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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Go Bang, Go Lah !

No matter the context or the setting, in Malaysia, you will find 'Lah' abused in the same manner that some angry young men abuse the F-word. You are sitting in a business meeting and really going hard at somebody for making a mistake and he is almost certain to invoke 'Lah' to his defense. You are interviewing a potential candidate and asking deep, probing questions and promptly 'Lah' is uttered as an all-explaining mono-syllable. It made me wonder what is the genesis of it but no amount of extensive research could produce the meaning of this word. In fact, even a select sample of educated and not-so-educated Malaysians could not give me a satisfactory answer. So, I turned to wikipedia as the last resort only to be left even more confused. Here is the excerpt:-

"The ubiquitous word 'Lah' is used at the end of a sentence to simultaneously soften the force of the utterance and entice solidarity. Though, it can also have the opposite meaning when it is used to signal power. In addition, there are suggestions that there might be more than one Lah particle, so there may be a stressed and unstressed variant and as many as nine tonal variants, all having a special pragmatic function."

Being sufficiently bewildered, I gave up trying to find the meaning of 'Lah' and instead listed down its various forms of usage. Here you go.

'Lah' is often used to get away with having doled out an insult which, in any other part of the world, would have called for an honour killing. If you are like me who loves insulting people verbally but lacks the muscle to back it up, then Malaysia is a paradise for you. Examples of this and the real meaning:-

"You no fun, lah" - I could have a better conversation with a cow.
"Come Lah, that also you can't do" - Is there anything in this whole wide world that you could accomplish?
"Do your way, lah" - I have explained so many times in simple english but still cant get through that thick skull of yours.

'Lah' is also used to create a level playing ground despite differences in gender, social status, religious beliefs, positional power etc. This is how you will achieve this with your boss when you are out after a hard-day's work:-

"Drink, lah" - I am not in a mood to listen to your self-important speeches. Just drink.
"Cannot, lah" - If I wanted to, I could have dropped you home, but really, I have better things to do.

It works both ways. This is how your boss would sometime speak with you so that it is both a request as well as a command :-

"No good, lah" - Really, a toddler could write this report better than you. Re-write it.
"No donut for you, lah" - An increment? For a dinosaur like you? NO. Read my lips.

A very sophisticated use of 'Lah' is to put an end to an argument/debate. When used effectively, It is like the Perspective gun (AKA the point-of-view gun) from HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy which when fired at others, makes them understand the situation from your perspective. Except that instead of going 'Bang', you go, 'Lah'. Some examples:-

"Dun know orredy lah" - Arrgh, I dont know any more than what I have explained. I give up.
"Too much, lah" - I give up trying to understand your theory of life, universe and everything.

'Lah' can also be used to trivialize an otherwise important subject. For example, you have recently driven your car into the toll-booth and are staring at a hefty damage but your Malaysian friend might just respond "Ok, Lah"

A positive use of 'Lah' is to reassure. "Can, Lah" is mostly used in this manner.

Even though, I probably understand the word 'Lah' more than most Malaysians but that is simply not enough. Generations of Malaysians have (ab)used this word and it has become part of their gene-pool so much so that while they cannot consciously recall the meaning of it but are nonetheless adept at using it. And if I so much as utter it, they can sniff it from a mile's distance and cry fowl.

Do you know any other usage of 'Lah'? Don't tell me your response is "Dun know orredy, lah."


Anonymous said...

This phonetic sound in Arabic means "no."

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

Anonymous said...

I came across another word 'pusat' during my visit to KL last year, what does that mean?

Beta said...

Pusat means 'Centre'. Where did you hear that?

Anonymous said...

Thanks buddy.

I had an official trip to KL last year and that's when I heard it.

Annoymously said...

Not that I know anything about Malaysia, but this has to be one of the funniest articles I've read in a while. And I was just re-reading Durrell's 'My Family & Other Animals' (for quite possibly the thousandth time), so am comparing you to a master humorist. You have the gift. Do think of publishing. Will certainly queue up for my copy.