Speaking of Southeast Asia

New Mandala works best when it gets participation from around the world. Here’s a new challenge.

We are all aware of words that have vaulted from a Southeast Asian language into other tongues. There are classics like amok and orangutan (both from the Malay), and more recent additions like ya ba (which was once Thai, but has seemingly gone everywhere).

When I recently tried to make a list of Southeast Asian words commonly used in English, or in other non-Southeast Asian languages, I quickly ran out of steam. My sense is that there aren’t all that many.

I expect this is a lost opportunity. Southeast Asia has dozens of widely-spoken languages, and hundreds of less well-known tongues. It’s a linguist’s dream but it may take some effort to get the most interesting and useful words out to a wider audience, potentially to be used by hundreds of millions of people outside the Southeast Asian region.

There are literally tens of thousands of options, with potent shades of meaning, intriguing sounds and punchy histories galore.

So the challenge for New Mandala contributors is to suggest a Southeast Asian word that you think should be (but currently isn’t) used in other languages. It can be a word that is already on its way towards such usage, an obvious choice might be farang (from the Thai), or perhaps a concept from completely outside the usual frame, such as my old favourite, Sutdu (a Jinghpaw term for “tycoon”).

The best suggestion, as judged by New Mandala readers, will win a copy of Debating Democratization in Myanmar (2014), and the usual rapturous applause. We will also give the winner the chance to publish an essay here on New Mandala setting out the case for their new word in more detail (if they feel inclined).

To make your submission you should give us:

  • The word (say, Sutdu) and an indication whether it is a verb, adjective, noun, etc.
  • What it means and how it is derived (It means “tycoon”, and draws on the words for “wealth/fertility” and “chieftainship”. In local usage this “money boss” is …).
  • Why it should be used more widely (It is usually said that the Sutdu were invented, as a category, in the early 1990s to help clarify a new economic status in northern Myanmar. They have …)
  • How you think it could be seeded into general English language usage (Sutdu could be applied to any new category of wealthy person, particularly those who get rich from ….)
  • Some sense of whether the word needs to be modified for wider usage (in terms of spelling, pronunciation, etc).

The judging, as usual, will be simple. The winner will have the most “thumbs up” at 10 am, Canberra-time, on the morning of 16 September 2014. In this case “thumbs down” won’t count, although a word with many “up” and “down” should make for interesting reading.

Please leave your entry as a comment below. Try to keep it relatively clean, although words that deal, in useful ways, with vulgar or challenging subject-matter are obviously interesting, and will probably be allowed to compete.

For a further incentive, the best of these words are likely to start being used by those who enjoy the idea of more creative linguistic applications. I guess we can always dream that, one day, a new Jinghpaw, or Vietnamese, or Indonesian word could end up in the Oxford English Dictionary. It has to start somewhere.