Languages of Malaysia – Including the Profane

My many friends in Malaysia, where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, were always taking me out to dinner.  I did not hesitate to accept their invitation.  They knew that I was poor but nonetheless, it was embarrassing to be such as sponge.  My pay was US$90 a month and I could not reciprocate.  I couldn’t even think of eating at the restaurants on my own that they took me to.

One memorable meal, with about ten Chinese friends, we had as a fabulous 9-course meal.  The menu was:  Cold Dish with “Rose,” Stewed Sharks Fin with Abalone & Chicken, Roasted Chicken, Fried Miscellaneous Vegetables, Crab Meat Balls, Sweet & Sour Fish. Steamed Chicken Soup, ”Yong Chow” Fried Rice with Tau-Foo, and Longans

The restaurant’s name was “Yee Too Fatt Restaurant.”  And I wasn’t too fat, having lost weight from 185 pounds to 165 pounds. Should I go back now “Yee Too Fatt” the name would be appropriate. 

Not one of my friends had seen anything funny about the sign until I pointed it out to them. 

By law, the official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Melayu (Malay). The language can be written in either the Roman script or the Arabic script (Jawi).  I find it interesting that the Malays who know the Arabic script, can sound out the words in the Koran so that Muslims around the world can understand them.  However, they don’t know the meaning unless they also know Arabic. 

It is the language that I studied.  I never got very fluent.  Since all of my work was in English, fluency was not required.  I could handle the basics such as getting around and buying.  Bargaining was necessary and I had the required vocabulary but I disliked doing it and was never very good at it.

Several English words have their origin from Bahasa Melayu.  One would be “orangutan” which means man of the forest.   Another is cockatoo from “kakak tua,” which means old aunt.

My friend, Lyn Dwyer provides the following:  “… memory of a story my friend Kalsohm told me.  Before we arrived, Tide detergent was putting on a campaign to sell its product.  The problem was that the word “Tide” sounds so similar to the Malay word “tahi” which is slang for excretory matter.  You don’t get far exhorting people to “wash your clothes with shit” and thus ended the marketing program of Tide.”

There are at least three Indic languages used in Malaysia, Tamil, Hindi, and Punjabi – each with its own script. 

I recall the time that my Tamil friend Ari took me to a Tamil movie.  It had no subtitles.  Things were going nicely and I thought that I had the plot figured out.  Suddenly the main female character took a knife and stabbed one of the male characters.  That didn’t figure into my plot at all.  I asked Ari why she had done that?  It seems that earlier in the movie, he had raped her.  Indian movies were evidently more subtle about sex than I was used to. 

Another story involving the Tamil language concerns a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was assigned with me to the University Library.  Alice Lage was a feisty person who believed in women’s rights – not a prevalent belief toward women in Malaysia.  One day I went into Alice’s department and asked her why she had not come to the meeting with the Librarian, Beda Lim, since it concerned her department.  She said, “What meeting?  I wasn’t invited.”  Even I had to admit that it was a blatant use of male chauvinism.  Alice got livid.  You could see the smoke coming out of all orifices.  I had never seen an American dragon before but I was seeing one now!  She “scratched dirt” getting to the typewriter, sat down, threw a piece of paper into the roller, gave it a violet twist, and started typing like a banshee.  While it was a sight to behold, I thought that the Peace Corps image was going to suffer big time.  All of a sudden, she looked down at what she was typing and started laughing.  The smoke subsided.  She had been typing on the Tamil typewriter! 

The Peace Corps image was saved for the moment.

Another important language of the Malay Peninsular is Chinese.  There are three main dialects spoken, Cantonese, Hakka and Teo-Chu.  Mandarin is generally not known.  The written language is the same for all. However, the spoken languages are quite different and all are tonal, i.e., the meaning is dependant on the pitch you use to say the word.  It is hard for western ears to hear the differences in pitch as shown by the following experience. 

At a restaurant near the river, I had eaten a wonderful dish, ng sow up with gau choi fah (duck with pigs leg with a vegetable that looked like chives.)  I wanted to be able to order it on my own so I memorized the name in Cantonese.  Sometime later, feeling very sure of myself, I ordered it in a restaurant stall near the flat where I lived.  Well, instead of getting gau choi fah, I got cauliflower!  They thought that I was speaking English.  My trying to speak Chinese was given a set-back.

While I have not yet been able to find the picture for “Yee Too Fatt Restautant,” I have been able to find the one for “Zee Fatt Tailor.”

I also got a big kick of a panel truck that drove by my flat each day saying “Lee Kee Plumbers.”

Number Character Reading Meaning
0   ling4 0
1   yat1 1
2   yi6 2
3   saam1 3
4   sei3 4
5   ng5 5
6   luk6 6
7   chat1 7
8   baat3 8
9   gau2 9
10   sap6 10

Another example of pitch problems in Chinese is shown by the story of the Boy Scouts of Victoria Institution, where I directed their choir.  One weekend I went with them on a camping trip to Cameron Highlands.  It was here that they taught me to count from one to ten in Cantonese.  I should have recognized that something was amiss, but didn’t heed the warning signs.  The numbers are yat, yi, saam, sei, ng, luk, chat, baat, gau, and sap.  Finally, I had learned them.  Then they asked me to say the Cantonese for 1, 1, 9, 6, 7.  No problem:  Yat, Yat, Gau, Luk, Chat.  Hilarious laughter!  I didn’t know that if you said them in another tone it means “everyday man plays with himself.”  For some unknown reason I still remember this expression many years later. 

I still keep in touch with several and I written them in a separate memoir.

My favorite story happened during my first few weeks in the University of Malaya Library.  Every morning as I went into the catalog department, containing about 12-15 people, I would say “Hi.”  Everyone giggled.  After several days of this, I asked my friend Eddie Yoh why they all laughed when I came into work.  He said: “Don’t you know what “hi” means in Cantonese?”  I assured him that I didn’t whereupon he said that it meant “vagina.” 

“Hi” comes in handy in many situations – particularly as an opening when you meet someone new at a Chinese cocktail party.