Baba Malay in all its essence is malay in form but has many chinese hokkien loan words in its grammatical structure. Baba Malay once spoken by the Peranakan community is being rapidly abandoned by most Peranakans themselves. It is a language in danger of extinction.Baba Malay is actually Hokkien in sturcture but malay in form a good example will be the following illustration:Gua mo pi pasar beli roti, Lu mo ikut tak ah? which translates to I am going to the market to buy some bread, would you like to follow me? Notice that the usage of "Gua" and "Lu" are actually Hokkien in origin not malay. Therefore Baba malay is actually a creolised form of Malay mixed with Hokkien loan words to suit a localised malay context. The future of Baba Malay is uncertain as most young Peranakans and many other older Peranakans do not speak or communicate in the langauge any more, however some still do.

Among the various Chinese ethnic groups living in Penang today, perhaps it is the smallest of these groups, namely the Babas and Nyonyas (of early Hokkien descent) who appear to be quite 'different' from the others. Considered 'alien' ("Oh, so they were from Malacca!" was the usual response when one mentioned 'Baba-Nyonya'). Often proclaimed or viewed as 'descendants of early Chinese male immigrants and local Malay women' (thus of mixed blood or mixed parentage), they nevertheless were worthy of special mention in Penang's history.

The older generation of Babas and Nyonyas were a colourful, refined, genteel, elite, urban community with a rich, unique, cultural identity of their own. Significant aspects which set them apart from the various Chinese communities still living in Malaysia, Singapore & Indonesia today include certain Malay elements like language, modified style of Malay dressing, adaptive use of local Malay cooking ingredients, belief in Malay superstitions and taboos, adopting Malay nicknames and enjoying Malay songs, drama and even emulating them in certain humorous ways like in exclamations: amboi!, alamak!, chelaka! and latah (going into hysterics).

Unlike the other Chinese ethnic groups who spoke their Mother tongue and Mandarin, the Babas and Nyonyas (of Hokkien descent) mainly spoke in Hokkien with a mixture of Malay words and English. In fact, it was common for them to speak part of a sentence in Hokkien punctuated or substituted with Malay words and yet they could understand one another with ease. It might sound strange, even incomprehensible to the younger generation of Peranakans when two adults conversed in Baba Malay. Common Malay words often repeated would include tumpang, kasihan, sembang, tuala, tapi, suka, batuk, tolong, jamban, piring, sampah, geram etc.

Extracts from a simple conversation might include simple sentences like the following:

1. Dia suka datang sini sembang. (He likes to come here and gossip).
2. Keliap-keliap, dia naik angin. (Slightly provoked, he gets angry)
3. Gua tunggu dia sampai gua k'ee geram. (I waited for him till I got angry).
4. Oo-wa! kinajeet, dia pasang kuat. (Wow! Today he dresses stylishly!)

This corrupted form of spoken Hokkien with liberal borrowings from Malay words can even have more than one meaning. Very often mispronunciations occurred because the Babas and Nyonyas picked up Malay words by ear. Many could not even read or write then ; they had to rely on memory power alone. They merely picked up words through speaking with their Malay counterparts and perhaps, the Indian kuih sellers. Married and expectant Nyonyas who had employed Malay or Javanese orang jaga (confinement period women) and bidan (mid-wives) would have picked up a smattering of communicative Indonesian & Malay words to indicate their wants and wishes. Words like bunting (pregnant), gugur (miscarriage), datang kotor (menstruating), bulanberanak (given birth), pantang (abstinence or taboo), tetek (breasts), sayang (love), susu (milk), lampin (baby diapers) etc crept into the Nyonya's extended Malay vocabulary. And with subsequent usage and knowledge of the Malay language, the Nyonya's confidence grew. Indonesian loan words began creeping into Baba Malay that the language itself began to sound similar in structure and pronounciation to that of Betawi or Jakarta Malay with its "Gua" and "Lu's".

Over the years, the Babas and Nyonyas gradually learnt, acquired and incorporated more than 50,000 Malay words into their voculabulary. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Baba Chan Kim Boon, alias 'Batu Gantong,' who translated classical Chinese literature like 'Water Margin', 'Kou Chay Thian' (The Monkey), 'Hwan Tong', 'Song Kang' and 'Sam Kok' (The Three Kingdoms) , his contemporaries and juniors who were interested could read such books. With the aid of a dictionary called 'Par-mu-lai-an'/'Ka-trangan' (printed in Singapore on 25th January 1901) they could check out unfamiliar or difficult words. The older generation Babas also enjoyed certain poetic forms from the Malays (syair, pantoon, stories like 'Burung Nuri' and 'Abu Nawas' and of course singing 'Dondang Sayang' tunes from a song book called 'Penghiboran Hati' which even provided the musical notes.

Influenced to a great extent by their Javanese or Malay confinement-period women (orang jaga) and mid-wives ('Bidan') as well as their Malay neighbours, the 'Nyonyas' became involved with local superstitions and beliefs. Ever fearful of evil forces which might take away their new-born babies, the Nyonyas (acting on the advice of the orang jaga and bidan would give nicknames to their children. Hence it was not at all surprising when we heard of boys having Malay nicknames like Tuteh, Itam, Bulat, Kurui, Botak, Panjang and even Kassim . Female children would have nicknames like Kechik, Molek, Intan, Nya- chik, Penyet etc. though it must be pointed out that every child was given his/her Chinese name. When a child fell sick, it was the Nenek (Malay female spirit) the Nyonyas appealed to for help.

For other domestic problems such as when the husbands strayed, the Nyonyas would consult the Bomohs seeking guidance to win back their husbands from the 'other women' .Words like tangkai, air jampi, asap kemenyan, santau, bomoh etc. (often associated with the black arts or black magic) were familiar with the Nyonyas, no doubt due to local Malay influences. Young children from Baba families wore tangkai (talismans) to protect them from evil forces. Nyonyas would also not hesitate to make a vow taruh nia at keramats (Malay holy shrines) when their children fell ill. When the children recovered, the Nyonyas would fulfill the vow (menunaikan niat ) with offerings of nasi kunyit , fruits, flowers and sireh leaves etc. at the keramat where they had placed their vow. Words like anak dara (virgin), kahwin (marry), Mak Andam (Mistress Of Ceremony), pengapit (page-girl/page-boy), pengantin (newly-wed bride or groom), menantu (daughter-in-law), seronee ( a musical instrument) were terms all too commonly used in a typical Baba-Nyonya wedding which incorporated both traditional Chinese and Malay customs. Here daun sireh or betel-leaves (introduced by the local Malays) played a very significant role. In the past, some very conservative Nyonya matriarch would insist on the introduction of the sireh dara as proof of the bride's virtuousness. The below statistics were taken from a website dealing on linguistics:


Population conversing in Baba Malay 6,000 or more in Singapore (2000 estimate). Estimates of ethnic Baba are from 250,000 to 400,000 in Singapore. Region Mainly in the Katong District on the east coast and the surrounding districts of Geylang and Joo Chiat. Also spoken in Malaysia (Peninsular) and parts of Indonesia.
Classification Creole, Malay based.
Comments It developed since the 15th century from Low Malay with many Hokkien Chinese borrowings. Regional variants between Malacca and Singapore. Partially intelligible with Standard Malay. It is generally believed that the Baba of Malaysia is more 'refined', and that of Singapore more 'rough'. Most have learned Standard Malay and English in school. Lim (1981) and Holm (1989) treat it as a Malay-based creole. It is different from Peranakan Indonesian. Some who grew up with Chinese neighbors know Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese. Children now learn Mandarin in school rather than Standard Malay. Baba is mainly used in the home and with other Babas. The only monolinguals are over 70 years old.

Baba populations in other countries: : Indonesia estimated (6 million) and Malaysia estimated (500,000) Singapore Baba Malay is similar to that of Malacca Baba Malay. Penang Baba Malay is more similar to Penang Hokkien. An estimated 150,000 speak Peranakan Indonesian mostly in the island of Java and parts of Sumatra. Peranakan Indonesian is not similar to Baba Malay in terms of pronounciations but similar in grammatical structure.


The Baba's and Nyonya's love and passion for the genteel Malay language and race was often reflected in some of the specially commissioned items still found in pristine condition in some old Baba houses today. Bridal shoes with Slamet Pakei lettering, enamel tiffin-carriers with gilt lettering wish the user, Slamet Pakei, Slamet Bukka, Slamet Untong & Slamet Makan . Printed on tobacco boxes are words with a wish Slamet Pakei for the smoker. Beautiful, dainty tea-cups specially commissioned from Germany bear the sweet and pleasant greetings : Slamet Pakei, Slamet Minoem and Umor Panjang . Baba-Malay books- Syer, Pantun, Hiboran Hati and translations from Chinese Classics to Baba-Malay by the late Chan Kim Boon alias 'Batu Gantong' are still available to those interested. Dondang Sayang, Keronchong and Bangsawan records are still in private collections of certain Baba families who now regard them as prized family heirlooms. If you would like to learn baba malay and take a crash course in the patois, we just have the place for you. Click [Archives] to view the baba malay archives now !

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