I love English. I love the language. There are so many ways of saying the same thing that the permutations are endless, the capacity for nuance vast. German may be precise but English is fluid. You can be specific in German. You can swim dolphin-like, jump, dive and play in the warm ocean of English.
I also like what other people do with English. It’s not a pure language. We have no Académie française. Rather we have a relationship akin to speed dating with other languages. We sit, we talk, we exchange, we move on.
I spent five and a half years in Malaysia and fell in love with Manglish, Malaysian English. It has the grammar and cadences of local Malay, Tamil or Chinese, a smattering of words from whichever language the Manglish speaker uses at home or with friends and it’s shot through with humour.
Most Malaysians seem to know they’re having fun when they speak Manglish with one another. There’s the unspoken understanding that they can speak English perfectly well and that indeed they’re confident enough to play with it, to mash it up with other languages and make it their own. It’s not a pigeon language born of ignorance but rather the opposite.
My friend and Manglish sifu Antares translated bits of Shakespeare into Manglish. Even my English friends get ‘Lomeo, Lomeo, why your name Ng?’ But they laugh with, not at.
Sometimes I worry my Malaysian friends may mistake my affection for being patronising. I hope they realise that I simply admire its genius and that for a non-linguist like me it’s a bridge of understanding, a gentle pathway into one strand of local humour and ways of looking at the world.
So a little while ago I wrote a Manglish poem for three poet friends; Salleh Ben Joned, Cecil Rajendra and Antares. I know it’s completely politically incorrect writing in someone else’s slang but frankly I don’t care. It’s offered in complete humility and with boundless respect.
The Malaysian Poet Lori Ate
(For Cecil, Salleh and Antares – tree Malaysian poet lori ate. Hungry lori lor!)
I drim las night I was wid my fren,
Walking pas the mamak when the boss man he call out
Hey man, who that fler you wid?
I say, this my fren the Malaysian poet lori ate.
Say waat? he ask me. You cray-zee-bar-ger.
Why lori want eat poet ah? This is Malay-si-ah.
Got nasi, got ayam,
Got roti, got mee,
Got longan, got durian
Got fish head cur-ree
Poet all stringy and kuih are all sweet
He say Lori all smart wan an not dungu like me.
Which is when he take piteee, give us teh ais for pree
And then I remember I mus be drim.
Down at steamboat restaran I see big time towkay;
Construction magnet. Garmen con-trik stick to him
Hai, taikor, I say, this my fren the Malaysian poet lori ate
Towkay drop his fishbaw in his sup. Look at me like I break out of tanjong rambutan.
You blardifoo, he tell me. Youtingwaat? I stoopid ah?
Hundred lori oso got. How many eat poet ah? Zee-ro lah.
Youting if lori eat poet I not save money?
Few is expensive, poet is cheap.
Feed lori few forwaat?
If lori eat your fren spit him out orledi
An he take his fishbaw and put it in he mouth.
In de warung the YB was haffing his tea,
I mus be drim because YB only go warung wid crowd of report-ah
Show dat him real orang rakyat lah
I say selamat datang yang behormat, this is my fren the Malaysian poet lori ate.
He look shock.
Say that kennot, he tell me.
If people dey ting dat in Malaysia lori poet eat
Tourist dey will not come,
Investor dey will not come,
Preeety Mongolian girl dey will not come,
It will be bad for business.
Be careful ah, tok like dat sedition ah
Take you to lokap, trow away key.
In the food court I see dis holee fler, wise ole bird lah
He say brudder why you look so sad waat?
I point to the fler I’m wid, I tell him people donch unnerstan
When I say my fren is the Malaysian poet lori ate.
He nod his hed slow-ley, says there is no mis-tree
He oso unnerstan everyting
Lori are like people, kennot live on food oni
Lori eat poet because
Deesel may be few for the bod-dee
But poets are few for der soul.