I stumbled upon this James Harbeck article on BBC Online. It is an interesting piece on “the language the government tried to suppress” – which is Singlish. Malaysians know that it is pretty similar to our own Manglish and yet, still distinctively different.
Singlish is the unofficial language – or dialect? or slang? – of Singapore, born out of the contact between the principal cultures that make up the city state. It’s a living example of how languages can change and develop. It is also an expression of the Singaporean character and culture, a national treasure – or a detriment and danger to the country, depending on whom you ask.
The population of Singapore today is more than 75% Chinese, about 15% Malay, about 8% ‘Indian’ (mainly Tamil), and roughly 2% other origins, but about half of the population now speak English (or Singlish) at home.
Singlish is said to be the neutral language between members of different ethnic groups. It is undeniably a central expression of Singaporean culture, vibrant, loaded with references from the cultural backgrounds of Singaporeans. And it is still thought of by many Singaporeans as ‘bad English’ even as they use it themselves.
Harbeck is right. You can’t really get a full sense of Singlish from the page.
The intonation and pronunciation make it sound even less familiar. To give you a better idea of Singlish – please have a listen to this marvelous rendition of a scene from Frozen in Singlish.
If we care to scrutinize the “language”, all syllables have approximately equal length and stress. It sounds almost like a tone language in places.
Some sounds are changed, and consonants at the ends of words are often dropped or reduced – “like that” becomes liddat. Conjugational and plural endings often disappear. There are quite a few loanwords, such as kena, ‘get something bad’; kiasu, ‘fear of losing out’; shiok, ‘very good’; sian, ‘boring’; buay song, ‘not happy’; pek chek, ‘annoyed, frustrated’; and sia, which is used as an emphatic rather as we might use ‘man’.
Words are often left out where they can be assumed, especially pronouns; on the other hand, words may be repeated for emphasis. “Can help me do dis?” “Can, can, confirm can.” The net effect can sound hurried, impatient, or even rude.
But there are those who argued that Singlish is better than English because it’s more efficient.
Lah is surely the most famous word in Singlish, and is emblematic of a whole class of words that set Singlish apart: pragmatic particles – a kind of verbal equivalent of an emoji. These words inserted at the ends of sentences are mostly borrowed from other languages (especially Chinese dialects), and they have to be said with the right tone, as if in Chinese.
Lor (mid-level tone) expresses resignation (So liddat lor, “It’s just like that, what can you do?”); meh (high tone) expresses a proposition in need of confirmation (Cannot meh, “You really can’t?”); liao (low falling-rising) indicates a completed action (The postal service stopped liao). Even wad – which is to say, what – when said with a low falling tone at the end of a sentence expresses objection (if you are asked to buy something you have already bought, you might say Got already wad). And lah, of course, can be said with so many different tones to express so many different things.
Still, many regard Singlish as being heavily accented, grammatically sloppy English. And the Singapore government frowns on it. At its most realized, Singlish is really a different language that uses English words in abundance. At its closest to standard English, it may differ in pronunciation, use of pragmatic particles, and there are loan words aplenty.
On Wednesday evening, I was in Jalan SS26/6 in Taman Mayang Jaya, PJ where I served as the General Evaluator of the PJ Toastmasters meeting. A good meeting except that it ended really late.
And thank you to the Toastmaster-of-the-Evening, Liew Shaw Kang who brought me my Coke 'medication' – it was really nice of him!