SinGweesh on Wednesday: Mah

Aug 24, 2016 11.00AM |

by Gwee Li Sui

“MAH” isn’t mother, and it isn’t short for mama or uncle in Tamil. When a Singlish speaker uses this word, he or she isn’t invoking his or her mother or uncle, OK. Just how goondu are you ha? “Mah” is rather yet another Singlish end-particle, but it’s quite an easy one – dun stress. You chut pattern by adding it to the end of a sentence, and it turns all that you’ve said into what ought to be obvious.

So, when someone asks why he or she no understand a word you’re spiaking – presuming you spiak Singlish – you exclaim “You jiak kentang one mah!” Which translates as “You kena influenced by angmo culture – isn’t it obvious?” (Did I just translate Singlish into Singlish? Neh mind.) Maybe the siow ting tong still won’t understand, but that’s not your problem lor. Or, when your friends ask why you won’t go thani with them until mamok, you say, twisting a lembek face, “I pumchek liao mah!” Which means? “I’m knackered – can’t you see?”

In fact, “mah” has to be pronounced right or people will be blur one. Dun go on abrupt high pitch: “Mah!” It should bear a long vowel sound that’s kept steady, like sheep baaing. This – with the right tone – can distinguish it from “ma”, for mother. You say it feeling irritated or bored to show how unimpressed you are with what should no need to say one lah. “Mah” works like a slap that sayangs, a gentle reminder to use one’s brain a bit more. So, when someone complains about kena fined jialat-jialat for overdue library books, you say “Walao, it’s liddat one mah!”

Unlike “lah” and “leh”, “mah” as end-particle doesn’t change its meaning with volume. You can say softly or loudly, but got no difference one. The two main types of “mah” are rather distinguished by their contexts:

  1. The innocent “mah” directly responds to a query or a statement. So, when it’s observed that you always study sibei hard, you announce “I kiasu chow mugger mah!” – which is corright.
  1. The sarcastic “mah” is said in indirect hostile response to what is said. For example, when asked by your lazy superior who only arrows work why you’re not busy, you say “You very smart one mah!”

And that really is all. The difference between the two “mahs” is a matter of degree, with the sarcastic “mah” more intense and fed-up than the innocent “mah”. In this light, it is shiok to note that the feeling of “mah” actually remains stable while the whole nature of an answer changes. When some cynic questions all the media excitement over Joseph Schooling, you begin with an innocent “He won Olympic gold medal mah!” But, when this joker goes on and on until you buay tahan him or her, you retort, “You can also win gold medal mah!”

See the difference? In “mah” is, therefore, an interesting feeling, a pekchekness or exasperation with communication that often grips the Singaporean. This is all part of our kancheong impatient culture quick to tembak and not necessarily to hear, think, or process info. So, short of always repeating ourselves, we’ve invented “mah” to establish clarity. It’s my understanding anyway. OK, in conclusion, shall we practise pronouncing “mah” right? Let’s go! Say this tongue-twister five times before you do anything else: “My mama is the makcik in the mama shop mah!”


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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