Just where did this lah come from and how did it creep into the English spoken by Malaysians? It is inevitable that Malaysians, living in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural setting will inter-borrow phrases and expressions from one language to another. Thus the very unique lah, used only in this part of the world (Malaysia and Singapore), could have originated from Malay, or any of the local dialects or languages. Only a Malaysian born and bred in this country will know how to use the lah. A Malaysian who has been away for a while can slip back into using it quite comfortably but a Malaysian who has been away for a long time, say, seven to ten years, with little contact with fellow Malaysians, may find great difficulty as to exactly when to pepper his speech with lah. Just going lah, lah, lah every first or third word doesn't quite qualify.
Malaysians will be able to sniff you out in a second and tell that somehow, sorry-lah, you just don't make the grade. For example, try saying the following sentence aloud: "I-lah tell you-lah how-lah many times-lah but-lah you never-lah listen." Any true blue-blooded Malaysian would cringe and tell straight-away that any person who speaks like that is an impostor. Foreigners newly arrived in this country will find it quite baffling at first. Sure, these Malaysians are speaking English but what on earth is that strange musical note that they place at the end of their sentences every so often?? It does take some getting used to.
An article in the Malaysian Trade Quarterly (Jan-March 1995) states that many foreigners have the mistaken notion that adding a lah to the end of every sentence lets them get away with a fairly good impression of a Malaysian accent. This is hardly the case. The use of lah is, in fact, quite an art for those who were not born into the language. Here are a few sophisticated variations of its use: "No fun-lah, you!" (You're really no fun at all!) "You see-lah, like that also you cannot do!" (Can't you even do such a simple thing?)
What are the functions of the lah? What are the rules regarding its usage? How would you teach your orang puteh friend or spouse how to use the lah if he demands desperately for some help along the way ? Well, I'm afraid one can't learn it formally. Like sambal belacan or cincalok, it's an acquired taste. You've got to be around for sometime, and gradually you'll acquire a taste for it.
If you think the lah is baffling enough as it is, Malaysians have more tail words up their sleeves or in this case, off their tongues. A great favorite is the 'aaa', which has an entire repertoire of meanings, depending on how it is used. A simple 'thank you' to a Malaysian may sound too curt and most Malaysians, in informal settings, would prefer to say 'thank you-aaa' as it sounds softer and friendlier. A 'Yes lah' and a 'Yes-aaa' response are also subtly different in meanings.
If someone were to ask you a question such as, "Are you coming along?", a 'Yes-aaa' response would be inappropriate whereas a 'Yes-lah' response would be acceptable. If your friend informed you that he's bought a brand new car, then a "Yes-aaa" response would be fine, meaning "Oh really?" The "yes-aaa" could cover a whole gamut of responses ranging from being a question to a reply dripping in sarcasm depending on the intonation. Another popular tail word is one, as in, "I don't know what to say-lah. This kind of things very hard to say one." or "I'm so fed-up one, you know. I explain how many times in simple English, still cannot get through one."
Sometimes if you use one once too often, it can backfire. Your listener may find it hard to resist and may pun on your one. For example: Lady: "I don't want one, but he wants so what can I do?" Friend: "You don't want one aaa, but you want two, yes or not?" Yet another tail word is man, as in "I say, man. Long time no see" or "I donno, man." This is an interesting adaptation from American culture rather than an influence of the mother tongues.
Malaysians can add man to any sentence arbitrarily and even to exclamations such as "Wah man! Solid!" To confuse things further, sometimes, Malaysians don't use single but double tail words at the end of a sentence, for example, "He's so bodoh (stupid) one lah!" or "Why your dressing so Ah Beng one-aaa?" And sometimes tail words do not appear at the end of sentences but somewhere in the middle, such as in sentences where the subject is delayed, for example: "So action one man he!" or "Terror one lah she!"
Malaysians generally speak two types of English -- proper English particularly in business and professional settings, and Malaysian English with its charming and unique expressions. Just as the French have their oo-la-la, the Italians their Mama-mia, and the English, endearing expressions like "By Jove" or "Well, jolly good", may our Malaysian lah live a long and healthy life! Say yes-lah to that! -By Lee Su Kim