Of irony and the Malay psyche

JUNE 6 — “Did you know,” a friend said to me, “There is no equivalent word in Bahasa Malaysia for ‘irony’?”

He’s right. Check the woefully-outdated Kamus Dewan (4th ed.) and it defines irony thus:

“Keadaan atau kejadian yg menunjukkan pertentangan atau kesan sebaliknya antara sesuatu yg dijangkakan dgn yg menjadi hakikatnya.” (A situation or event that shows the opposite or the opposite effect from the expected outcome)

So, in other words, if Bahasa speakers don’t get irony, we can blame Dewan Bahasa?

Another alien word would be “snarky” for which the only Bahasa equivalent is the colloquial term “kerek.”

I asked on Twitter how you would explain irony and snark to someone who knows only Bahasa.

The first (and funniest) answer was: “Bukan budaya kita (Not our culture)!”

The thing about irony and snark is that they can only be truly understood in the context of the language they come from. Then there’s explaining “dry” humour to a Bahasa-speaking person or British humour to anyone not British.

A friend attempted to explain snark to someone’s Bahasa-speaking mother and it went something like this:

Friend: You see, Andrew is snarky.

The mother: What does that mean?

Friend: He’s... like...sarcastic but not quite. I mean he says things that he doesn’t quite mean...

The mother: He’s a liar, then?

Friend: No, no.

He gave up.

What I’m getting at is that language both shapes and is shaped by the people it belongs to. Take for instance the word “love”, Bahasa has different nuances: “cinta”, “kasih”, “sayang”. All similar but not quite the same.

I think I finally understand why Malay comedy shows like the banal “Scenario” do so well. Within the context of the language as is, without the addition of bastardised English words (“irony” as “ironi” anyone?), the description of humour in Bahasa has a limited lexicon: lawak (jest) and jenaka (joke). This means that culturally humour was seen as something that had to be glaringly obvious, to the level of buffoonery.

What I find sad is the popular notion that Malays shouldn’t master English as it is the “language of the colonists.” A friend overheard Malays. who had mistakenly shown up at an English play, denouncing it as such; as though it made them less Malay to partake of English theatre.

The point I’m trying to make is that to truly understand a people, language is key. And to limit oneself to one language is to limit your world in your understanding of others.

I also take comfort that this column will not get me into trouble as likely most politicians will not understand it. And that previous sentence is a textbook example of snark or “kerek.”

You’re welcome.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


Please refrain from nicknames or comments of a racist, sexist, personal, vulgar or derogatory nature, or you may risk being blocked from commenting in our website. We encourage commenters to use their real names as their username. As comments are moderated, they may not appear immediately or even on the same day you posted them. We also reserve the right to delete off-topic comments