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#87 “Lah”

Posted August 6th, 2008 by Shaun · 31 Comments

After quite a long time away, Shaun’s back with a vengeance! In the vein of Peter’s Aiya! (#80) post comes another Asian colloquialism ““ known as the ‘Lah” particle.

This term ‘Lah” can most commonly be heard in South-East Asia, especially by (but not totally restricted to) Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians. Having said that, people in certain parts of China use ‘lah” a great deal, which includes those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is due in part to the emergence of Chinglish as a lingual force to be reckoned with. Unlike ‘Aiya”, which denotes frustration in some way, the term ‘Lah” itself has no meaning whatsoever. Used effectively, however, it simultaneously softens the force of an utterance and entices solidarity. Or more possibly, it is a term said subconsciously by reflex, used by those who just can’t help themselves ““ lah!

There are two possible theories to how the term ‘lah” became so prominent, especially with the South-East Asian crowd. Generally speaking, those in South-East Asian regions such as Singapore and Malaysia have reasonably strong English skills, but the problem is they often tend to mingle local Creole and regional dialects in with their English. Thus, the term ‘lah” among many other terms was born. The first theory relates back to the Chinese language ““ the character 啦 (La! ) is effectively a fusion between two other characters 了 (Le) & å•Š (as in the ‘Ah” part in ‘Aiya”). Usually in Chinese, the character了 (Le) indicates a past event having occurred, and the character å•Š (pronounced ‘Ah”) denotes surprise. When meshed together, the ubiquitous term ‘Lah” or 啦 (La! ) is formed!

The second theory to how ‘Lah” was coined is rooted in the Malay and Indonesian languages. The basic thought process here is that when adding the term ‘lah” to the end of a sentence (typically a verb or request) in Malay or Indonesian, it adds an extra layer of politeness to the request. This is done by softening the tone, particularly when regular usage of the verb may seem impolite in some circumstances. For example, to say ‘please” in Malay, one would say ‘Tolong”, but when saying it as ‘Tolonglah” it effectively becomes ‘pretty please”. (Well, not literally, but you get the point). Somehow, ‘lah” has seeped through the confines of that particular language, and through the rise in prominence of English in these countries as a ‘global language”, it has consequently seeped into South-East Asian dialects of English as well.

Basically, the gist behind using this wonderful particle is that after any sentence you tack the term ‘lah” on at the end. Confused? Well, it’s deceptively simple, really. Instead of saying: ‘I want to go to the library”, you should say ‘I want to go to the library LAH!” with extra slurring of the words together in the applicable accent to get the message across most effectively. Simple, isn’t it? Usually you can get away with tacking ‘Lah” onto any, and I mean ANY sentence ““ pretty much the more you say it, the more the locals will accept you as one of their own ““ lah! (Okay, okay, I’ll stop with that now, it does get somewhat annoying after a while!)

There are several other colloquialisms that go hand-in-hand with the term ‘lah”. Asians who use the ‘lah” particle will also be prone to subconsciously using seemingly gibberish terms such as ‘wan” ‘mah” ‘lor” ‘leh” ‘wat” & ‘meh” in conjunction with the almighty ‘lah” to emphasize one’s point. These particles are all influenced in some way by Asian dialects – usually various Chinese ones. They also possibly incorporate elements of local language and creoles ““ such as those shown above as possible explanations for the rise to prominence of the particle ‘lah”.

To those who do not believe there are those who actually speak like this, this author proposes you should head down to a place like Singapore and see these phrases in action for yourself. Singaporeans have essentially created their own language ““ Singlish, which is basically Singaporean-Creole English, influenced by both American and British English along with Malay, Tamil, and a variety of Chinese dialects including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka and Shanghainese. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? A foreigner should be able to comprehend what is being said to them. Just expect a whole lot of the aforementioned particles”¦ and of course when responding, remember to end each and every sentence with ‘lah”!

Just on an end note, try saying something like this (with deliberately exaggerated use of the local slang) to endear yourself to a native Singaporean”¦

‘Excuse me lah, can you help me wan? Okay loh, I need to go to this place mah, which way wan? Uh huh”¦ okay lah! That way very confusing leh. Meh, what to do, lah? Okay, take train then wat? Uh huh, so must walk too, wan? Wah kena, but very troublesome loh! What to do ah? No choice, no choice wan, okay can do lah! Thanks again lah! Buh-bye! (LAH!?! ““ optional)

In regular English, this pretty much means”¦

‘Excuse me, can you give me directions?” So just take the train then walk? Okay thanks!

Well, to be fair, us Asians have never been well-renown for our conciseness, brevity or succinctness, have we? (And yes, I am aware of the irony in gratuitously using 3 words to describe the same thing!)

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31 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Derek // Aug 6, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    You just made something that happened THIS VERY NIGHT make sense! Bless my boss, she puts up with my strange fumbling of the Chinese language, and even teases me about it a good bit. So good times.

    Anyway, to the story! Tonight, she was talking about something, and was using “lah” a lot. She doesn’t normally, so I just assumed she was talking about my ordering my food spicy. ‘cuz the terms she uses to order spicy stuff sound — to my untrained western ears — like “din din lah,” “dah lah,” etc. So I always connected lah w/ spicy!

    Suddenly, when she saw I was confused, she spurted out, “Yes, Derek, it all ends in lah!” I didn’t quite get it, but . . . now I do! What great timing.

  • 2 Peter // Aug 7, 2008 at 12:08 am

    thank sy

  • 3 sy88 // Aug 7, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Thanks Derek, hopefully I’ll get more positive feedback this time than I did for my last piece, which was quite negative, although I did end up drumming up some controversy regarding people’s hair colours without really trying =)

    Oh and before anyone who fluently speaks Malay or Indonesian comments, I’d like to say that I realise that “tolong” does literally mean “help” but, I’m pretty sure it can be used as “please” as well… at least I think it can.

  • 4 B.H. // Aug 7, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Hey guys, a Malaysian here. Yes, the use of “lah” is ubiquitous and is used by Asians regardless of ethnicity. However, I’m not so sure about people from Thailand, Vietnam, etc.

    I can however vouch that in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China it is commonly practiced.

    I wrote a piece on it (and Manglish) for my Stuff Malaysian People Like blog:

    Happy reading!


  • 5 pam // Aug 8, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Filipinos don’t use “lah.”

  • 6 Thi // Aug 14, 2008 at 10:51 am

    You wrote: “This is due in part to the emergence of Chinglish as a lingual force to be reckoned with. Unlike ‘Aiya”, which denotes frustration in some way, the term ‘Lah” itself has no meaning whatsoever.”

    You really don’t know your Cantonese. Lah is a typical word used in Cantonese for emphasis and has NOTHING to do with English.

  • 7 Elena // Aug 21, 2008 at 2:18 am

    sy88, “tolong” does seem to mean “please,” at least when my (Singaporean) mom uses it. For example, “Tolong ä½ , 去睡覺 lah.” (Please, go sleep)

  • 8 sy88 // Aug 21, 2008 at 7:16 am

    Ah ok nice to know Elena. My mum is Singaporean but since she doesn’t speak Malay she doesn’t use “Tolong” much. But then you have your lahs, wahs and lohs which she uses in abundance. Wow look at the time… 我现在要睡觉… lah!

    P.S. I just figured out how to type in Chinese on my computer, and am exploiting the feature for all it’s worth now!

  • 9 bernard // Aug 21, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Hey I know exactly where in Singapore that “Buy a drink lah” sign is located!!

    Anyway hor, I think your “Endear yourself to a Singaporean” example would probably confuse us lor. It’s like an angmoh trying very hard to speak singlish… eee!

  • 10 sy88 // Aug 23, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Yeah bernard, I exaggerated that example a bit, I suppose. You see, it’s funnier that way =)

    And I suppose I am an angmoh (sp?) of sorts. I am Asian, have a lot of my family in Singapore, but have lived in New Zealand and Australia most of my life. Last time I saw my Singaporean cousins they we like… “wah why dey speak like angmoh so much wan?” =)

  • 11 singaporean // Aug 26, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    yeah, your example is a little lacking in terms of how it uses ‘wan’… go ask your cousins how they would really say it. but kudos for appreciating that most singaporeans & malaysians have a fairly good command of the English language though. :)

  • 12 Aoede // Sep 8, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Also, Taiwan is not part of China. While I understand the reluctance of some to identify it as such, surely it’s no hardship to simply avoid referring to the issue at all.

  • 13 grace // Sep 11, 2008 at 2:55 am

    actually, your application of \lah\, \loh\ and a few others is wrong. i know you’re exaggerating the use for comic relief, but they’re simply not used like that. i’m singaporean, born and bred.

  • 14 ubunta // Sep 14, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Haha… good thing you made a blog about this. In Cantonese, there’s also:

    (1) You made a mistake ah.
    (2) Did you mix it up (gaw choh) jeh?
    (3) You crazy (che-ma-gun) gah?

  • 15 kim // Oct 23, 2008 at 12:33 am

    instead of ”lah”, we Filipinos say ”’nah”/”na”… its mostly used for bragging tbh…

    lol just sharing.

  • 16 Jon // Jan 3, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    DEFORMED MAN TOILET!!! ahahaha I was laughing for 5 minutes straight.

  • 17 prawninator // Feb 5, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Yeah, that entire block of text about using the terms “lah”, “wan” or whatnot, is very obviously exaggerated, but also very, VERY inaccurate.

    The words “lah”, “mah”, “meh” and several others have been around in both Cantonese AND Mandarin and used for emphasis, and although I’m not sure if you were being sarcastic about that little segment, has nothing to do with English whatsoever.

    And no, a sentence does not always end in “lah”, it’s usually a white person’s attempt at being Asian. ;)

    - Prawn

    ps: angmoh (or red hair, typically used to classify Caucasians) can also be spelled angmor :)

  • 18 languageman // Feb 15, 2009 at 2:53 am

    “meh” is not used in Mandarin whatsoever
    “lah” and “mah” are not used for emphasis in Mandarin or Cantonese

  • 19 Anonymous // Apr 7, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    I heard that in Malaysia Lah means “of course” or “no shit!” or “no duh!”
    And I am certain that Lor is what you say inorder to imply it is something you don’t want to do. Like “Im going to clean the bathroom, lor”

  • 20 SK // Apr 24, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Derek – I know it’s been a while since you left your comment but I think it’s important that you know “Lah” actually DOES mean spicy.

    “Dien Dien (Din Din) Lah” means slightly spicy while “Da Lah” means very spicy.

    “Lah” meaning spicy can be differentiated from the “Lah”, subject of this page, in that the former is pronounced short and curt with an emphasis on the “H” while the latter is usually slurred and dragged on with more of a “R” tone (‘Lar’) at the end.

  • 21 nerdy ah lian // Jun 27, 2009 at 12:43 am

    as a singaporean i must say that i was slightly stunned at the example you give. i didn’t really make sense… haha.

    singlish is a language on it’s own (i reckon) that has it’s own set of grammar rules and sentence structure.

    for those confused by certain singlish words, here is a dictionary! hurrah!

    and thanks for giving us singaporeans some love. it’s nice to be mentioned in a website that i love :D

  • 22 Lyn not LIN! // Jul 8, 2009 at 9:00 am

    My fiance says it is just a sound of endearment. everybody at my company calls me Ling-ah. Half my new family calls me that too. As an American, I have to push away the feeling of disrespect it gives me. American culture tells you to not fuck with the pronunciation of people’s names unless you want to start something.

  • 23 areya // Jul 28, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    If I may correct your seriously erroneous usage of the Singlish colloquialisms, because as a proponent of Singlish and a hardcore expert native speaker, it was pretty painful to read.

    Excuse me AH, can you help me OR NOT? Okay, I need to go to this place, which way AH? Uh huh”¦ okay lah! That way very confusing leh. EH, what to do, AH? Okay, take train then wat? Uh huh, so must walk ALSO, AH? Wah LAU, but very troublesome loh! What to do ah? No choice, no choice LEH, okay can do lah! Thanks again lah! Buh-bye! (LAH!?! ““ optional)

    Incidentally, you can’t just tag a “lah”to the end of every sentence – you only do so if you’re making a statement.

    There, now that sounds much better. Heh heh heh.

  • 24 Ic3nCok3 // Aug 27, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    I thought I’ll throw in my two/three cents too since other Singaporeans have provided theirs.

    Yep, “lah” can’t be put at the end of every sentence. Same for “loh”/”lor”. And while the standard of English in Singapore has improved tremendously, there are still some who have less than perfect grammar. So forming a Singlish sentence does not necessarily mean just taking a grammatically correct English sentence and throwing a “lah”, “loh”, “hor”, “mah” or “meh” behind it.

    “meh” is often used as a querying expression. For example the very often heard “Got meh?” which can be answered by “Got” or “Got lah” and dragging the “or” sound in “got”.

    Here’s my take, a Singaporean Chinese Hokkien way, on how that paragraph would turn out.

    I strung some of the words together and spelt them in the way a Singaporean would pronounce them.

    Excu me, can help me ornot? I need to go to this place. How to go har? Ok…..ok…..but that way very confusing leh. How ah? Ok, take train then? Uh huh. So must walk oso lah! Wah lau eh. Very troublesome leh! How ah? Bo pian izit? Ok lah. Tankyew hor! Bahbye, bahbye!

    Here’s a quick dictionary in case someone gets lost with some of the words.

    “Wah lau eh” is an exclamation that can carry a certain amount of displeasure or disgust. There is an vulgar variation of this which can be heard quite often too.

    “Bo pian” is hokkien for “no choice”.

  • 25 DUKE // Sep 8, 2009 at 9:22 pm


  • 26 meh // Sep 20, 2009 at 2:26 am

    man this post is a crackup!!!

  • 27 sandy // Sep 27, 2009 at 12:30 am

    haha thnx for acknowledging the fact that most malaysians and sinagaporeans have good english. we have simply customized it. XD

    your usage of the many Asian particles in that example was a bit wrong/marginally awkward, but pretty good try – considering you’re from a viet background!

    my hk friend always try to mimic me, but ends up making it way too tonal and strangely, somewhat tamil-sounding…

    this is actually pretty much what was going through my head – although i hardly ever use wah lau eh:
    “Excu me, can help me ornot? I need to go to this place. How to go har? Ok…..ok…..but that way very confusing leh. How ah? Ok, take train then? Uh huh. So must walk oso lah! Wah lau eh. Very troublesome leh! How ah? Bo pian izit? Ok lah. Tankyew hor! Bahbye, bahbye!”

    *MUST take note of “oso” = also. It is used really often!

  • 28 Jane // Dec 24, 2009 at 5:32 am

    HAHA! Malaysian here, lived in the US for a while, and now in Indonesia. :)

    I don’t use any of the lah/lor/meh/etc. unless i’m speaking in a chinese dialect. I’ve also been told that I speak like an angmoh. :)

    I’ve read somewhere that ‘meh’ is taken from cantonese, and the other lah/lor taken from Mandarin, Hokkien…

  • 29 Raz // Feb 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    @pam, yes, we don’t use “lah”.. we use “na”, especially in Taglish, like “Let’s go na!” or “Ok na?” or “Where are you na?”etc. It’s pretty much the same thing.

    Also, the use of “e/eh’…

  • 30 Lanee // Apr 13, 2011 at 5:28 am

    From China mainland and now in HK—-
    Actually Chinese whose mother tongues are mandarin seem to never use these modal particles here, but those speaking Cantonese tend to add lots of these words in their sentences ( or at least they have this kind of tones) …

  • 31 Anon. // Jul 25, 2011 at 1:31 am

    I know for sure that this happens in Cantonese, but those “gibberish terms” tend to provide a clear conclusion/purpose for many Cantonese sentences…

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