and those colourful jelly cubes called “attap chee”6, which in turn are nothing but the unripe fruits of “nipah palm” (a particular type of palm that usually grows within those lash mangrove forests located in the coastal bays of Singapore Island where the soil is mostly brackish and whose scientific name is “nypa fruticans”8);

ice kakang, ais kakang, Malay dessert Singapore

3) Kaya (a typical local cream prepared with coconuts, sugar and eggs), Kaya-roti (toasted bread seasoned with kaya);

kaya, Malay cream, Singapore

4) Otah (a typical Malay dish made with fish paste wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over charcoal);

Otah, Katong, otak, Singapore

5) Rojak (a delicious Malay salad made of watermelon, pinapple, turnips, tofu, bean sprouts, shrimp paste, sugar, lotus and tamarind buds)9;

Rojak, Singapore, Malay Salad Singapore

6) Keropok (a crunchy Malay snack prepared with tapioca flour and dried shrimps or fried fishes of various kinds, which is usually served with curry);

Keropok, Singapore, Malay snack

7) Kueh dadar (a typical Malay dessert similar to a large bundle, whose outer shell is made of a sort of green pancake obtained from a dough prepared with coconut milk, eggs and pandanus leaves, inside of which there is a very sweet filling made of palm sugar, water, pandanus leaves, and grilled coconuts10);

kueh daddar, Malay sweet, Malay cake, Malay dessert, Singapore

8) Kueh ambon (another delicious traditional Malay spongy sweet prepared with pandanus leaves, coconut milk and tapioca, rice and sago flour);

Kueh Ambon, Malay cake, Malay spongy cake, Singapore


9) Kueh lapis (literally translated from Malay Language “layered cake” where Kueh is derived from the Malay substantive kuih [cake, pie, pastry] and lapis, whose meaning in Malay language is “layer”. This particular cake of indonesian origins [in Indonesia is better known as lapis legit] is prepared with different varieties of local spieces just like aniseed, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla, which, during the baking process, are gradually added according to their colours)11.

Kueh Lapis, Malay cake, Malay, Sweet, Malay layered cake, Singapore

Further Readings and Recommended Books

1Wan Guofang, The Education of Diverse Student Populations: A Global Perspective, Exploration of Educational Purpose 2, Springer Science + Business Media B.V., 2008, Ohio University, Athens, OH, USA, op. cit.

6Ebrahim Naleeza,Yee Yan Yaw, Singapore: an introduction to what, where when to eat in the city, Not Just a Good Food Guide, Marshall Cavendish Edition, Singapore, 2006, Republic of Singapore.

7Syang Teo, Tan Ria, Koon Thiam Yee Alex, Loon Siew Lok Francis Alvin, Foong Wee Ang, Kurukulasurya R. B., Tan W. T. H., The Status and Distribution of Nipah Palm, Nypa Fruticans Wurmb (Arecaceae), in Singapore, Nature in Singapore, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 25 February 2010, Republic of Singapore.

8Dowe Leslie John, Australian palms: biogeography, ecology and systematics, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Collingwood, Victoria, 2010, Australia.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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