A Return to Lah Lah Land

Street art in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Perhaps one of the greatest (i.e., most useful) things the former British Empire has given us is the proliferation of the English language. As a native speaker, particularly, it's comforting to know that so many people all around the world can understand my food and toilet enquiries (priorities, guys). 

Despite its ubiquity, however, no two places speak English in the same way, incorporating regionally specific colloquialisms and, in the case of multicultural communities, even mixing vocabulary and grammar to create pidgins or creole languages (as is the case with Hawaii Creole English AKA Pidgin). As languages are constantly evolving and extremely localized, you can't say that any one way is "more correct" than the others, though there seem to be things that some places just seem to get really right

Take the Australian English affinity for abbreviating words, for example. Sometimes English can be a little unwieldy, and don't you think that it'd be a whole lot more economical to borrow from the Aussies, chop off a few sounds, and rather than heading to McDonald's this afternoon, head to Maccas this arvo instead?

When I came to Malaysia back in March, one of the first things that caught my attention was the local creole English that reminded me so dearly of the one I was familiar with. While there are some actual similarities due to their shared Cantonese influence, most of the nostalgia came from the simple fact that what I was hearing was English, but not quite. It's got its own rules and peculiarities that have been a fun little puzzle to pick out and make sense of. 

Punctuating speech in frequencies akin to the American "like" (i.e., ranging from spartan to excessive and everything in between), the emphatic "lah" is one of the hallmarks of Malaysian English. Most often seen at the end of a sentence (though commonly in the middle as well), lah seems to evade any attempt at definition. By itself, it has no meaning, but when attached to something, it can harden, soften, emphasize, confirm, or serve to entice agreement. Not only is it just really cute aurally, but clearly, it serves a purpose that doesn't exist in Standard English, adding deeper meaning and providing context to speech more directly than a simple tonal inference might. 

So here I find myself once again surrounded by "lah"s for the next three weeks as I bury myself a little bit deeper in Malaysia and its unfamiliar familiarities trying to make sense of this place, this people that so unexpectedly captured my heart this past spring. And sorry, friends, if I come home punctuating my sentences with this charming little suffix. What can I say? It's useful lah.