Malay Saturday (Part 1): Melatah

One thing I’ve always found interesting about Malay culture is the phenomenon known as melatah. Basically, when a Malay person is startled by something, maybe a loud noise, or if they trip or stumble, something breaks or suddenly falls, etc., then he or she (usually she, as this seems to be somewhat limited to Malay ladies, particularly older women) will often let loose a string of words.

Now, one might say this is hardly a uniquely Malay pehnomenon, as every culture has little things they say in such situations. I’ll usually say something when I stub my toe, and if I’m startled, while driving perhaps, I might—despite my change of religion—yell out ‘Jesus!’ or maybe even ‘Jesus Christ!’. Yes, old habits die hard. Indeed, the Malay phenomenon of melatah is often confined to one or two words: my wife will often say ‘Oh pocut!’ (I think that’s the spelling, but I don’t know what it means); her sister will often say ‘oh pantat!’ (which refers to a certain part of female anatomy, sorry if its use here offends anyone).

However, what does seem to be uniquely Malay about melatah is that some people are also known to let loose a whole string of words, sometimes for ten seconds or more. A very short example is something else my wife often says when startled: ‘Oh mak engkau jatuh!’—literally ‘Oh your mother fell!’ And that’s nothing compared to the flourishes that burst forth from the lips of some Malay ladies. What’s interesting is that once they start, they can’t stop; if the melatah phrase a lady usually utters is 15 seconds long, then every time she trips or stumbles or sees someone else do it or is startled by a loud noise, etc., she’ll yell out the entire thing.

One of Leen’s aunties is like that; maybe next time I’m at her place I’ll make a loud noise, just to see what she says.

18 thoughts on “Malay Saturday (Part 1): Melatah

  1. raggedyanne says:

    i’m not sure if it’s a habit, but i always say ‘oh bulat’ when i melatah. I wonder if i would progress to mencarut when i get older.

    Maybe it has something to do with upbringing too. Nunu’s babysitter is teaching her to say ‘opocot’ on cue.

  2. saida says:

    You are so funny! To see someone giving out the string of latah is quite entertaining actually.. :)

  3. Aida says:

    OMG, too funny. I am guilty of that too but in sarawak we use a different word from “melatah” which i cant dig out from my brain now. i wont even say it in swk language but direct translation = shit head.

  4. Nizar says:

    I heard a discussion about this phenomenon and the panels said it happens among the French too, but not as bad as the Malays. sometimes it can be worse, when u tease her, take off ur shirt, she will take off half dance, and she dances, sing and she sings… but i was told not to tell her to ‘mengucap’ or she’ll fall asleep for good, never tried that though… haven’t found the right guinea pig yet… i also hear ppl say ‘oh kulup’ (o foreskin) sometimes…

  5. Mardia says:

    I think I have seen somewhere, when they say to the melatah lady ‘megucap’ she says ‘cap cap cap cap…’ (Malay spelling)

    Some young people like to tease them as the lady will just go on and on on cue and she gets quite exhausted.

    I don’t know how it started, but I hope I will not melatah in my old age.

    mardia :-)

  6. Nizar says:

    Blame the excessive insulin hormon in the kidney?

  7. hahaha….oh my, you just cracked me up with that entry!

    i guess “oh my” in this case is sorta like a “melatah”…:P

  8. Jordan says:

    This is interesting. My big fat Malay-English dictionary says latah is…

    “…a nervous paroxysmal disease aroused by suggestion and often taking the form of hysterical mimicry; melatah, to suffer from latah; to get frantically excited; to get hysterical.”

  9. fayrahim says:

    Cool write up. I actually “melatah” according to what happends. Usually, this happends in the kitchen. If a fish nicely fryin in the wok pops – “meletup”, automatically I would say “Oh mak kao meletup” or if something breaks – “pecah” then I would say “Oh mak kao pecah” etc Sometimes its things I conjour up in my head..with the exception that this only happens when someone suprises me.

    My husband only say “Oh Pantat kao” and its not very flattery if its in a public place…the girls will look at him for no apparent reason..

  10. Nizar says:

    It’s due to ‘unreleased energy’… so I heard.

  11. Silencers says:

    I melatah too, sometimes. But of course, as you noticed, older Malay ladies have it best. One time, when my mom and all her sisters are gathering for a wedding, one of them dropped a knife onto the floor, and another one instantly blurted out

    “Oh mak kau mak kau pisau terbang, eh pisau jatuh!”

    The knife did actually bounce off the floor and almost injured one of them, by the way.

  12. Theta says:

    Funnily, the goody two-shoes and those innocent looking ladies are not spared from this phenomenon. My mom is one such person.
    By the by, taik palat = shit head in Sarawakian.

  13. Nizar says:

    Imagine if I do it in LRT…

    “Oh bulu ketiak!”

    I could picture ppl around me would put their hands down immediately!

    “O smelly armpit!”…

  14. Larry says:

    I’m re-reading Sir Frank Swettenham’s Malay Sketches (originally published in 1895 with subsequent reprintings). He has a section on latah. The last sentence in this section is, “I have somewhere read that individuals similarly affected are found amongst the Canadian lumbermen.”

  15. fahmy says:

    what makes malay people melatah?why us?what is the biology behind melatah?

  16. Tajul_zul92 says:

    I think if someone ‘melatah’, especially the long one, is quite funny… Dont u think so? (hoping that someday I will a friends that ‘melatah’)

  17. PrincessButtercup says:

    omg..this is funny. I’m gonna share u a story. It happened to my brother, years back. He went to buy Nasi Lemak at one stall owned by a lady (aged around 50-ish), usually the husband and the kids will helped her out. It just so happened that day her husband was not around, so as the kids. There were quite a number of customers and she was alone handling the stall. Ther customers were all Men, then while she were in a hurry to pack all her orders, one of the Spoon fell from the top of the pot cover and into another pot, that makes quite some noise. And she startled and ‘melatah’ right away with all the ‘mencarut’ words that she can say and mostly “pan#$%” multiple of times and repeatedly for i don’t know how long. But according to my brother, it was for 10 seconds or more.. And after she’s done, her face were all RED.. fortunately all the men there were just quiet, maybe becoz they were stunned or they were really kind not to humiliate her more.. I asked my brother how could he control himself from bursting out his laugh, he said that i have no idea how he tried so hard not to, he managed not to laugh, but he can’t control himself from ‘senyum simpul’…

    I can’t imagine how that lady felt.. :)

    one thing to share, i read it somewhere that only Malays and Eskimos does melatah.. i wonder if they make documentary on this interesting phenomenon..

  18. I sincerely hope that you will be elaborating further on this theme.
    I would like a bit more information.

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