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Baba Malay


Also known as Peranakan Malay, Nonya Malay or Straits Chinese Malay. Baba Malay is a patois of colloquial Malay and Hokkien spoken by the descendents of Chinese who settled in the Straits settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore in the 17th to 19th centuries. Its zenith may be approximately dated as the period from 1880 to 1950, when there were Baba newspapers and periodicals, and Chinese and Western novels were translated into Baba Malay.

Baba Malay is a linguistic distinct entity and may be considered a dialect of Johor-Riau Malay (the language of the Malacca Sultans), but there has never existed a standardised form of the language. There is variation between the forms spoken in Malacca and Singapore, between families, and even between individuals. The Baba Malay spoken in Penang is closer to Hokkien than it is to Malay; that spoken in Malacca is considered the purest; and that spoken in Singapore is considered the most vulgar. Baba Malay is a spectrum or a continuum, with the women (called 'nonyas' and who were confined to the home) speaking the most extreme form, and the men (called 'babas' who engaged in business with the outside world) speaking a form mid-way between that spoken by the nonyas and Standard Malay.

Baba Malay is a dying language. In Singapore, government regulations introduced in 1980, stipulating that all ethnic Chinese must learn Mandarin as their second language, has all but killed the language. Most Peranakan families in Singapore now speak English at home, and most of the Singapore Peranakan who speak Baba Malay as their first language are now in their fifties or older. In Malaysia, the compulsory teaching of Standard Malay in schools has meant that Peranakans in Malacca now speak a Malay that has lost many of its distinctive characteristics. The Peranakans themselves see their language as defective or impure: they call it 'bazaar Malay' or even 'broken Malay'. Only in the past two decades have efforts been made to preserve the language. I was brought up speaking English at home but learnt Baba Malay from my mother and grandmother.

The version of Baba Malay I present here is the Singapore dialect used by own family. My aim is to give a flavour of the language and I do not aim to be comprehensive. The lists give examples only and are not exhaustive.


Many modern Baba Malay publications will use the modern spellings, but I have chosen to use a slightly amended version of the 1904 spelling standard (the rules laid down by a committee appointed by the Federated Malay States Government), because it more closely represents the actual pronunciation of Baba Malay. The disadvantage of my decision is that I exaggerate the differences between Standard Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) and Baba Malay. The reform of Standard Malay spelling that began in 1959 was politically motivated, with the aim of achieving unity with Indonesian Malay (Bahasa Indonesia). This had the unfortunate effect of making the written language inconsistent with the spoken language.

      English equivalent                 International Phonetic Alphabet
  a   father                              a:
  e   father                              ə
  é   late (called e pepet, or taling)    e:
  i   fee                                 i:
  o   post                                o:
  u   loot                                u:

The accent (or pepet) on taling is always omitted except in textbooks and dictionaries, and you will never see it written even on road signs or newspapers: it is considered obvious. I use it here for the benefit of non-native Malay speakers. In older Baba Malay writings, e (the schwa vowel) is frequently omitted (so 'skali' instead of 'sekali'). In spoken Standard Malay, a is pronounced like ago or data (IPA ə) when it occurs at the end of a word. This is not a feature of Baba Malay.

The consonants ch b d f g h j l m n r s sh w y are like English.

The letters k, p and t are unaspirated.

  k like scold, not like cold
  p like spot, not like pot
  t like stop, not like top

Aspirated k is spelled kh and pronounced like keep, aspirated p is spelled ph and pronounced like peep. Final k is in fact a glottal stop (IPA ʔ).

There are three phonemes used in Standard Malay to transliterate words of Arabic origin:

                                                  International Phonetic Alphabet
  th like thick or thin, not like this or that     θ
  f  like father                                   f
  z  like adze                                     dz

However, in spoken Malay, th often becomes s and f becomes p.

The apostrophe ' is used to indicate a glottal stop (IPA ʔ) when it occurs in the middle of words. An example from English is the tt in little when spoken in the Cockney dialect. I use the n suffix of IPA to indicate the nasalisation of vowels that is common in Hokkien.

Baba Malay has two endings (-air and -ay) that do not appear in Standard Malay. The pronunciation is simlar to two English diphthongs except they are pure vowels. I retain use these spellings for historical reasons:

                                  International Phonetic Alphabet
  air similar to air or pair        ɛ:
  ay similar pay or lay             e:

Annoyingly, due to the 1970's reforms, Standard Malay now uses c to mean ch (like child) and sy to mean sh (like shoot). So 'sharikat' is now spelled 'syarikat', and 'chinta' is now spelled 'cinta' even though there has been no change in pronunciation.

As a rule stress is on the penultimate syllable.

Spelling differences

As I mentioned before, some of the differences between Baba Malay and Standard Malay are only due to spelling reform, and the pronunciation is actually identical. In all cases, the Baba Malay spelling represents the way the word is actually pronounced by speakers of Baba Malay and of Standard Malay, but due to spelling reform, the written word has now changed so as to bring it into conformity with Indonesian Malay and no longer represents the pronunciation of native Malay speakers. Before the spelling reforms, these words were spelled identically in both languages:

  Standard Malay  Baba Malay   meaning
  air             ayér         water
  encik           inchék       mister, sir
  engkau          angkau       you (inf.)
  itik            iték         duck (the animal)
  balik           balék        to return
  kuih            kuéh         cake or pastry
  lebih           lebéh        more
  nasib           naséb        fate        
  bakul           bakol        basket
  daun            daon         leaf
  pukul           pukol        to hit
  telur           telor        egg
  tidur           tidor        to sleep


Standard Malay has a wealth of pronouns reflecting a variety of social situations and the relative status of the speakers. Baba Malay uses a mixture of Hokkien pronouns and colloquial Malay pronouns, and this is probably the most immediate difference between the two languages.

                               Baba Malay    Standard Malay
  First person singular        gua 我          aku (inf.)
                                             saya (pol.)
  Second person singular       lu 汝           kamu (inf.)
                                             engkau (inf.)
                                             awak (inf.)
                                             anda (pol.)
                                             saudara (pol.)

  Third person singular        dia           dia

  First person plural          kita          kita
  (Includes the person you are speaking to)

  First person plural          kita          kami
  (Excludes the person you are speaking to)

  Second person plural         lu orang      awak semua (inf.)
                                             anda (pol.)

  Third person plural          dia orang/    dia orang (inf.)
                               diorang/      meréka (pol.)


Baba Malay makes heavy use of colloquial forms and the more polite forms found in Standard Malay will be incomprehensible to most Peranakans. The following abbreviated forms are common to both Baba Malay and native speakers of Bahasa Melayu.

  Standard Malay     abbreviated         meaning
  dekat              kat                 near; at
  ini                ni                  this
  mahu               mau/mo              to want
  sedikit            sikit               little (adj.)
  tahu               tau                 to know
  tidak              tak                 not

Baba Malay is strewn with colloquialism, some of which do not appear in standard dictionaries, but which are readily recognisable to native Malay speakers in Peninsular Malaysia.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay          meaning
  buang air besar    bérak               defaecate
  buang air kecil    kenching            urinate
  kecil              kechik              small
  isteri             bini                wife
  lihat              nampak              see
  sehingga           sampay              until
  suami              laki                husband
  tandas             jamban              toilet

And some abbreviations are unique to Baba Malay, but are not consistently used. These abbreviations only appear in conversation but not in writing:

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  apa macam?         amcham?            how?
  apa fasal?         apasair?           For what reason?
  bawa pergi         buakpi             take to
  buat apa?          buatpa?            Why do that?
  pergi              pi                 to go
  punya              nya/mya            (indicates the genitive case)
  tidak ada          takda/ta'a         do not have
  tidak boleh        takbleh/takleh     cannot
  tidak usah         toksah             do not; no need

Silent H

The letter 'h' occuring at the beginning, end, or in the middle of a word is frequently omitted.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  hantar             antair             send (v.)
  hantu              antu               ghost
  hari               ari                day
  hidong             idong              nose
  hitam              itam               black (adj.)
  hujan              ujan               rain

Words are often run together: so dua hari (two days) becomes duari.

The tendency to omit 'h' ocurring in the middle of words is common to both colloquial and Baba Malay.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  baharu             baru               new
  pelahan            pelan              slow
  merdehéka          merdéka            freedom
  sehaja             saja               only
  tahun              taon               year

-K ending

Words that end with a vowel in Standard Malay are sometimes given a -k ending in Baba Malay.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  bali               balék              to return
  bawa               bawak/buak         to carry
  biji               bijik              seed
  cari               charék             to search
  nasi               nasik              rice
  tahi               taik               excrement

-AY ending

The Malay terminal diphthong ai becomes ay in Baba Malay.
  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  cerai              cheray             crowded
  pandai             panday             clever
  sampai             sampay             arrive

-AIR ending

Words ending -al, -ar or -as are pronounced -air in Baba Malay. This is used inconsistently and is considered a particularly feminine traît. There are some words which become indistinguishable in Baba Malay, except when used in context.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  fasal              pasair             regarding
  kapal              kapair             ship (n.)
  keluar             kulair             go out
  keras              kerair             hard
  lapar              lapair             hungry
  lepas              lepair             since
  panas              panair             hot
  pasar              pasair             market (n.)
  seluar             sulair             trousers, pants

-O ending

Words ending -au change to -o in Baba Malay.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  hijau              ijo                green (adj.)
  kacau              kacho              to disturb
  limau              lémo               lemon; lime*
  pisau              piso               knife
*limau originally referred to any citrus fruit (see Conservation of obsolescent words)

Other pronunciation differences

There are differences in the pronunciation of many common words that unfortunately defy classification:

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  ambil              amek               to take
  banyak             manyak             plenty
  bilik              milék              room
  belum              bulom              not yet
  kerja              kréja              work
  mesti              misti              must
  minta              mintak             to ask
  muda               munda              young
  muka               mungka             face (n.)
  panggil            panggay            to call
  perempuan          perompuan          woman
  pergi              pigi/pi            to go
  pijak              pinjak             to step on
  punya              mya                (indicator of genitive case)
  sedawa             sendawa            belch
  sekali             sair               very
  sekali             sekali             once; suddenly
  sembilang          semilang           striped catfish (Plotosus lineatus)
  semua              suma               all
  sendiri            seniri             self (used to form the reflexive pronouns)
  sepit              sumpek             chopsticks*
  sunti              sunting            knobs on ginger

* It is strange that Baba Malay should use a Malay word in preference to a Chinese word for this quintessentially Chinese utensil.

Different meanings

There are some words that will trip up a native Malay speaker listening to a Baba Malay speaker. In particular, sekarang in Standard Malay means 'now', but in Baba Malay it means 'soon'.

Hokkien words

Baba Malay strips the tones from the Hokkien words that it borrows. Many Hokkien words are used interchangeably with their Malay synonyms. My grandmother will say Chinchai (Hok. for 'anything' or 'whatever') then use the word sebarang (Mal.) in her next sentence to mean exactly the same thing.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay          meaning
  bakhil             kiam siap 減嗇       stingy, miserly
  candu              aphien 鴉片          opium
  daun ketumbar      hian sui 芫荽        coriander leaves
  gala               tékko 竹杆             bamboo pole 
  hari lahir         sen jit 生日         birthday
  jemput             chian 請             invite (to a feast)
  meja               tok 桌              table
  pingan baja        pingan kauntit      steel dish
  sayur asin         kiamchai 鹹菜        salted mustard leaves
  sulah/gondol       botak 無髮           bald
  sebarang           chinchai            whatever

The most frequently used Hokkien words are of course the pronouns (described above). The remainder are frequently nouns to describe things of Chinese origin, or abstract concepts peculiar to Chinese culture and for which no equivalent Malay word exists.

  Hokkien         Baba Malay        meaning
  荷包               o pau             knitted purse tied to a belt*
  不孝               put hau           unfilial
  蓋盅               kamchéng          ornamented covered ceramic pot

* Now more commonly encountered as the name for a dish of bean curd skins stuffed with chopped cucumber and pork

There are a number of Chinese words that have entered Standard Malay.

  Standard Malay      Chinese          meaning
  popiah              薄餠                spring roll (Hokkien)
  cawan               茶碗                tea bowl, small bowl (Cantonese)
  kway teow           粿條                flat rice noodles (Hokkien)
  lobak               蘿蔔                chinese radish (Hokkien)
  mi                  麵                  noodles (Hokkien)
  mihun               米粉                rice vermicelli
  tauhu               豆腐                soft bean curd
  taukwa              豆乾                pressed bean curd

The Chinese expression 井底之蛙 'Frog at the bottom of a well', which means 'ignoramus' is translated to Malay, 'kodok dalam sekol'.

Days of the week

Baba Malay numbers the days of the week rather than using their Arabic names as in Standard Malay. So literally, 'Monday' is 'Day One' and 'Tuesday' is 'Day Two', etc. and 'Sunday' is 'Day Week' (cf. Chinese 星期一, 星期二, etc. and 星期天)

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  Hari Isnin         Ari satu           Monday
  Hari Selasa        Ari dua            Tuesday
  Hari Rabu          Ari tiga           Wednesday
  Hari Khamis        Ari empat          Thursday
  Hari Jumaat        Ari lima           Friday
  Hari Sabtu         Ari enam           Saturday
  Hari Ahad          Ari minggu         Sunday

Conservation of obsolescent words

Modern Standard Malay has borrowed (and continues to borrow) a great number of words from English and Arabic even where there already exists a word in Malay for the same thing. Baba Malay speakers have a tendency to use the older Malay forms.

  Standard Malay     Baba Malay         meaning
  ais                ayér batu          ice (n.)
  arnab              kuching belanda    rabbit
  orén               lémo               orange
  pesawat            kapair terbang     aeroplane
  polis              mata-mata          police

Lémo originally referred to any citrus fruit: so lémo manis is an orange; lémo nipis, lémo kasturi and lémo purut are different varieties of limes. Kapair terbang literally means 'flying ship'. Kuching belanda literally means 'Dutch cat'!

Unknown etymology

There are some words in Baba Malay that are simply of unknown provenance, with no Malay or Hokkien equivalents:

  Baba Malay             meaning
  bedenting              top class

Chinese syntax

The syntax of Baba Malay is more closely related to Chinese than to Malay.

If you want to say "his book". Chinese would say 他的書 and Baba Malay would likewaise say 'Dia mya buku' or 'Dia punya buku'; Standard Malay would say 'Buku dia' and eschews 'punya' as vulgar and unnecessary.

Construction of the passive

Verbs are made passive by use of the words kasi or kena, which correspond closely to modern Chinese 給 and 被 respectively. So:-

  • English: The meat was eated by the dog
  • Chinese: 肉被狗吃
  • Standard Malay: Daging dimakan anjing
  • Baba Malay: Daging kena anjing makan/Daging kasi anjing makan
  • English: I was swindled by him
  • Chinese: 我被他騙
  • Baba Malay: Gua kena dia tipu
Kasi means 'to give', and kena means 'to suffer'. Therefore, kena implies that some harm has been done. In the first example given above, either word is correct, however, in the second example, kena is more appropriate (although kasi is not wrong). 'Daging kasi anjing makan' implies that it was intended that the meat was eaten by the dog, whereas 'daging kena anjing makan' implies that the meat was intended for some other purpose but that the dog got to it first.

PI to mean direction of travel

Baba Malay uses pi (abbreviated form of pigi 'to go') in preferences to Standard Malay ke. 'He goes to the market' in Standard Malay is Dia ke pasar, but Baba Malay says Dia pi pasair.


  cf. confer (Latin) compare
  etc.etera (Latin)

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