I don’t know when the Canadian ‘eh?’ slipped into my speech. I just noticed it one day, when speaking with a colleague – what began as a statement, turned into a question with the quiet addition of the ‘eh?’. Maybe the ‘eh?’ was always there in my speech. Regardless, I wonder if it’s this distinctly Canadian speech pattern that makes it so easy to strike up conversations with strangers at a bus stop, or the grocery check-out line. In How to be a Canadian, Ian & Will Ferguson, describe the ‘eh?’ as “good natured…a little bit insecure…an agreement looking to happen.”
To my mind, the ‘eh?’ is an invitation, a warm ‘hello’ without the formality, a friendly self introduction to a stranger, without having to get too personal… “Cold, eh?” Now, would you not respond to that? Especially, if you’re at a bus stop and the temperatures are a frigid -30C?
Ok, so the ‘eh’ is commonplace in many other countries, just not in the same way that it is in Canada. The Canadian ‘eh?’ is not to be compared to American ‘huh?’. Consider this: “Where you goin eh?” vs. “Where you going huh?” The ‘huh’ is less, way less, elegant. In Malaysia, ‘eh’ is an interjection to get someone’s attention, like, ‘Eh, where you going?”, or “Eh, wat you think, ah?” in classic mangled Malaysian english (aka Manglish). One would never use ‘eh’ in polite company. It’s simply rude.
‘Lah’ is the more endearing language quirk in Malaysia – a suffix with roots in Malay, Hokkien, and Tamil. Malaysians add the ‘lah’ frequently in their speech to soften harsh sounds like “no” (nolah), or “don’t do that” (dun like dat lah). The ‘lah’ is friendly. So. if you wanted to say, “you can do it”, say “canlah, canlah” instead – the repetition is necessary when encouraging someone along).
Like the ‘eh?’, the ‘lah’ has to roll off your tongue naturally at just the right parts of your speech. ‘Lah’ identifies a Malaysian just the way ‘eh?’ identifies a Canadian. But, the ‘lah’ boasts a great deal more flexibility given that it can appear in pretty much the same parts of one’s speech regardless of whether you’re speaking in Malay (tak boleh lah), Hokkien (boh lah), or English (no lah).
So, what’s your country’s language quirk? If you’re Canadian, what do you think of the ‘eh?’, and, if you’re a Malaysian, share your take on the ‘lah’.
PS: The ‘lah’ also appears in Singapore.