Malaysia Day Special: Yum cha, Macha, Kot and other youthful Malaysian slang


  • Living
  • Wednesday, 16 Sep 2020

MySlangBank provides explanations to go along with their illustrations of popular local slang words and phrases. Photos: MySlangBank

Yum cha. Macha. Kot.

You won’t find any of the aforementioned words in a dictionary. And yet, this is the kind of glossary weaved into modern day conversations among Malaysians at a local mamak or kedai runcit (convenience store).

Malaysia is a melting pot of various cultures and languages, aspects which are reflected in the country’s colourful and diverse youthful local or urban slang.

   In Tamil, macha means brother-in-law. Malaysians, however, use it as another term for ‘bro’.In Tamil, macha means brother-in-law. Malaysians, however, use it as another term for ‘bro’.

In his study on Malaysia’s youth language, historical linguist Tom Hoogervorst said the speech of young Malaysians “exhibits playfulness, flexibility and the desire to innovate”.

“In a country as ethnically diverse as Malaysia, it is not surprising that young people draw on a variety of sources to keep their language and subculture dynamic and up-to-date, ” Hoogervorst wrote in his paper on Malay youth language in West Malaysia.

The Malaysian slang is made up of a collection of vocabulary that borrows liberally from Malay, Chinese, Indian, English and other colloquial languages.

“Chinese Malaysians have at their disposal a diverse blend of popular culture from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, in such languages as Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, Hakka and others.

“Young Malaysians of South Asian origins do not restrict themselves to the dominant Tamil culture, but also incorporate North Indian elements, particularly Bollywood-related, into their lifestyles, ” Hoogervorst wrote, adding that such hybridity can also be seen in the Malay youth language.

This gives rise to the usage of zany words or phrases, such as “kiasu” (fear of missing out), “bergayut” (on the phone for too long) and “sitok” (meaning ‘here’ in Sarawak).

   Malaysian slang is made up of words borrowed liberally from various languages.Malaysian slang is made up of words borrowed liberally from various languages.

All these slang phrases are cleverly compiled on the MySlangBank Instagram account.

The page features over 300 graphically illustrated slang terms, each with detailed captions on the background and usage.

Creative director Fazlee Sabbaruddin, one of the folks behind MySlangBank, said the usage of slang words can help foster unity among Malaysians.

“The thing about formal language is that it can divide us, especially in a multilingual country like Malaysia.

“We each have our own language, and we use that language with people who are the same as us, and sometimes to keep the other parties out, ” he said.

“Slang words mean the same thing no matter what language you use, ” he added.

Tahap dewa is used to describe someone with very good skills or capabilities.Tahap dewa is used to describe someone with very good skills or capabilities.

According to Fazlee, the formation of slang words in Malaysia can come from many ways.

Some are conjoined words, where we combine the last syllables of two different words to form one word, or region-specific, or its symbolic.

Such amalgamation is exactly why slangs have the potential to bring Malaysians closer together, he said.

“You could be speaking Tamil, and you insert a Malay slang word, and it’s still OK. So while formal language may divide us, slang unites us, ” he explained.

But since slang words are used by youths, would this alienate the older generation then – thus, widening the generational gap in the country?

Fazlee dismissed that notion, explaining that there is a common thread between the young and the old.

“One of the most interesting is that not all slang words are created by the youth, or they’re not new words – some were even coined a long time ago, ” he said.

   Fefeeling is short for “feeling-feeling” and expresses the mood of indulging in something extra. — MySlangBankFefeeling is short for “feeling-feeling” and expresses the mood of indulging in something extra. — MySlangBank

Fazlee highlighted the phrase “mesyuarat tingkap”, used to refer to informal meets based on how older women would have a meeting while hanging out at the back of their houses.

“Thanks to one of our followers, we realised that this word was actually used by Tan Sri P. Ramlee in one of his movies. Then it went away, and after a while it resurfaced again. But with the same meaning, more or less.

“Some slang came from ads from the 80s. Some have been used widely in a certain region, and only recently made a nationwide appearance, ” he explained.

If it’s up to Fazlee, he would like to see Malaysian slang words thrive and used more widely in the country.

“Keep those slang words coming. Keep creating, changing, or truncating words to make new ones. Or revive old ones. The more slang words there are, the richer and more colourful our language will be.

“We hope that one day, slang words will be accepted by the authorities, and that they can be used in exams, debate competitions or the news, ” he concluded.

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