Magazine

The rise of Singlish

Singapore's famous merlion statue Image copyright AFP
Image caption Singapore's famous spouting Merlion statue - in Singlish "merlion" means to vomit profusely

Singapore's government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak English - it's the language used in schools, at work, and in government. But in practice many people speak a hybrid language that can leave visitors completely baffled - Singlish.

Singapore is known for its efficiency and Singlish is no different - it's colourful and snappy.

You don't have a coffee - you "lim kopi". And if someone asks you to join them for a meal but you've already had dinner, you simply say: "Eat already."

Singlish first emerged when Singapore gained independence 50 years ago, and decided that English should be the common language for all its different races.

That was the plan. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street.

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Media captionSingaporean comedian Vernetta Lopez finds out how the local patois Singlish is used in everyday life

Repeated Speak Good English campaigns, drummed into Singaporeans in schools and in the media, have had only limited success. Singlish has not only shrugged off these attacks, it has thrived.

It's been documented in a dictionary and studied by linguists. And it has been immortalised in popular culture. Take for example the 1991 comedy rap song Why U So Like Dat? by musician Siva Choy, which dramatises an argument between two schoolchildren.

"I always give you chocolate, I give you my Tic Tac, but now you got a Kit Kat, you never give me back!" sings Choy.

"Oh why you so like dat ah? Eh why you so like dat?"

Over time, Speak Good English campaigns have evolved from trying to stamp out Singlish, to accepting that properly spoken English and Singlish can peacefully co-exist. The language has even come to be seen as part of Singaporean identity and heritage - it appears in advertising campaigns for SG50, the big celebration of Singapore's Jubilee Year, and will feature on floats in Sunday's National Day Parade.


Do you speak Singlish? Decode these five phrases


Among ordinary Singaporeans, Singlish tends to be spoken in informal situations - with friends and family, taking a taxi or buying groceries. It indicates casual intimacy. English, on the other hand, is used for formal situations - at school, or at work, especially when meeting strangers or clients.

Over time, it has become a social marker - someone who can effectively switch between the two languages is perceived to be more educated and of a higher social status than someone who can only speak Singlish.

Someone who can only speak English, and not Singlish, meanwhile, may be seen as a bit posh, or worse - not a real Singaporean.

So how do you speak it?

The grammar mirrors some other regional languages including Malay, which is indigenous to Singapore, by doing away with most prepositions, verb conjugations, and plural words, while its vocabulary reflects the broad range of the country's immigrant roots. It borrows from Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese languages, as well as Tamil from southern India.

Image caption Singapore's national day parade on Sunday will pay tribute to Singlish with these floats

Having coffee, "lim kopi", is a combination of the Hokkien word for drink, "lim", and the Malay word for coffee, "kopi".

A person who worries a lot is a kancheong spider - "kancheong" is from the Cantonese word for anxious, and the term evokes the image of a panicked spider scurrying around.

If a situation is intolerable, you may exclaim, "Buay tahan!" The word "buay" is Hokkien for cannot, and "tahan" is Malay for tolerate.

But Singaporeans have also appropriated English words and turned them into something else.

To reverse is to "gostan", from the nautical term "go astern" - a reminder that Singapore was once a British port.

"Whack" means to attack someone, and transposing that to Singapore's favourite pastime, eating, it can also mean ravenously attacking or digging into a hearty meal.

Singlish also has an array of words that are simply invented, that don't mean anything on their own, but dramatically alter the tone of what you're saying when tacked on to the end of a sentence.

"I got the cat lah," is an assurance that you have the cat. "I got the cat meh?" is the puzzled realisation that you may have lost it.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption She got the cat lah

Some Singlish phrases are also used in Malaysia but others are unique to Singapore.

To "merlion" is to vomit profusely, and refers to Singapore's national icon, the Merlion, a half-fish half-lion statue that continuously spouts water.

Thanks partly to social media, Singlish, which used to be only a spoken language, is now starting to evolve in written form with spelling that reflects how the words are pronounced.

"Like that" can be "liddat."

"Don't play play" - a phrase popularised by 1990s sitcom character Phua Chu Kang, meaning roughly "don't mess around with me" - is more accurately written as "Donch pray pray".

Confused? Donch get kancheong.

Spend enough time in Singapore and you sure get it lah.


Some of your comments and examples of Singlish:

Some slangs that are more commonly used among students include "mugging", which means studying very hard, "siao", meaning to the extreme, and "sian", meaning tired and boring Vanessa Kin, Singapore

If something is disagreeable, people will yell "alamak!" Tom, Singapore

Growing up in Singapore, my parents used to frown upon the usage of Singlish, whether we were talking informally at home or with others while outside. They'd insist that we spoke proper English and even had me attend English-language tutorial classes, in addition to having English lessons at school. They'd also prohibit us from watching local TV programmes where the use of Singlish was prevalent. Consequently, I grew up not being able to hold a decent conversation in Singlish and that presented problems for my social life, e.g. ordering food at a local food centre was difficult if the stall owners couldn't understand what I wanted. The problem was especially bad during my National Service conscription period, where I had to work hard to integrate myself with the rest of the boys as we slogged through training together and also having to make sure I didn't incur the wrath of the instructors and trainers because I appeared to be too "posh" as it were. These days, I've learnt to switch between speaking proper English and Singlish depending on the situation I find myself in. Although I do not live in Singapore anymore at the moment, I still find myself smiling whenever I hear Singlish, and realise it's really a part of our national heritage. James Wong, Tokyo, Japan

When I lived in Singapore, your "sunnies" were your sunglasses, your "swimmies" was your bathing suit, and I was expecting at the time, so people would ask if I had been to the "gynie", meaning the gynecologist! Aileen, NYC, USA

"So bad one lah" (a random expression for something disagreeable!) Chwee, Swindon, England

Phrase: Pattern more than badminton. Explanation: Style over substance Lum Wai Loon, Singapore

When I was in Singapore I was asked questions such as "Where you go?" So when I went on their very modern Metro system I was amused to hear an announcement in slow and meticulous "BBC English" saying "Please mind the gap". (The gap incidentally was minuscule compared to some of those on the London Underground.) David Jenner, Bamford, UK

Being a transplanted Singaporean, I am glad (from this article) that I am perceived to be 'better educated' and not just 'atas' (snobbish!) However there are occasions when even I am baffled, most recently after watching a music video (proudly Made In Singapore!), "Unbelievable" where I came across the phrase "stunned like vegetable..." Now even I admit to being blur like sotong when it comes to this! Nicholas Tan, Salford, UK

Having lived in the region for four years, the language felt very efficient, using prepositions as words - "Can you on the fan?" "Can you off the aircon?" - to be always met with the response "OK lah!" Andrea, Marlow, UK

"Want to go out. Can or not?" Question: "Have you been to Malaysia?" Answer: "Ever!" Daniel Muthuswamy, Chennai, India

I may have lived abroad for many years, but I definitely retain my Singlish skills. It evolves continuously with new terms getting introduced every year I return. In Singapore, speaking Singlish builds instant rapport, and because of its nuances, people can easily distinguish between a real native or a newbie. Not using Singlish in a non-work setting when someone is evidently local makes the person appear "jumped up" or insecure about their culture and identity, especially if compounded by a fake foreign (ie US/UK/Aussie) accent. I'm glad that the 'establishment' are recognising the real role Singlish plays in creating cohesion within this multiracial space. Sharliza, London, UK

My favourite is "see how" in answer to a situation whose outcome you can't predict, so you wait to "see how" it turns out. Andra Leo, Singapore

Been to Singapore once. I am amused with calling someone "uncle" even if it's not your relative. Chitetskoy, Manila, Philippines

I learnt Singlish when I went to a local school in Singapore around Siglap where the first phrase I learnt was "relax lah brother, can tankap one corner" from this Malay kid. But I have to say one of favourite phrase is "boh jio! never invite me leh!" whenever I go back to Singapore mainly to visit my dad I somehow unconsciously start speaking Singlish as my lingua franca language amongst my old Singaporean friends but I do get stumped at the coffee shops when I order the different variations. You going from "Could I have a flat white and a bacon roll please" in London to "Uncle! Kopi ci Kai Ci! Kaya toast one!" David Houghton, UK

Favourite phrase is definitely "Eh that level of jio is bo" which is another way of saying "bojio", meaning "Why you never invite me?" Denise, Singapore

I love Singlish. It is colourful, expressive and reflects the wit, humour, history and multiculturalism of Singaporeans. When I first arrived I struggled with the quick delivery, the lilt and the Malay / Hokkien / appropriated words but Singaporeans are resourceful and there was an app for that! I downloaded it and soon I was ordering limau asam boi and yong tau foo in my favourite hawker centre with confidence. A Carey, London, UK

The article misses out on the word "Kiasu". Used profusely in Singapore previously it has less popularity among Singaporeans now because it is a negative term denoting a behaviour emanating from intense materialism, a selfishness ( the 'Me' syndrome) and a desire to be liked at the same time as being looked up to. Choo Weng Choong, King's Lynn, UK

"Sian" is one word in Singlish that can be used in a many contexts and accurately expresses emotions so I like it a lot because it's so efficient. Generally it means to be sick and tired of something or bored or being caught in bothersome situations you can't do anything about. E.g. English: I'm so sick and tired of going to work every day. Singlish: Everyday go work, very Sian. English: The plane got delayed. Singlish: Plane delay, Sian. Caryn, Singapore

You forgot to mention the phrase "Same Same" - you can go around all day and say this! it covers a multitude of meanings and everyone understands what you mean, although this phrase is not just limited to Singlish, you can use it all over South East Asia. Tom Ayre, Kristiansand, Norway

My wife is Chinese and uses lah all the time. My favourite of her expressions is when she puts her phone on silent: "No ding dong" Andy, Baldock, UK

Actually Singlish was developed in both Malaysia and Singapore, not just in Singapore alone. And the most used word in "lah" is a Malay word. Tones are very important. And adding a word to "can" with a correct tone can bring eight different meanings to can: Can ah ? - Can you?; Can la - Can; Can leh - Yes, I think so; Can lor - Yes, Of course; Can hah? - Are you sure?; Can hor - You are sure then; Can meh? - Are you certain?; Can bo? - Can or not; Can can - Confirm; Can liao - Already done Ng Wah Lok, Malaysia

My kids speak impeccable English being products of British and now Australian school system. My wife and I are often under close scrutiny from them on grammar, and use of idioms. The only way we rebel against the kids are when we speak really "deep Singlish" with a spatter of colloquial Malay. It's funny as we observe the kids often scratch their heads trying to decipher the words. Most of the time they only come to know the meaning when we go back to Singapore / Malaysia to visit family. It's me and my wife's only "secret language" around the house. I do welcome the acceptance of Singlish as more mainstream but now it means that me and my wife have to learn a new language (perhaps Russian "govoryu Pa-russki") to confuse the kids! Ahmad Nazhar, Perth, Australia

Only Singaporeans can understand and appreciate: Singlish is the only language in the world that expresses with emotion from text messages. Simon, Singapore

"Area Masjid Sultan is a decent makan place la..." said my friend Ansari. A Singaporean born but now settled down with his family in Sydney. "Makan" is a Malay word for eat and "Masjid" is borrowed from Arabic for mosque. That short sentence above means, "You can get a decent food nearby Sultan Mosque..." Mohd Ayub Sulong, Mayfield, Australia

The Singlish expression "WALAOEH!" is an all-time favourite. It is used mostly to express disapproval, but can also be used to show one's disbelief, ie. a surprise. For example, when visiting a durian stall, one may say "Walao-eh! This durian so big sia!" Mike Lim, Singapore

Question: "How are you? Are you ok?" Possible answers: Ok lah (I'm fine); Ok lor (I'm fine, I guess); Ok lah! (I'm definitely fine); Ok meh? (Am I ok? Don't think so) James, Singapore

I like the long phrases because they are so unique and amusing. "Pattern zuay guay badminton" is a derogatory term for someone sneaky who has got lots of hidden designs. "Chop chop Kali pop (curry puff)" just means hurry up! Li Ching, Singapore

I do like the way Singlish draws on other languages for certain words that just don't have an equivalent in English: my favourite is the loan word 'pai-kwan' taken from Hokkien. It refers to someone who is too eager for any kind of financial gain, no matter how small. For example, "He is so pai-kwan one: when he realized that they were giving out free samples, he shamelessly jostled his way to the front of the queue, knocking over a few old ladies in the process." Alex Liang, London, UK

The use of 'ever' to replace 'have' is quite common. "You go Bangkok, is it? I ever go there oready" translates to "You're going to Bangkok, are you? I've already been there." Ken, Montreal, Canada

I going to watch movie, ghost movie lah , sure very nice one, you want to follow me? Today my mother cooked nasi goreng, so sedap lah, come lah I give you some.. Dewi, Italy

"No more already" means , " it's over long ago.." Mukunda, Bangalore

You know a Singaporean is worth his or her salt when they hear, "eh that guy so stylo milo (trying too hard to be stylish)" and replies, "yeah he think he some yaya papaya (someone who thinks he or she is very important)" Rebecca, Singapore

Here, we include everyone into our way of living, add in our famous efficient character, we live, play and eat together without discrimination (eg. Ah Chan, lai canteen, lunch Yusof blanjar Thosai - Ah Chan, come to the canteen. Yusof treating us Thosai for lunch.) This is what I call My "swee!" Life (My beautiful Life). Gavin, Singapore

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