The Art In Language

Language is an art that sometimes has very little to do with accuracy.

We used to speak beautifully. Yes, we….the Malays.

We have in our possessions artful and beautiful idioms, pantuns, poetries, phrases. Most of them are stunningly accurate in its aesthetic elements. But the younger generation – myself included (though some might beg to differ that I am no longer what we can call ‘young’) – has forgotten. They forgot how to speak prettily, how to talk beautifully, how to disagree courteously, how to agree wittily, how to be be bland pointedly, how to deadpan hilariously…

We’ve just lost the art.

We lost the art, but we only call it ‘modern talking’. But the truth is, we are simply lacking in oratory skills.

We’ve lost the ability to know -almost instinctively- when to use repetition, when to include an abrupt word, when to use ‘peribahasa’, when to include a ‘pantun’, and most importantly, when to use endearments.

Seriously, we used to speak better.

Much better.

Much, much, much better.

Alas, we find the younger generation scoff at these skills as ‘skema conversation’ or ‘nerdy talk’. And thus, not many people speak beautifully anymore, myself included. We are too caught up with trying to sound cool, trying to be funny and hilarious without any real purpose except to impress others, and we do all that with an astounding lack of finesse!

In trying to force laughter out of others, we end up sounding rude and coarse with cussing language after every other word. It began with wanting to sound cool (forcing our mouths to speak in a way that we will never use to speak to our own parents, our younger nephews and nieces or any other innocent children), and then eventually it became a habit so deeply entrenched until it binds you into a compulsion.


MRSM was good for many, many things!

EXCEPT my language.

In MRSM I learned words I have never come across in my entire 15 years of living at that time. Bear in mind that I was in an all-girls school the entire time before Langkawi. Yes, some may accuse us of being ‘mengada-ngada or gedik’ but the fact is we always talked NICELY to each other. We were funny without having to call others names. We were cool without having to insert words like ‘siot’ ‘gila babi’, ‘poyo’. There were sooo many NEW words that I had never used before I got into MRSM.

Basically, in MRSM, my vocab expanded…and not in a good way. I think it must be a ‘boarding school’ thing. Because I didn’t hear those words in sekolah harian, ever! Looking back, I remember how my Kak Long always seemed to be bringing new style of talking and new words every time she came back from MRSM Taiping for school breaks. I did wonder what was going on at that time.

When I myself got into MRSM Langkawi, I understood perfectly what went on. You found yourself using all these new words because others around you who you went to class with, ate with, slept with, prayed with, played with were using them too.

Even though it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, we started saying things like “lawa sial” (why sial?) when we used to just say “lawa nyaa”. The word ‘gila’ seemed to be the most natural way of ending every one of your sentence.

And things that used to be puzzling became funny even though you had no idea why. Things like calling others ‘skema’ seemed funny (when it’s just deuced ridiculous because back in Asma, being clever and diligent was something everyone aspired to be, myself included). Calling another boy ‘Tenuk’ -an animal I had never known existed before I got into Langkawi – just because you wanted to call him Tenuk (though he did have his own parents-given name), seemed to be the way to bond with others. They seemed to think that was funny….so gradually I started to think “well, maybe it’s funny but how is that funny?”.

It was a very confusing state of my life. But I adapated…


But now, I am 25 years old, for God’s sake. I am getting really weary of speaking like a kid who has never been properly schooled. I am tired….sincerely exhausted of sounding uncultured and unlettered.

Our prophet (s.a.w) too, was unlettered but when it comes to beautiful speaking, he was the very best at it! Still is!

It’s time we move on from that teenager silliness to adult sophistication.


It was a 4 year-old arab boy who taught me the inadequacy of my own language skills. Let’s call him Ammar.

I met this boy at AIC (my uni library). This boy sat next to his father who was doing his assignment. (I remembered thinking, what a sweet husband he is; willing to look after his child even when he was busy with his assignment). The father tried to get Ammar to settle down properly so that he could get on with his work. He let Ammar have his computer to play some random computer games with.

Ammar was so cute that I found myself unable to concentrate on my Basic Life Support notes. He wanted his father to pay attention to him and his games. Initially, his father indulged his son’s antics. Every time Ammar called him to look at what he was playing, the father would comply and turn around, smiled patiently and rubbed Ammar’s head affectionately and said something like “good boy, clever son “ (I am guessing here, since I don’t know arabic). And then he would continue on his reading, which in turn, made Ammar feel abandoned. So not a minute later, his son would call for his attention again and this went on repeatedly (making me quietly smile).

However, every time his son called for his attention, he would immediately stop reading and smiled and nodded and encouraged his son to continue playing; enough to make Ammar feel like he had been attended to. (I marvelled at his patience and was impressed with him and was jealous of whoever his wife might be.)

There was one time however, when he did not immediately respond to Ammar because at that time he was talking to his colleague about his assignment. Ammar called out for his attention but he seemed oblivious to Ammar’s whiningg and kept on talking about stuff in arabic.

Even though it looked like his father was determined to ignore him, Ammar did not give up at all. When calling for his father the normal way did not work, he began to soften his voice, put on that earnest expression and said to his father “Ya Habibi… habibi.” His father laughed and turned to face his son with a resigned expression and continued to smile at his son, patted his head and gave him encouraging words to continue playing!

The child did this repeatedly. Every time his father was a bit slow and sluggish in responding to his antics, he would call his father by the term ‘habibi’. And right enough, his father would pay him some attention.

Iklan Petronas pun tidak seindah ini.

Seriously, how many of us call our parents by the Malay version of ‘habibi’ when we are trying to get their attention? I usually just say, “Mak, angah nak cakap ni. Mak dengaq laaa.”

Of course, calling endearments to our parents may not be in the flavour of our culture, but there’s got to be a more artistic way of trying to get our parents to pay us attention when they are reluctant in giving it.

We used to be artistic in our spoken language….we just lost it!

The arabs are lucky! My own lecturer ( I don’t know how he knew this) said that the arabs are very artistic in their SPOKEN language. I mean, if you are artistic in your written language, that’s not much to be impressed about. Even the Malays, when they try hard enough, can come up with a few beautiful styles of expression which includes pantuns, peribahasa and seloka when they are writing.

But the arabs, even in their spoken language, are artistic! They have style!

We, the Malays, would feel weird if we say “Wahai ibuku tercinta, mari menjamah sarapan pagi bersama.” It’s just not us, anymore.

Not ANYMORE. (the word ‘anymore’ gives the implication that we used to be this way. Tak percaya? Pergi baca balik surat-surat cinta zaman mak ayah kita. Very poetic!)

But the arabs wouldn’t feel weird saying to their father “Ya habibi…”

The arabs possess superior poetic style because they are poetic even in their normal daily lives, and being this way in their daily lives do not make them feel weird, the way it would feel to us.

Simple example: look at the way they greet each other. Assalamualaikum….is translated into “May the peace and blessing of Allah be upon you.” When they say Assalamualaikum, they really do mean it that way. As Malays, we say Assalamualaikum and we know intellectually what it means, but we don’t feel it.

Can we find another race that greet each other in their own language in that way? For example, what does hello mean other than ‘hello’? It’s just a greeting word (a greeting sound, really)…what does hello really mean? For example, does hello when translated into another language can be said to mean “may the exuberance of your personality that beams on me today last for as long as you shall live.” or something equally poetic like that?

Look up Cambridge dictionary and you will see hello being defined as : exclamation, used when meeting or greeting someone.

That’s it!

And let’s look at ‘namaste’, the Indian form of greeting. Namaste is a Sanskrit word which was said to mean “I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me” (There are a few other similar meanings attributed to namaste, sila wikipedia) That too sounds poetic …but we all know that Sanskrit is a dead language; it is no longer used in practical daily lives (not a spoken language, not administrative language, not a language for transmission of knowledge). Unlike Assalamualaikum, which originates from a language still vibrantly alive and kicking! So the person saying namaste, does not feel its depth of meaning in the same way that an Arab who says Assalamulaikum does feel.

Namaste to Indians would feel in the same way Assalaualaikum to Malays would feel; they know the meaning of it intellectually but it doesn’t strike a chord within them.

That’s the beauty of the Arab language. Assalamualaikum, a simple word that in their own language literally means “May the peace and blessing of Allah be upon you,” is used to greet each other. And when they say Assalamualaikum, they feel it in a way that we, the Malays, don’t feel it when we say it.

It’s no wonder that the best form of greeting to each other is “assalamualaikum”. But somewhere along the way, we forgot. Try finding another form of greeting that gives such a wealth of meaning in its modern practical use that would rival ‘assalamualaikum’; you will never find it!

Just imagine us Malays greeting each other with “Semoga Kesejahteraan dan Keberkatan daripada Allah berada bersama kamu.” in our normal daily lives. It can be done, I suppose, but a lot of people would scoff the idea because : 1)Its not sunnah and therefore no reward can be gained from it. 2) it would be too long. We don’t have the special feature of the Arab language that one word can give the same wealth of meaning. 3)It would truly sound ‘purbakala’ and people would think that you have time-travelled from the Hang Tuah period.

I guess, we can never be as poetic and as romantic as the arabs in their daily lives. It’s the natural limitation of our language. And this is made worse by our refusal to include our peribahasa, our kata-kata hikmat and our pantuns in our conversation….simply regarded as ‘not cool’.

However, please don’t butcher further the state of our language by being deliberately rude and uncultured. The boarding-school-language should be outgrown by the time you have reached adulthood, at least. What you term as cool can be quite nauseating to others.

I am serious.

English Vs Malay

The truth is, our language is a very easy language to learn, relatively speaking. It doesn’t have much in the way of grammatical rules. In terms of the amount of  vocabulary that it has, there are many, many limitations.

Things that you say in English, will not be translated with the same good feelings intact, when it is spoken in Malay. We will be lost in translation.

When I had had to translate English articles into Malay in my childhood English training, it was pure unadulterated torture! I couldn’t seem to find good enough words in Malay to give the article the sophistication it deserved. I used to despair the fact that by translating a certain English article into Malay, I had inflict injustice to its original author. Menzalimi penulis asal artikel English tersebut. The guilty feelings still haunt me to this day, hahha.

A good language should be accurate. For example, they would have many words to describe the same feeling when the degree of that feeling is different. For example, love, affection, tenderness, fondness, like, regards…they are all the many different levels of love that you can feel to another person. Affection doesn’t equal love, although they can be (very) roughly translated as ‘sayang’.

An excellent language will also give different words to differentiate between the love that one would feel for parents, the love one would feel for siblings, and the love one would feel for husbands. Bukan semuanya kita main harung dengan perkataan ‘sayang’. Because loving our parents do not feel the same as loving our husbands (Well, I am making an intellectual guess here, since I don’t have any experience, myself, lol).

So janganlah ada ibu-ibu yang tanya “Ali sayang mak lebih ke, sayang isteri kamu lebih?” Betapa senangnya Ali nak jawab jika bahasa kita awal-awal lagi dah bagi perkataan yang berbeza untuk menggambarkan perasaan sayang kepada orang yang berlainan.


In my experience, English offers a wider range of options and has a richer nuance in its language usage compared to Malay.

Furthermore, it doesn’t sound weird when English-speakers use their common expressions. They use a lot of idioms even in their normal lives. And the ‘culture’ of their language gives you a lot of opportunity for wittiness; something that I can never quite achieve in my own mother tongue without sounding ‘purbakala’.

But no language can beat Arabic. The Arabic language is the most precise of all languages. Most amazingly, with arabic, the reader of that language will know exactly of the real intention and intonation of a particular sentence.

For example, the sentence “You foolish girl!” if said in a different way would give you different feelings…but reading it alone would make it almost impossible for the reader to know whether this is serious, a joke, or a form of endearment etc etc.

In arabic language, different words/style (that gives the same meaning) would enable you to know exactly whether the person is admonishing, begging, simply stating, cajoling, etc etc.

Such wealth of nuances!

It’s a shame if we continue to be utterly ignorant of the beauty of the arabic as a language! Even worse, if we know about the superiority of the Arabic language but fail to appreciate it enough to even try to learn it. As a language lover, Arabic would be my ultimate joy to learn!

But since I am still severely handicapped in Arabic, I am determined to master the two languages that I already know something of. And by ‘master’, I mean speaking it beautifully, artfully, courteously….or at the very least, speaking it nicely.

Shame on me if I can’t do that.

Goodbye coolly rude language, hello linguistic beauty!

p/s: Insha Allah kalau tidak ada aral melintang (such as dipanggil kursus induksi terkejut-terkejut), saya akan turut serta dalam program KIBAR (kursus intensif bahasa arab) yang dikelolakan bermula pada 8 Jan-14 Jan 2011. Would really love to know how many NC sisters can I hope to find. Are there any of my acquaintances from Alor Star who would join that program. If anyone who is also from Kedah would like to join me, I would feel very much relieved as I am always paralyzed with anxiety at the thought of  having to travel alone. (I very rarely traveled alone in my entire life; When I did, it was always with someone I knew waiting at the other end. The journey that I took from Gosford to Sydney doesn’t count, by the way!)


Added (6/1/2011): I just got back from my SPA interview, and have settled the required application with MMC and KKM. Unfortunately, I found out that there were many things that I have to settle with before the call to induction. I am very sad to say that I will not be able to join KIBAR,after all. Pray for me, that one day….I will be able to learn arabic.

5 thoughts on “The Art In Language

  1. JamesD

    I can’t stop reading your posts.They’re so insightful,and very real…It’s like I’m hearing them as thought you are right in front of me.

    Keep up the good work.
    And I agree,bahasa pasar is horrible to listen/converse in!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s