Colloquial Singaporean English, better known as Singlish, is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore.
While English is one of Singapore’s official languages, Singlish is commonly regarded as having low prestige. The Singaporean government and some Singaporeans alike heavily discourage the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English and Standard Mandarin. The government has created an annual Speak Good English Movement to emphasise the point. Singlish is also heavily discouraged in the mass media and in schools. However, such official discouragement and routine censorship is actually countered by other presentations in mainstream media, including routine usage by ordinary people in street interviews broadcast on TV and radio on a daily basis, as well as occasional usage in newspapers.
The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil and to a lesser extent various other European, Indic and Sinitic languages. Also, elements of American and Australian slang have come through from imported television series and films.
Overview and history
Singapore English derives its roots from 146 years (1819–1965) of British colonial rule over Singapore. Prior to 1965, the standard form of English in Singapore had always been British English and Received Pronunciation. After Singapore declared independence in 1965, English in Singapore began to take a life of its own, leading to the development of modern-day Standard Singapore English. Standard Singapore English began to take root and Singlish began to evolve among the working classes who learned English without formal schooling.
Singlish originated with the arrival of the British and the establishment of English language schools in Singapore. Soon, English filtered out of schools and onto the streets, to be picked up by non-English-speakers in a pidgin-like form for communication purposes. After some time, this new form of English, now loaded with substantial influences from Indian English, Baba, native Malay, and the southern varieties of Chinese, became the language of the streets and began to be learned as a first language in its own right. Creolization occurred, and Singlish is now a fully formed, stabilised, and independent English-based creole language.
Singlish shares many linguistic similarities with Manglish of Malaysia, although a few distinctions can be made, particularly in vocabulary. Manglish generally now receives more Malay influence and Singlish more Chinese (Mandarin, Hokkien, etc.) influence. Initially, Singlish and Manglish were essentially the same dialect evolving from the British Malaya economy, born in the trading ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang when Singapore and peninsular Malaysia were for many purposes a de facto single entity.
In Singapore, English was the language of administration, which the British used, with the assistance of English-educated Straits-born Chinese, to control the administration in Malaya and governance of trading routes such as the British East Indies spice routes with China, Japan, Europe and America in those ports and colonies of Singapore, Malacca and Penang through the colonial governing seat in Singapore.
In British Malaya, English was the language of the British administration, whilst Malay was spoken as the lingua franca of the streets, as the British did not wish to antagonise the native Malays.
In British Singapore, however, as the seat of the colonial government and international commerce, English was both the language of administration and the lingua franca.
In Malaya, the Chinese varieties themselves also contained many loan-words from Malay, and more Chinese loan-words from the Hokkien, rather than the Cantonese. For example, Hokkien-influenced pa sat instead of the Cantonese-influenced baa saak in Singapore (from Malay pasar meaning ‘market’), loti (from Malay roti meaning ‘bread’), Hokkien gu li and jam bban (from Malay guli meaning ‘marble’, and Malay ‘jamban’ meaning toilet).
Many signs in Singapore include all four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.
After Singapore’s independence in 1965, and successive »Speak Mandarin» campaigns, a subtle language shift among the post-1965 generation became more and more evident as Malay idiomatic expressions were, and continued to be, displaced by idioms borrowed from Chinese spoken varieties, such asHokkien.
The English language in Singapore is a sociolect continuum. The continuum runs through the following varieties:
Acrolectal: Acrolectal Singaporean English exhibits an absence of or a much smaller degree of Singlish pronunciation features than do Mesolectal, Basilectal, and pidgin variants of Singlish.
Mesolectal: This is the most commonly spoken form of Singlish. It is a mix between Standard English and Singlish. At this level, a number of features not found in other forms of English begin to emerge.
Basilectal: This is the most colloquial form of speech. Here, one can find all of the unique phonological, lexical, and grammatical features of Singlish. Many of these features can be attributed to Asian languages such as Chinese, Malay, or Indian languages such asTamil, though some cannot. Both the basilect and mesolect are referred to as «Singlish».
Pidgin: This is the «pidgin» level of Singlish, which is probably a good representative of an earlier stage of Singlish, before creolisation took place and solidified Singlish as a fully formed creole. As with all pidgins, speakers at the pidgin level speak another language as a first language, and Singlish as a second language. However, since a substantial number of people today learn Singlish natively, the number of speakers at the «pidgin» level of Singlish is dwindling. This is because by definition, a pidgin is not learned natively.
The coexistence of basilectal Singlish and acrolectal Standard Singapore English can also be analysed as a diglossia, which is a split between a «high» formal language and a «low» informal language.
The Sociolect Continuum of Singaporean English
Since many Singaporeans can speak English at multiple points along the sociolect spectrum, code-switching can occur very frequently between the acrolect (Standard Singapore English) and the mesolect (common Singlish). In addition, as many Singaporeans are also speakers of Chinese, Malay, or Indian languages such as Tamil, code-switching between English and other languages also occurs dynamically.
For example, a local Singaporean might speak in a Singlish consisting of English, Hokkien, Malay and Indian loan-words, when chatting with his friends.
Usage in society
Singlish is commonly regarded with low prestige in Singapore. For this reason, Singlish is not used in formal communication. Standard Singapore English is preferred by many educated Singaporeans.
Due to its origins, Singlish shares many similarities with pidgin varieties of English, and can easily give the impression of «broken English» or «bad English» to a speaker of some other, less divergent variety of English. In addition, the profusion of Singlish features, especially loanwords from Asian languages, mood particles, and topic-prominent structure, can easily make Singlish incomprehensible to a speaker of Standard English. As a result, the use of Singlish is greatly frowned on by the government, and two former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have publicly declared that Singlish is a substandard English that handicaps Singaporeans, presents an obstacle to learning proper English and renders the speaker incomprehensible to everyone except another Singlish speaker.
Current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has also said that Singlish should not be part of Singapore’s identity. In the interests of promoting equality and better communication with the rest of the world, in 2000 the government launched the Speak Good English Movement to eradicate it, at least from formal usage. TheMedia Development Authority’s free-to-air TV code states that the use of Singlish «should not be encouraged and can only be permitted in interviews, where only the interviewee speaks Singlish.» Despite this, in recent years the use of Singlish on television and radio has proliferated as localised Singlish continues to be popular among Singaporeans, especially in comedies.
Singlish is strongly discouraged in Singaporean schools at a governmental level as it is believed to hinder the proper learning of Standard English, and so faces a situation of diglossia. The use of Singlish when speaking in classes or to teachers, however officially frowned upon, is rather inevitable given that many teachers themselves are comfortable with the variety.
In most workplaces, Singlish is avoided in formal settings, especially at job interviews, meetings with clients, presentations or meetings. Standard Singapore English is preferred. Nevertheless, select Singlish phrases are sometimes injected into discussions to build rapport or for a humorous effect, especially when the audience consists mainly of locals, but more recent Speak Good English campaigns are conducted with tacit acceptance of Singlish as a valid patois.
In informal settings, such as during conversation with friends, or transactions in kopi tiams and shopping malls, Singlish is used without restriction. For many students, using Singlish is also inevitable when interacting with their peers, siblings, parents and elders.
Singapore humour writer Sylvia Toh Paik Choo was the first to put a spelling and a punctuation to Singlish in her books Eh Goondu (1982) and Lagi Goondu (1986), which are essentially a glossary of Singlish, which she terms ‘Pasar Patois’.
Singlish pronunciation, while built on a base of British English, is also heavily influenced by Native Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese.
There are variations within Singlish, both geographically and ethnically. Chinese, Native Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and other ethnic groups in Singapore all have distinct accents.
All of these communities were formed by the earliest immigrants to Singapore and thus have been British subjects for three or more generations. Thus, they have received no other «native education» than solely British colonial education. Especially for those born before 1965, all the education received has been direct English rather than British influences. Many of the East Coast communities were descendants or in other ways, privileged to be granted British colonial education similar to those in Britain. As such the acrolectal standard of English does not diverge substantially from the acrolectal standard in Britain at this time, though (as in other colonial outposts) it always tended to be somewhat «out of date» compared with contemporary speech patterns in Britain.
The English-educated in Singapore received their English pedagogical instruction through missionary schools and convents such as the Anglo-Chinese School(ACS), Methodist Girls’ School (MGS), Marymount Convent School, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), Canossa’s Convent (Located in Aljunied). However, as decolonisation occurred, many expatriate English returned to Britain; Hence, in an unregulated socio-linguistic environment, the spontaneous varieties of a creolised English began to form after the 1960s.
In the East Coast, the teaching professions, especially teaching English, was a popular option in the European, Eurasian, Peranakan and Chinese communities who descended from privileged colonial Civil Service families for the Queen’s Crown, from the beginning of the last century up till the 1970s. From the 1970s onwards, the permanent decolonisation meant that the original Queen’s English taught began to experience deformation and modification from other languages. As a result, whole generations of school-children in the Siglap/Katong districts were taught English with an «English-ed», modified Queen’s English accent minimally influenced by Eurasian, Peranakan and Hokkien Chinese intonation. Their Siglap/Katong accent, though not a pure form of Queen’s English, is considered to be the prestigious variant of English in Singapore. Because that area has also tended to supply the ruling and civil service classes, many uneducated immigrant Chinese, Native Malay and Indian (new Tamil immigrants) who are trapped in the lower rungs of the social scale, often mock and ridicule this «un-modern» and «foreign-sounding» English. With the rise of the consumerist and mass middle-class, second-generation immigrants of humble origins have begun to deliberately deform taught acrolectal English for street pidgin patois as a form of identity-creation, self-actualisation and self-determination.
Prominent members of society still speak the acrolectal Queen’s English in formal situations including Benjamin Sheares, David Marshall, Harry Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Siew Chow, Francis Seow and other affluent descendants of the East Coast communities.
However, after 1965, with colonial attitudes being unpopular politically, a new «culture-free» English was promoted through the usages of television presenters in the former SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation), through to its renaming as TCS (Television Corporation of Singapore) and to the current MediaCorp. This post-1965 accent, is sometimes known as the «Channel 5 accent», after the English channel owned by the State media group. This gave rise to a new standard of artificially constructed but standardised acrolectal English for Singapore that did not equate to Received Pronunciation in Britain but corresponded to the latter’s social function and status within the new Singaporean national context due to state monopoly, censorship and control over media in this early stage of Singaporean national politics. Despite this, the more affluent English-educated classes continued to support the original Christian missionary and Convent schools financially to stem the degradation of English language instruction. Despite all attempts, the English language in Singapore began to naturally creolise. The post-1965 English-educated accent is hence different from that of the pre-1965 «English-ed accent». For example, PM Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang, sons of the political figure Lee Kuan Yew, do not speak their father’s Queen’s English. The pure English diphthongs in words like «home», the liaison in pronunciation of «r» at the end of words ending with «r» followed by a word beginning with a vowel (such as «ever emerging», pronounced in Queen’s English as «eveR emerging» does not occur. Instead, diphthongs are converted into simplified vowels, and elements of Chinese, Malay and other accents and influences begin to exert itself on the evolving acrolect.
Parallel to this, British economic, political and linguistic influence began to decline starkly throughout the world as colonies gained independence, such as India, while the United States of America rose as a superpower and American English largely took over as the international economic and cultural prestige variant. This change became more pervasive with the rise of Hollywood and American popular culture. As such, even among the «English-educated classes», the type and use of English shifted again as more affluent families, scholarship boards and charities sent the youth to boarding schools, colleges and universities in the United States over the United Kingdom. Many more Singaporeans then began to be born abroad to a jetsetting English-ed class and descendants of the ex-Civil Service class for left for higher-paying education, legal and corporate positions in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom, and a huge middle-class segment to Australia and New Zealand. As such, the English-educated class born after 1965 do not speak the Queen’s English any more, nor do they hold the «Channel 5 accent» as a standard, reverting between the prestige variant of the countries they received schooling in, and the bourgeois patois for familiarity. As such, the English accent in Singapore has become an international hybrid similar to that of affluent families in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo.
When unemployment rose during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Singlish came under official attack as undermining an economic competitiveness factor – English language fluency.
(See International Phonetic Alphabet for an in-depth guide to the symbols.)
Broadly speaking, there is a one-to-many mapping of Singlish vowel phonemes to British Received Pronunciation vowel phonemes, with a few exceptions (as discussed below, with regard to egg and peg). The following describes a typical system. Some speakers may further merge /e/ and /ɛ/; other speakers (especially better educated ones) make a distinction between /i/ and /ɪ/, /ɛ/ and /ɛə/, or /ɑ/ and /ʌ/. There is generally no distinction between the non-close front monophthongs, so pet and pat are pronounced the same /pɛt/.
At the acrolectal level, the merged vowel phonemes are distinguished to some extent, and for some speakers elements from American English are introduced, such as pre-consonantal [r] (pronouncing the «r» in bird, port, etc.). This is caused by the popularity of American TV programming. Current estimates are that about 20 per cent of university undergraduates sometimes use this American-style pre-consonantal [r] when reading a passage.
Mapping between Singlish and British RP vowels:
Singlish is semi-tonal as all words of Chinese origin retain their original tones in Singlish. On the other hand, original English words as well as words of Malay and Tamil origin are non-tonal.
One of the most prominent and noticeable features of Singlish is its unique intonation pattern, which is quite unlike British, American or Australian English, etc.For example:
Overall, the differences between the different ethnic communities in Singapore are most evident in the patterns of intonation, so for example Malay Singaporeans often have the main pitch excursion later in an utterance than ethnically Chinese and Indian Singaporeans.
Generally, these pronunciation patterns are thought to have increased the clarity of Singlish communications between pidgin-level speakers in often noisy environments, and these features were retained in creolisation.
The grammar of Singlish has been heavily influenced by other languages in the region, such as Malay and Chinese, with some structures being identical to ones in Mandarin and other Chinese varieties. As a result, Singlish has acquired some unique features, especially at the basilectal level. Note that all of the features described below disappear at the acrolectal level, as people in formal situations tend to adjust their speech towards accepted norms found in other varieties of English.
Singlish is topic-prominent, like Chinese and Japanese. This means that Singlish sentences often begin with a topic (or a known reference of the conversation), followed by a comment (or new information) Compared to other varieties of English, the semantic relationship between topic and comment is not important; moreover, nouns, verbs, adverbs, and even entire subject-verb-object phrases can all serve as the topic:
The above constructions can be translated analogously into Malay and Chinese, with little change to the word order.
The topic can be omitted when the context is clear, or shared between clauses. This results in constructions that appear to be missing a subject to a speaker ofmost other varieties of English, and so called PRO-drop utterances may be regarded as a diagnostic feature of Singapore Colloquial English (or ‘Singlish’). For example:
Nouns are optionally marked for plurality. Articles are also optional. For example:
It is more common to mark the plural in the presence of a modifier that implies plurality, such as «many» or «four».
Many nouns which seem logically to refer to a countable item are used in the plural, including furniture and clothing. Examples of this usage from corpus recordings are:
The copula, which is the verb «to be» in most varieties of English, is treated somewhat differently in Singlish:
When occurring with an adjective or adjective phrase, the verb «to be» tends to be omitted:
Sometimes, an adverb such as «very» occurs, and this is reminiscent of Chinese usage of the word «很» (hen2) or «好» (hao3):
It is also common for the verb «to be» to be omitted before the present participle of the verb:
Slightly less common is the dropping out of «to be» when used as an equative between two nouns, or as a locative:
In general, «to be» drops out more after nouns and pronouns (except «I», «he», and «she»), and much less after a clause (what I think is…) or a demonstrative (this is…).
Past tense marking is optional in Singlish. Marking of the past tense occurs most often in irregular verbs, as well as verbs where the past tense suffix is pronounced/ɪd/. For example:
Due to consonant cluster simplification, the past tense is most often unmarked when it is pronounced as /t/ or /d/ at the end of a consonant cluster:
The past tense is more likely to be marked if the verb describes an isolated event (it is a punctual verb), and it tends to be unmarked if the verb in question represents an action that goes on for an extended period:
There seems also to be a tendency to avoid use of the past tense to refer to someone who is still alive:
Note in the final example that although the speaker is narrating a story, she probably uses the present tense in the belief that the tour guide is probably still alive.
Change of state
Instead of the past tense, a change of state can be expressed by adding already or liao (/liɑ̂u/) to the end of the sentence, analogous to Chinese 了 (le). This is not the same as the past tense, but more of an aspect, as it does not cover past habitual or continuous occurrences, and it refers to a real or hypothetical change of state in the past, present or future.
The frequent use of already (pronounced more like «oreddy» and sometimes spelt that way) in Singapore English is probably a direct influence of the Hokkien liaoparticle. For example:
Some examples of the direct use of the Hokkien particle are:
Negation works in general like English, with not added after «to be», «to have», or modals, and don’t before all other verbs. Contractions (can’t, shouldn’t) are used alongside their uncontracted forms.
However, due to final cluster simplification, the -t drops out from negative forms, and -n may also drop out after nasalising the previous vowel. This makes nasalisation the only mark of the negative.
Another effect of this is that in the verb «can», its positive and negative forms are distinguished only by vowel:
Also, never is used as a negative past tense marker, and does not have to carry the English meaning. In this construction, the negated verb is never put into the past-tense form:
In addition to the usual[which?] way of forming yes-no questions, Singlish uses two more constructions:
In a construction similar (but not identical) to Chinese A-not-A, or not is appended to the end of sentences to form yes/no questions. Or not cannot be used with sentences already in the negative:
The phrase is it, appended to the end of sentences, forms yes-no questions. It is generic like the French n’est-ce pas? (isn’t it so?), regardless of the actual verb in the sentence, and is strongly reminiscent of the Chinese «是吗» (shi4 ma1) as well as of its frequent use amongst South Indian speakers of English. Is it implies that the speaker is simply confirming something he/she has already inferred:
The phrase isn’t it also occurs when the speaker thinks the hearer might disagree with the assertion.
There are also many discourse particles (such as hah, hor, meh, and ar) used in questions. (See the »Discourse particles» section elsewhere in this article.)
Another feature strongly reminiscent of Chinese and Malay, verbs are often repeated (e.g., TV personality Phua Chu Kang’s «don’t pray-pray!» pray = play). In general verbs are repeated twice to indicate the delimitative aspect (that the action goes on for a short period), and three times to indicate greater length and continuity:
The use of verb repetition also serves to provide a more vivid description of an activity:
In another usage reminiscent of Chinese, nouns referring to people can be repeated for intimacy. Most commonly, monosyllabic nouns are repeated:
However, occasionally reduplication is also found with bisyllabic nouns:
Adjectives of one or two syllables can also be repeated for intensification:
Due to the frequent use of these repetitions on short words, Singlish expressions often sound to speakers of American or British English as if they are spoken by children, which non-Singlish speakers find quite amusing, and contributes to the impression of Singlish as an informal and sometimes intimate language.
Particles in Singlish are highly comparable to Chinese. In general, discourse particles, also known as «tags» occur at the end of a sentence. Their presence changes the meaning or the tone of the sentence, but not its grammatical meaning.
Particles are noted for keeping their tones regardless of the remainder of the sentence. Most of the particles are directly borrowed from southern Chinese varieties, with the tones intact.
Research on Singlish discourse particles have been many but varied, often focusing on analysing their functions in the sentences they appear in.
Kena can be used as an auxiliary to mark the passive voice in some varieties of Singlish.
It is derived from a Malay word that means «to encounter or to come into physical contact», and is only used with objects that have a negative effect or connotation. Verbs after kena may appear in the infinitive form (i.e. without tense) or as a past participle. It is similar in meaning to passive markers in Chinese, such as Hokkien tio or Mandarin 被 bèi:
Kena is not used with positive things:
Use of kena as in the above examples will not be understood, and may even be greeted with a confused reply: But strike lottery good wat! (But it’s a good thing to win the lottery!).
It may be used in vulgar, obscene and offensive contexts,[dubious – discuss] such as:
However, when used in sarcasm, kena can be used in apparently positive circumstances, though this is considered grammatically incorrect by the true natives of Singapore. It is mostly incorrectly used by European expatriates or Hong Kong and Mainlanders trying to integrate and assimilate into Singapore society,[dubious – discuss] though with an ironic modicum of success, for example:
When the context is given, Kena may be used without a verb, similar to the colloquial-English construction «I am/you’re/he is going to get it.»
Using another auxiliary verb with kena is perfectly acceptable as well:
Some examples of Singlish phrases with Kena:
The word may be phonetically mispronounced «kana» by most non-Malays, especially by those of the Chinese tongue. Informal Malay may socio-linguistically dictate it be pronounced as kene (as in kernel without the r and l), while the word itself in reality has two different meanings; «to have (to) encounter(ed) something» as how it is explained above or «to have to (do something)»:
«Kau kena angkat ni.» – You have to carry this.
Singlish, however, is only influenced by the latter application of the word.
Tio can be used interchangeably with kena in many scenarios. While kena is often used in negative situations, tio can be used in both positive and negative situations.
Tio has a lighter negative tone when used negatively, compared to kena.
Both mean the same, but kena makes the speaker sound more unhappy with the situation than tio.
Tio also sounds more sympathetic when talking about an unfortunate incident about someone close.
Using kena in the following might not be appropriate, as they seem impolite, as if the speaker is mocking the victim.
The word one is used to emphasise the predicate of the sentence by implying that it is unique and characteristic. It is analogous to the use of particles like 嘅 (ge) or 架 (ga) in Cantonese, 啲 (e) in Hokkien, (-wa) in spoken Japanese, or 的 (de) in some varieties of Mandarin. One used in this way does not correspond to any use of the word «one» in British, American English, Australian English, etc.: It can be compared to the British usage of ‘eh’. It might also be analysed as a relative pronoun, though it occurs at the end of the relative clause instead of the beginning (as in Standard English)
For speakers of Mandarin, 的 (de) can also be used in place of one.
The word then is often pronounced or written as den /dɛn/. When used, it represents different meanings in different contexts. In this section, the word is referred to as den.
i) »Den» can be synonymous with «so» or «therefore». It is used to replace the Chinese grammatical particle, 才 (see ii).
When it is intended to carry the meaning of «therefore», it is often used to explain one’s blunder/negative consequences. In such contexts, it is a translation from Chinese «所以». When used in this context, the «den» is prolonged twice the usual length in emphasis, as opposed to the short emphasis it is given when used to mean cai2.
– I did not do my homework, that’s why (therefore) I got a scolding
– I did not do my homework; I got a scolding after that
– It is only due to the fact that I did not do my homework that I was scolded.
Be very careful because «den» cannot be freely interchanged with «so». It will sound grammatically erroneous when employed inappropriately. This is because the grammatical rules in English do not correspond to the grammatical rules in Chinese on a one-for-one basis.
The following examples are inappropriate use of «den», which will immediately sound grammatically illogical to a Singlish speaker:
The reason for this is that «den» often marks a negative, non-volitional outcome (either in the future or the past), while the above sentences express volition and are set in the present. Consider the following examples:
ii) »Den» is also used to describe an action that will be performed later. It is used to replace the Chinese particle, «才». When used in this context, the den is pronounced in one beat, instead of being lengthened to two beats as in (i).
If shortened, the meaning will be changed / incorrectly conveyed. For example, «I go home liao, «den» (2 beats) call you» will imbue the subtext with a questionable sense of irony, a lasciviousness for seduction (3 beats), or just general inappropriateness (random 2 beats indicating a Hong Kong comedy-influenced moleitou 無理頭 Singaporean sense of humour).
iii) »Den» can used at the beginning of a sentence as a link to the previous sentence. In this usage, «den» is used to replace the Mandarin grammatical particle which is approximately equivalent in meaning (but not in grammatical usage) only to «then,» or «然后» (ran2 hou4), as in «ran2hou4 hor». In such cases, it often carries a connotation of an exclamation.
When used in this context, in formal Singlish, the particle is lengthened to 2 beats to indicate replacement of «ran2hou4″ or 1 beat when used in conjunction with «hor» as in «den hor».
It can also be shortened to 1 beat if the other speaker is a fluent Singapore speaker of Singlish (who tends to speak fast and can deduce via contextual clues which form of meaning the use of den is taking on), but the Singlish variant used when spoken to a wider Southeast Asian audience, is lengthening of the word to 2 beats.
The subtle usage of these particles differentiates a Malaysian speaking Manglish trying to assimilate into society, and a true-blue native-born Singaporean (whether it’s a Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Malay or Caucasian speaker of Singlish). In many cases, a mixed child born and bred in Singapore will speak a more subtle form of Singlish (together with the influence of another language such as Dutch, Swedish, German) than a first-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent assimilating into Singapore.
iv) »Den» can be used to return an insult/negative comment back to the originator. When used in such a way, there must first be an insult/negative comment from another party. In such contexts, it is a translation from Chinese «才».
v) »Den?» can be used as a single-worded phrase. Even if «den» is used in a single-worded phrase, even with the same pronunciation, it can represent 4 different meanings. It can either be synonymous with «so what?», or it can be a sarcastic expression that the other party is making a statement that arose from his/her actions, or similarly an arrogant expression which indicating that the other party is stating the obvious, or it can be used as a short form for «what happened then?».
[Synonymous with "so what?"]
[Sarcastic expression] Speakers tend to emphasise the pronunciation of ‘n’. Context: A is supposed to meet B before meeting a larger group but A is late for the first meeting
[Arrogant expression] Speakers have the option of using «Den» in a phrase, as in «Ah Bu Den» or «Ah Den». In this case it serves approximately the same purpose as ‘duh’ in American English slang.
[Ah, but then? (What happened after that?)]
vi) »Den» can also indicate a conditional (an if-then condition), implying an omitted «if»/»when»:
See also: Oi (interjection)
Oi originating from the Hokkien (喂,oe), is commonly used in Singlish, as in other English varieties, to draw attention or to express surprise or indignation. Some examples of the usage of Oi include:
As «Oi» has connotations of disapproval, it is considered to be slightly offensive if it is used in situations where a more polite register is expected, e.g. while speaking to strangers in public, people in the workplace or one’s elders.
Lah (La) being used on an advertising board outside a cafe inPulau Ubin
The ubiquitous word lah (/lɑ́/ or /lɑ̂/), rarely spelled as larh, luh or lurh, is used at the end of a sentence. It may originate from the Hokkien character (啦, POJ: lah), though its usage in Singapore is also influenced by its occurrence in Malay. It simultaneously softens the force of an utterance and entices solidarity, though it can also have the opposite meaning so it is used to signal power. In addition, there are suggestions that there is more than one lah particle, so there may be a stressed and an unstressed variant and perhaps as many as nine tonal variants, all having a special pragmatic function
Note that ‘lah’ is occasionally after a comma for clarity, though true locals never bother with punctuation, because there is never a pause before ‘lah’. This is because in Malay, ‘lah’ is appended to the end of the word and is not a separate word by itself. It must also be noted that although ‘lah’ is usually spelled in the Malay fashion, its use is more akin to the Hokkien use. ‘Lah’ is also found in use in the Scouse dialect in Liverpool, England.
In Malay, ‘lah’ is used to change a verb into a command or to soften its tone, particularly when usage of the verb may seem impolite. To drink is minum, but ‘Here, drink!’ is «minumlah!». Similarly, ‘lah’ is frequently used with imperatives in Singlish:
‘Lah’ also occurs frequently with «Yah» and «No» (hence «Yah lah!» and «No lah!…»). This can, with the appropriate tone, result in a less-brusque declaration and facilitate the flow of conversation. «No more work to do, we go home lah!» However, if the preceding clause is already diminutive or jocular, suffixing it with -lah would be redundant and improper: one would not say «yep lah», «nope lah», or «ta lah» (as in the British «Ta» for «thank you»).
Lah is often used with brusque, short, negative responses:
Lah is also used for reassurance:
Lah is sometimes used to curse people
Lah can also be used to emphasise items in a spoken list, appearing after each item in the list.
Although lah can appear nearly anywhere, it does not appear with a yes-no question. Other particles are used instead:
The particle wat (/wɑ̀t/), also spelled what, is used to remind or contradict the listener, especially when strengthening another assertion that follows from the current one:
It can also be used to strengthen any assertion:
This usage is noticeably characterised by a low tone on wat, and parallels the assertive Mandarin particle 嘛 in expressions like «不错嘛».
Mah (/mɑ́/), originating from the Cantonese (嘛, ma), is used to assert that something is obvious and final, and is usually used only with statements that are already patently true. It is often used to correct or cajole, and in some contexts is similar to English’s duh. This may seem condescending to the listener:
Lor (/lɔ́/), also spelled lorh or loh, from Hokkien (啰, lor), is a casual, sometimes jocular way to assert upon the listener either direct observations or obvious inferences. It also carries a sense of resignation, or alternatively, dismissiveness. that «it happens this way and can’t be helped»:
Leh (/lɛ́/ or /lé/), from Hokkien (leh 咧), is used to soften a command, request, claim, or complaint that may be brusque otherwise:
Especially when on a low tone, it can be used to show the speaker’s disapproval:
Hor (/hɔ̨̌/), from Hokkien（乎 honn）, also spelled horh, is used to ask for the listener’s attention and consent/support/agreement: It is usually pronounced with a low tone.
Ar (/ɑ̌/), also spelled arh or ah, is inserted between topic and comment. It often gives a negative tone:
Ar (/ɑ̌/) with a rising tone is used to reiterate a rhetorical question:
Ar (/ɑ̄/) with a mid-level tone, on the other hand, is used to mark a genuine question that does require a response: (‘or not’ can also be used in this context.)
Hah (/hɑ̌/), also spelled har, originating from the British English word huh or Hokkien (hannh 唅), is used to express disbelief, shock or used in a questioning manner.
Meh (/mɛ́/), from Cantonese (咩, meh), is used to form questions expressing surprise or scepticism:
Siol is not a vulgar word. It is an adaptation of the word «Siul» (which means whistles). Often misunderstood as the word «Sial», Siol has no meaning at all (least if it’s spelt Siul.) Siol is used to avoid using the word «Sial», which is a vulgarity and not acceptable in speech among most Malay families, and can be compared to the word «fuck». Sial is considered extremely rude if applied as a «sentence enhancer». To avoid getting «back-hand» (slapped across the face) by the elders between the families, the word «Siol» was created.
Using «Sial» — while having family dinner at home, a seven-year-old child says to his/her mother, «Apa «sial» Mak bebual?» — «What the fuck are you talking about, mom?»- risk of getting ‘back-hand’ from parents is highest.
Using Siol - same scenario as above, «Apa Siol Mak bebual?» — «What the whistle are you talking about, mom?» — risk of punishment from parents is lowest.
/sjɑ̀/, also spelled sia or siah, is used to express envy or emphasis. It is a derivative of the Malay vulgar word «sial» (derivative of the parent, used interchangeably but sometimes may imply a stronger emphasis). Originally, it is often used by Malay peers in informal speech between them, sometimes while enraged, and other times having different implications depending on the subject matter:
«Kau ade problem ke ape, sial?» – Do you have a problem or what? (negative, enraged)
Malays may also pronounce it without the l, not following the ia but rather a nasal aah. This particular form of usage is often seen in expressing emphasis. There is a further third application of it, in that a k is added at the end when it will then be pronounced saak with the same nasal quality only when ending the word. It is similarly used in emphasis.
However, Singlish itself takes influence only from the general expression of the term without any negative implication, and non-Malay speakers (or Malays speaking to non-Malays) pronounce it either as a nasal sia or simply siah:
/sâi/ Also from Hokkien, it literally means excrement. This is also used in «kena sai«, which means to be humiliated (see earlier part of this section for the definition of «kena«).
/siâo/ derived from Hokkien Siao is a common word in Singlish. Literally, it means crazy.
Summary of discourse and other particles:
Nia is originated from Hokkien which means ‘only’, mostly used to play down something that has been overestimated.
«Then you know» is a phrase often used at the end of a sentence or after a warning of the possible negative consequences of an action. Can be directly translated as «and you will regret not heeding my advice». Also a direct translation of the Chinese ‘你才知道’.
Aiyyo: A state of surprise. derived from Tamil.
«There is»/»there are» and «has»/»have» are both expressed using got, so that sentences can be translated in either way back into British / American / Australasian English. This is equivalent to the Chinese 有 yǒu (to have):
Can is used extensively as both a question particle and an answer particle. The negative is cannot.
Can can be repeated for greater emphasis or to express enthusiasm:
The Malay word with the same meaning boleh can be used in place of can to add a greater sense of multiculturalism in the conversation. The person in a dominant position may prefer to use boleh instead:
The phrase like that is commonly appended to the end of the sentence to emphasise descriptions by adding vividness and continuousness. Due to its frequency of use, it is often pronounced lidat (lye-dat):
Like that can also be used as in other Englishes:
In British English, «also» is used before the predicate, while «too» is used after the predicative at the end of the sentence. In Singlish (also in American and Australian English), «also» (pronounced oso, see phonology section above) can be used in either position.
«Also» is also used as a conjunction. In this case, «A also B» corresponds to «B although A». This stems from Chinese, where the words 也 (yě), 还 (hái) or 都 (dōu) (meaning also, though usage depends on dialect or context) would be used to express these sentences.
The order of the verb and the subject in an indirect question is the same as a direct question.
«Ownself» is often used in place of «yourself», or more accurately, «yourself» being an individual, in a state of being alone.
Not all expressions with the -self pronouns should be taken literally, but as the omission of «by»:
Some people have begun to add extra «ed»s to the past tense of words or to pronounce «ed» separately, sometimes in a form of exaggeration of the past tense. Most of the time, the user uses it intentionally to mock proper English.
Singlish formally takes after British English (in terms of spelling and abbreviations), although naming conventions are in a mix of American and British ones (with American ones on the rise). For instance, local media have «sports pages» (sport in British English) and «soccer coverage» (the use of the word «soccer» is not common in British media), though the word «football» is also taken to be synonymous with «soccer» in Singapore.
Singlish also uses many words borrowed from Hokkien, and from Malay. The most well-known instance of a borrowing from Hokkien is ‘kiasu’, which means «frightened of losing out», and is used to indicate behaviour such as queueing overnight to obtain something; and the most common borrowing from Malay is ‘makan’, meaning «to eat».
In many cases, English words take on the meaning of their Chinese counterparts, resulting in a shift in meaning. This is most obvious in such cases as «borrow»/»lend», which are functionally equivalent in Singlish and mapped to the same Hokkien word, «借» (chio), which can mean to lend or to borrow. («Oi (also used as oy, although Singaporeans spell it as oi), can borrow me your calculator?»); and ‘send’ can be used to mean «accompany someone», as in «Let me send you to the airport», possibly under the influence of the Hokkien word «送» (sang). However, we might note that Malay ‘(meng)hantar’ can also be used to mean both «send a letter» and «take children to school», so perhaps both Malay and Chinese have combined to influence the usage of ‘send’ in Singapore.
Published - August 2016
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