SinGweesh on Wednesday: Leh
by Gwee Li Sui
STOP teaching angmos that “lah” is the easiest Singlish word to use liao! It isn’t even the easiest Singlish end-particle since its meaning changes according to its tone of use. If you anyhowly “lah”, you’ll sound like a cuckoo jiao. (Maybe that’s the point.) “Lah”, “ha”, and “hor” belong to a class of complex particles that dun have satu core meaning and are understood more through a mix of context and tone.
The easy particles are the rest: “leh”, “lor”, “wor”, “liao”, “mah”, “meh”, whatever. “Leh” is easy firstly because it taps into a feature of life in our patriarchal society called tnehing. “Tneh” here is pronounced “tnare” and not like “teh”, as in tea. “Tneh” is a verb from The Ah Beng Big Book of Love that describes how his chickadee Ah Lian resorts to unintelligible sounds to manipulate him and get her way. Yes, it’s a kind of manja (not ganja), but the sounds aren’t cute. They’re more often damn sian to hear.
“Leh” is a word that tnehs, that makes a sentence tneh. It whines, pleads, grovels, quibbles; it doesn’t exactly argue a case. In fact, when you use, say, “Panchan leh”, “panchan” meaning “give me a chance”, you disrupt good arguments. “Leh” appeals to some subconscious link between friends, relatives, lovers, or – at the most basic – humans. But it isn’t gendered like “tneh” is; it isn’t used on or by a perceived “weaker” sex. It’s definitely the opposite of “ha”, which is hostile and confrontational: “leh” just wants pity or kindness.
The commonly used “Dun liddat leh” means “Don’t treat me like this” where “leh” functions like “please” or “come on”. When you’re quibbling, you say “This nasi lemak cannot make it leh” to register your grouse. “Leh” softens a request or an objection and does so in at least three ways. Unlike complex end-particles, “leh” differentiates by a change not in tone but in length or volume only! Here’s also why “leh” is easy:
- The normal “leh” is mouthed like the rest of a sentence. So you say “Do for me leh” or “You quite stupid leh” while feeling a bit paiseh that you’re saying it.
- The long “leh” goes “leeeeh” to make sure that your point is heard in case your hearer is a bit slow from low EQ. This form is used especially to manja.
- The loud “leh” – or “LEH” – is a buay song command to be taken seriously. It screams “You insensitive or what?” and implies feeling hurt.
So easy, right? To give in to a “leh” request or grouse, just reply “OK lah” or “OK lor”, and you hosay liao! But, to bo hiew, you can act blur or you can say “Sorry lah” or “Cannot lah” or – lagi best – “Go and die lah!”, “Siam lah!”, “Siow ah!”, or any one of Singlish’s colourful expletives. Of course, talk logic is an option too, but you’ll soon learn that harshness remains the most kilat. You see, it’s one thing to have to turn someone down; it involves an entire psychological battle to repel an onslaught of tnehing.
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