Singlish is the English-based creole spoken colloquially in Singapore. Singlish formally takes after British English (in terms of spelling and abbreviations), although naming conventions are in a mix of American and British ones. 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).
Singlish began life 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 learned 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 Malay, and the southern varieties of Chinese, began to be learned "natively" in its own right. Creolization occurred, and Singlish then became a fully-formed, stabilized, and independent English creole.
Singlish is best thought of as a continuum. In Singlish's case, the continuum runs through the following varieties:
Acrolectal: This is the most "high-class" form of speech, used by the well-educated in formal situations. Acrolectal Singaporean English is basically identical to formal British English, except that a "toned-down" version of Singlish pronunciation is used. For example, speakers of acrolectal Singaporean English attempt to restore the phonemes /θ/ and /ð/ (as in thin and then).
Mesolectal: This is "middle-class" Singlish, and is used in formal and semi-formal situations. At this level, features not found in other forms of English begin to emerge.
Basilectal: This is "street" Singlish, and is used by everyone, educated or not, in informal settings. Here can be found all of the unique phonological, lexical, and grammatical features of Singlish, which will be the subject of the rest of this article.
Pidgin: This is the "pidgin" level of Singlish, which is probably a good representative of an earlier stage of Singlish, before creolization took place and solidified Singlish as a fully-formed creole. Like all pidgins, speakers at the pidgin level speak another language as a first language, and Singlish as a second language. However, since many people today learn Singlish natively, the number of speakers at the "pidgin" level of Singlish is dwindling. (By definition, a pidgin is not learned natively.)
When Singaporeans speak to each other, mixing of Singlish with other languages, such as Chinese dialects, Malay, or Indian languages such as Tamil occurs very frequently. In fact, a sentence can begin in Singlish, switch languages several times along the way, and end up as another language. However, this can only occur if all participants of the conversation can already speak both Singlish and the language(s) into which they are switching. This article will therefore talk only about "pure" Singlish—the kind that may go on in a conversation between a Chinese, a Malay, and an Indian. Such speech will still contain Asian words, but those will be considered loanwords fully incorporated into Singlish, because everyone can understand them, regardless of what other Asian languages they may speak.
Due to its origins, Singlish shares many similarities with pidgin varieties of English, and can easily give off 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 downright incomprehensible to a Briton or American. As a result, the Singaporean government considers Singlish a handicap, and in the interest of promoting equality and better communication with the rest of the world has launched the Speak Good English Movement to eradicate it, at least from formal usage. In recent years, the use of Singlish on television or radio is proliferating as localised Singlish is more popular among the general public.
Most Singaporeans, on the other hand, think "bladi Gahmen si peh kaypoh one, why always so bedek kacang horh". This sentence can be approximately broken down into:
- "bladi Gahmen" - bloody Government
- "si peh" - very (from Hokkien Chinese)
- "kaypoh" - busybody (from Hokkien)
- "one" - emphatic particle
- "why always so" - indication of harbored displeasure
- "bedek kacang" - lit. 'aiming at peanuts' (Malay); in this sentence, can probably be taken to mean 'meddlesome' or 'annoying'
- "horh?" - Chinese prompt for affirmation, somewhat like n'est-ce pas? of French. It is also similar to isn't it? of English, such as the sentence, That house is beautiful, isn't it?
Singlish pronunciation, while built on a base of British English, is also heavily influenced by Chinese and Malay.
The phonology of Singlish:
(See International Phonetic Alphabet for an in-depth guide to the symbols.)
- The unvoiced stops and affricate—/p/, /t/, /k/, / tʃ/ chin—are sometimes unaspirated, especially at the basilectal level. (Aspiration refers to a puff of air.) In other varieties of English, these phonemes are usually aspirated, especially at the beginning of a word. The general effect of this is that, the Singlish pronunciation of pat, tin and come may sometimes seem closer to bat, din, and gum than other varieties of English.
- The voiced fricatives—/v/, /z/, / ʒ/ vision—are unstable at the basilectal level, and may be substituted with other phonemes, e.g. bery for very, gero for zero. (This is much rarer outside the basilectal level.) In syllable-final positions they merge with their unvoiced counterparts—see point 6 below.
- The dental fricatives—/ θ/ thin and /ð/ then—merge into /t/ and /d/, but the distinction is restored in acrolectal speech.
- The distinction between /l/ and /r/ is not stable at the basilectal level, as evinced by TV personality Phua Chu Kang's oft-repeated refrain to "Use your blain!".
- /l/ is lost after / ɔ/, /o/, /u/, and for some basilectal speakers, / ə/. Hence pall = paw, roll = row, tool = two, and for some, pearl = per.
- [ ʔ], the glottal stop, is inserted at the beginning of all words starting with a vowel. (compare with German) As a result, final consonants do not run onto the next word. For example, "run out of energy" would be "run-nout-tof-venergy" in most dialects of English, but "run 'out 'of 'energy" in Singlish.
- [ ʔ] also replaces final consonants of syllables in regular-speed speech, especially stops: Goodwood Park becomes Gu'-wu' Pa' . The plural -s in particular is almost always omitted, since Chinese does not distinguish between single and plural nouns.
- Plosives are "geminate" (or double-length) if occurring in the middle of a word. Hence better / bɛt:ə/, enter / ɛnt:ə/.
- In slower speech, final consonants are pronounced fully (though stops are not released, like American English -t and -d). However, voicing distinction—i.e. /p/ & /b/, /t/ & /d/, etc.—are usually not kept in final consonants. This affects fricatives more than stops. As a result, peace = peas, let = led, and so forth.
- Final consonant clusters simplify, especially fast speech. In general, stops, especially /t/ and /d/, are lost if they come after another consonant : bent = Ben, act = ack, nest = Ness.
The vowel system of Singlish can be directly derived by merging vowel phonemes in the British Received Pronunciation vowel system. The following describes a typical system. Some speakers may further merge / e/ and / ɛ/; other speakers make a distinction between / i/ and / ɪ/, / ɛ/ and / ɛə/, or / ɑ/ and / ʌ/.
At the acrolectal level, there is some effort to "un-merge" the merged vowel phonemes, and to introduce elements from American English, such as rhotic vowels (pronouncing the "r" in bird, port, etc.)
|Singlish phoneme ||matches RP phoneme(s) ||as in |
|/ i/ ||/ i/ ||meet |
|/ ɪ/ ||pit |
|/ e/ ||/ eɪ/ ||day |
|/ ɛ/ ||/ ɛ/ ||set |
|/ æ/ ||map |
|/ ɛə/ ||hair |
|/ ɑ/ ||/ ɑ/ ||car |
|/ ʌ/ ||bus |
|/ ɔ/ ||/ ɒ/ ||mock |
|/ ɔ/ ||thought |
|/o/ ||/ əʊ/ ||low |
|/ u/ ||/ u/ ||room |
|/ ʊ/ ||put |
|/ ə/ - see below ||/ ɜ/ ||bird |
|/ ə/ ||idea |
|/ ai/ ||/ ai/ ||my |
|/ au/ ||/ au/ ||mouth |
|/ ɔi/ ||/ ɔi/ ||boy |
|/ iə/ ||/ iə/ ||here |
|/ uə/ ||/ uə/ ||tour |
|/ ai jə/ ||/ aiə/ ||fire |
|/ au wə/ ||/ auə/ ||power |
Two words with idiosyncratic pronunciations:
flour / flɑ/ (expected: / flɑ wə/ = flower)
their / djɑ/ (expected: / dɛ/ = there)
Flour/flower and their/there are therefore not homophones in Singlish.
In general, Singlish vowels are tenser and "purer"—there are no lax vowels (which RP has in pit, put, and so forth), and even the diphthongs are pronounced with less "glide" than the diphthongs in RP. Note that the vowels of day and low are pronounced as monophthongs—i.e. vowels with no glide.
In addition, where other varieties of English have an unstressed / ə/, reduced from another vowel, such as in accept, example, and so on, Singlish tends to restore the full vowel. This is because Singlish de-emphasizes the role of stress (see section on prosody below).
In loanwords from Hokkien that contain nasalized vowels, the nasalization is often kept - one prominent example being the mood particle hor, pronounced as / hɔ~/—somewhat (but not quite) like the vowel in French dent.
One of the most prominent and noticeable features of Singlish is its unique intonation pattern, which is quite unlike British or American English. For example:
- Singlish is syllable-timed compared to other varieties of English (which are mostly stress-timed). This in turn gives Singlish a very rhythmic and staccato feel.
- Pitch contours are more well-defined and distinct in Singlish than in other varieties of English. This makes Singlish sound somewhat like Chinese, a tonal language.
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). Singlish also uses many words borrowed from Hokkien, the dialect of more than 50% of the Chinese population in Singapore, and from Malay. 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 Mandarin word, "借" (jiè), which can mean to lend or to borrow. ("Oi, siao-eh, borrow me your calculator, can?")
- ah - eh? huh?
- Ah Beng - uneducated Chinese man, butt of jokes
- aiyah! (Hokkien) or ayoh! - (Malay oh, no!)
- alamak! - surprise/shock (Malay)
- ang moh - white person, Caucasian (from ang moh kau meaning "red haired monkey", Hokkien)
- bodoh - ignorant (from the Malay word, meaning "stupid")
- boleh - can (Malay)
- COE (Certificate of Entitlement) - (very expensive) permit for car ownership
- CPF (Central Provident Fund) - government savings scheme
- chop - rubber stamp (from Malay cap) - "Immigration will chop your passport."
- chope - reserve - "Don't take this seat, I choped it already."
- gostan - go backward (Malay) (this actually originates from the nautical phrase "go astern")
- HDB (Housing Development Board) - public housing
- hawker centre - outdoor food court
- ISA - Internal Security Act
- kiah su/kiasu - somebody who fears losing out (Hokkien)
- kana (kena) - be afflicted with
- Kopi - coffee (Hokkien)
- makan - eat (from Malay)
- mata - police (Malay)
- mati - die, be doomed (Malay)
- Mindef - Ministry of Defence (Singapore)
- MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) Often pronounced as "M, MA, T" - metro system (another popular pronunciation is "mert")
- NS - National Service
- PAP - People's Action Party - Governing party since 1959.
- SAF - Singapore Armed Forces
- skali (pronounced SCAR-ly) - lest, what if "Skali no way to go out, then how?" (from Malay, sekali)
- shiok - cool! (Hokkien)
- sotong - lit. squid (Malay), fig. stupid (see also "blur")
- suaku - uninformed or backward (lit. Hokkien "mountain tortoise")
- ulu - rural, remote (Malay)
- wah! - wow! (Hokkien)
- yang gui zhi - foreign devil, an endearing term for "ang moh" (see above) (Mandarin - uncommon)
English words with different meanings in Singlish
- arrow - pinpoint/pick on "Why he arrow me to do this?"
- blur - confused
- choose - browse - "Choose, choose, choose, but never buy, is it?"
- follow - to come along - Can I follow?
- heartlander - person from working class HDB estate
- having here - "to eat inside the restaurant meaning the opposite of take-away"
- help, lah - please, do lend me a hand by desisting from whatever it is you are doing - "Help lah, stop hitting on my sister"
- keep - put away - "Please keep your notes"
- send - to take somebody to somewhere - "I'll send you to the airport."
- solid/steady - excellent - "Solid sia, that movie."
- sabo - short for "sabotage", also meaning to betray or cause failure - "Because he sabo me, now boss mad at me!"
- spoil - to be damaged "This one, spoil."
- stay - to live (in a place) - "She's staying in Ang Mo Kio."
- shy (don't shy!) - come on!
- upgrade - to improve - "The service has been upgraded."
- what? - eh? huh? - "You never give me, what?"
- throw - to throw away "I throw it already"
- on, off - to switch on/off "I on the TV"
Other idioms include:
- ice water - water with ice
- plain water - water (as oppposed to soft drinks, etc.)
- return back - give back
- talk cock - speak nonsense
- toast bread - toast
The grammar of Singlish has been heavily influenced by other languages and dialects in the region, such as Chinese and Malay. 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. This means that Singlish sentences are usually constructed by first putting down a topic (or a known reference of the conversation), followed by a comment (or new information). The semantic relationship between topic and comment is not important:
- This country weather very hot, one. (In this country, the weather is very hot.)
- That person there cannot trust. (That person there cannot be trusted.)
- Play soccer he very good also. (He's very good in playing soccer too.)
- Tomorrow no need bring camera. (You don't need to bring a camera tomorrow.)
The above constructions can be translated analogously into Chinese or Japanese, which are topic-prominent languages.
Nouns are optionally marked for plurality. In general, a noun that is used to refer to a general category is not marked for the plural, and does not take any articles:
- He can play piano.
- I like to read storybook.
- Your computer got virus one, is it? (Is it that your computer has viruses?)
It is more common to mark the plural in the presence of a modifier that implies plurality, such as "several", "both".
The copula, which is the verb "to be" in most varieties of English, is treated somewhat differently in Singlish:
When occurring with an adjective, "to be" tends to drop out, and is often replaced by an adverb, such as "very". This is strongly reminiscent of Chinese and Malay (there is no to be verb in Malay) usage:
- This house very nice.
- That car not worth the money.
When occurring with "-ing" to form the continuous aspect, "to be" may similarly drop out, leaving the "-ing" form as the independent continuous form:
- How come so late in the night you still playing music, ar?
- You looking for trouble, is it?
Slightly less common is the dropping out of "to be" when used as an equative between two nouns, or as a locative:
- This boy the class monitor. (=class president)
- His house in Ang Mo Kio.
In general, "to be" drops out more behind nouns and pronouns (except "I", "he", and "she"), and much less behind a clause (what I think is...) or a demonstrative (this is...).
The past tense
Past tense marking is optional in Singlish. Marking of the past tense occurs most consistently in strong verbs (or irregular verbs), as well as verbs ending on -t and -d, such as:
- I went to Orchard Road yesterday.
- He accepted in the end.
Due to consonant cluster simplification, the past tense is unmarked when it is part of a complex consonant cluster:
- He talk for so long, never stop, not even when I ask him.
The past tense tends to be unmarked if the verb in question goes on for an extended period, rather than as an isolated event (compare French imperfect):
- When I was young, ar, I go to school every day.
- When he was in school, he always get good marks one.
- Last night I mug so much, so sian already. (mug = cram for exam. sian = bored/tired.)
A completed state can be expressed adding already or liao to the end of the sentence. (See particles section below.) This is similar to the English past tense, but does not cover past habitual or continuous occurrences.
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. This effectively makes -n the negative marker on modals:
- I dun want. (The n and t sounds in don't are usually dropped during speech. I don't know what this means often translates into Singlish as I do-know (doh-no) what this means.
An especially unique effect of this is that in the verb "can", its positive and negative forms are distinguished only by vowel:
- I can / kɛn/ do this lah.
- I can't / kɑn/ do this lah.
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:
- How come today you never (=didn't) hand in homework?
- How come he never (=didn't) pay?
Repetition of verbs
Another feature strongly reminiscent of Chinese, verbs are often repeated (e.g., TV personality Phua Chu Kang's "don't pray-pray!" pray = play.) In general verbs are repeated to imply vividness, repetition, and a sense of "wandering around":
- They talk talk so much, never do work one.
- I look and look, also cannot find. (here, look and look is pronounced very fast, in a continuous string.)
- So what I do was, I sit down and I think think think, until I get answer lor.
Particles in Singlish are highly comparable to Chinese. They are generally used to express grammatical mood. For example:
/ ɔ11 rɛ33 di42/
Used to express a change in state, and is analogous to Chinese 了 (le):
- He throw it already. - He threw it away (already)
- Aiya, I cannot wait any more, must go already.
- I eat already. (I ate or I have eaten.)
- Yesterday, they go there already. (Yesterday, they have already gone there.)
- This new game, you play already or not? (As for this new game, have you played it yet?)
Is similar to already.
- He throw it liao.
- Aiya, I cannot wait any more, must go liao.
- I eat liao.
- Yesterday, they go there liao.
- This new game, you play liao or not?
/ i11 sit24/ or /i11 zit24/
Used to form yes-no questions, generic like the French n'est-ce pas?, regardless of the actual verb in the sentence. Is it implies that the speaker has inferred (from some other evidence) that the answer is Yes, but needs it confirmed:
- They never study, is it? (No wonder they fail!)
- You don't like that, is it? (No wonder you had that face!)
Also used to form yes-no questions, but with a decidedly different tone: the speaker implies that he/she had expected the answer to the question to be No, but has been surprised by new evidence that points the other way:
- They never study meh? (I thought they do?)
- You don't like that meh? (I thought you do?)
/ ɔ11 nɔt41/
In a construction similar (but not identical) to Chinese, or not is used to form a yes/no question. Unlike is it or meh, or not carries no connotations of either Yes or No. Or not cannot be used with sentences already in the negative:
- This book you want or not?
- Can or not?
Inserted between topic and comment (often to give a negative tone), or at the end of a question (for added brusqueness).
- This boy ar, always so naughty one!
- How come like that one, ar?
/ wɑn42/ or /wɑn55/
The word one is used to emphasize the predicate of the sentence by implying that it is in a continuous, habitual state. It can be compared to a similar use of de in southern Chinese. One used in this way does not correspond to any use of the word "one" in British or American English:
- Walau! So stupid one! - He's so stupid!
- I do everything by habit one. - I always do everything by habit.
- He never go to school one. - He doesn't go to school (unlike other people).
Liddat (Like that)
/ lai11 dɛt41/
Is used to emphasize descriptions by adding vividness and continuousness:
- He so stupid liddat. - He's pretty stupid, you know.
- He acting like a little kid liddat. - He's really acting like a little kid, see?
Like that can also be used as in British or American English:
/ lɑ55/ or /lɑ51/
The ubiquitous word 'lah' is used at the end of a sentence, for emphasis. In Malay it 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. Hence a Singaporean would say
Lah is often used with brusque, short, negative responses:
- Dun have, lah! (Brusque response to, "Lend me some money, can?")
- You dun know one, lah! (Brusque response to someone fumbling with an explanation.)
Lah is also used for reassurance:
- Dun worry, he can one lah. Don't worry, he can [do it].
- It's okay lah. It's all right.
This is not to be confused with 'la' (short for 'lad'), which is found in the Scouse dialect spoken in Liverpool, England
Used to remind or contradict the listener, often in order to explain some other point the speaker has:
- But he very good at sports what, that's why can play soccer so well. (In response to How come he can play soccer? or I thought he can't play soccer one?)
Used to assert that something is obvious and final, and is usually used only with statements that are already patently true. This may seem condescending to the listener:
- But he very good at sports, that's why can play soccer mah!
A casual, sometimes joking way to assert upon the listener either direct observations or obvious inferences. This may also seem condescending if over-used:
- If you don't do the work, then you die-die lor!
Used to assert a command, request, claim or complaint:
- Give me leh!
- How come you don't give me leh?
Used to draw the listener's attention and/or consent:
- Then hor, another person came out of the house.
- This shopping center also very nice hor.
"Got" is used to mean either "there is" / "there are", or "has" / "have":
- Got question? Is there a question? / Do you have a question?
- Yesterday ar, East Coast Park got so many people one!
- This bus got air-con or not? Is there air-conditioning on this bus?
- Where got!? (Generic response to any accusation.)
"Can" is used extensively as both a question particle and an answer particle. The negative is cannot.
- Go home lah, can? Just go home, OK?
- (Responding to: Can I have a sweet, too?) Can!
- (Responding to: Can you come tomorrow?) Cannot.
The order of the verb and the subject in an indirect question is the same as a direct question.
- "Eh, you know where is he?" "Excuse me, do you know where he is?"
- Singapore Good English Movement (http://www.goodenglish.org.sg/SGEM)
- Ah Beng's Guide to Singlish (http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/4883/singlish.html)
- Singlish Dictionary @ talkingcock.com (http://www.talkingcock.com/html/lexec.php?op=LexPKL&lexicon=lexicon)