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Growing up in Malaysia (or even Singapore), that’s an exclamation you’ve definitely heard or even exclaimed out loud when you’ve messed up or when something goes wrong.
Typically attributed to the Malay language, “alamak” is often used to express shock, dismay, concern/worry, or disapproval; similar to English expressions like “Oh no”, “Oh dear”, and “Oh sh*t”.
But it turns out that it may not be an exclusively Malay word after all! In fact, we recently discovered that the Japanese also use “alamak” for the same reasons we do, albeit with a slightly different pronunciation.
Written as “あらまあ”, it is pronounced with an “r” instead of an “l” (“ara ma). You can listen to it here.
According to a Quora thread, it is also considered a feminine way to express “Oh my…”, as demonstrated by the Japan-exclusive LINE stickers below.
It is unknown if “alamak” was assimilated into the Malay language from Japanese or the other way around, though there are theories as to how we came to share a common expression with the Japanese
In a post from 2009, blogger Afzane – who was living in Japan at the time – wrote that his Japanese language teacher posited that the word might have been in use since the Edo period (1603-1867). Usage of the word was brought to Malaya during the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, during which Japanese language schools were set up in the region. He suggested that locals might have learned it from Japanese teachers when they exclaimed “Ara ma!” in exasperation with the students.
Similarly, Singaporean blogger Mighty Mouse noted that his Japanese friends insisted that the word originated from Japan and is occasionally heard in Japanese dramas.
On the other hand, it is also said that “alamak” is actually a word of Kristang origin (meaning “mother of God”) that the Japanese assimilated into their vocabulary hundreds of years ago
According to this comment thread, it is more likely that we influenced the Japanese, as the word does not have any root in their language.
The Papia Kristang, a Portuguese creole spoken by people of mixed Portuguese and Asian ancestry, originated following the conquest of Melaka in 1511 by the Portuguese Empire. As such, it was theorised that the Portuguese might have brought the word to Japan hundreds of years ago when Portuguese explorers first visited Japan in 1543.
A variant of the word is also said to be in use in Kenya and Goa, both of which were colonised by the Portuguese many centuries ago.
Where do you think the word “alamak” originated from? Let us know your theories in the comments section below!
Besides possibly inspiring a Japanese exclamation, some English words were also said to have originated from its Malay counterparts:
Ever wondered how the states in Malaysia and the popular township Damansara got their names?
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