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.