Sunday, June 30, 2013

English Needs More Words -- E.

So you're learning to speak a new language.  You can get by learning plenty of basic vocabulary simply by translating a word from English.  In Malay, for example:  How do you say "cat" in Malay?  Kucing.  Great, thanks.  What about "sky"?  Langit.  And "durian"?  Durian.  Got it.

If a Malaysian wanted to learn English words, the reverse process could work.  Hai, apa nama 'kucing' dalam Bahasa Inggeris? Cat.  Bagaimana dengan 'langit'?  Sky.  'Durian'?  Obviously.

Picture of Durian Gray
But Malay and English words don't match up one-to-one every time, of course.  And sometimes -- this the part I really love -- you run into Malay words that have really have no English equivalent.

Okay.  Pretend you're married, right?  And your spouse has a sister.  And your spouse's sister is married.  That man -- the husband of the sister of your spouse -- what do you call him?  Besides his name, I mean.  I used to enjoy debating this.  I'd always say, that's my brother-in-law.  Others would argue, no, it's your sister-in-law's husband.  (And without fail somebody would always be thoughtful enough to point out, "who even cares?")

Here's where we could borrow a word from the Malay lexicon: biras.  It means -- well, it means the relation that I described just now.  How have English speakers managed so long without something like it?

Here's another.  My Malay teacher recently asked me what the English word for ngilu is.  Ngilu, I'm told, is the sensation you get when you bite into a lime, or hear a sharp knife scraping bamboo.  Neither of those are common experiences for me, but I'm guessing it's similar to biting into a Popsicle, or more famously, listening to this:

Can you feel the ngilu right now?
But what's it called?  That nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling, right?  I don't know of a single English word that describes this awful experience.  But the Malay-speaking world has come prepared.

There are others.  In particular, I have noticed an abundance of Malay words related to body posture and gesturing.  Perhaps I will list some another time.  For now, you can practice using these two useful Malay words at home.

Or better yet, just keep a healthy distance from Popsicles and chalkboards.


  1. Ha, that's funny. I thought "spackle" and "sheetrock" weren't real English words when I moved to America! But "spackle", "sheetrock" and "durian" are in most English dictionaries. In fact, you can buy frozen Thai durian in the Chinese supermarkets here in California and elsewhere in the US and UK - and many other exotic fruits I'd never seen before. Only a couple of years ago I discovered "dragon fruit" in our local grocery store - it's pink on the outside and white with black specks on the inside!

    1. Wow, I think good Asian groceries are fewer and farther between in the Eastern U.S., at least in the areas where I've lived. I'm impressed that dragon fruit is in California! I had never heard of it before coming to Malaysia.

  2. Fantastic update! Love it. Sublime.