Singaporean English is Almost Impossible to Pick Up

Atlas Obscura
Singaporean English is Almost Impossible to Pick Up
Urvija Banerji
2 May 2016

Wah lao! Why can’t I speak Singlish?


The Merlion is a famous statue and symbol of Singapore. “To merlion” in Singlish means to puke everywhere. (Photo: WolfgangSladkowski/CC BY 3.0)

“Two dollar onny, dis one,” a street vendor might say to you in Singapore. A local might reply, “Wah! So espensive one, cannot leh.”

While this might sound like broken English, it is an example of Singlish, the highly complicated English creole spoken in Singapore. Its staccato, off-grammar patois is the subject of much bemusement for visitors to the country, and it’s almost impossible for outsiders to imitate.

“Singlish is easy to learn, but hard to execute,” says Sai Pogaru, who moved to Singapore in 2001 and is now a citizen. “There is a certain flair to the language/accent. It actually requires lots of practice to sound authentic.”

Singlish is not just one creole: it’s an amalgamation of many different Southeast Asian dialects and pidgins all rolled up into one.

Singlish comes from the mixing of Singapore’s four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. English, now the lingua franca, was brought over by the British during Singapore’s period of colonization, which lasted from 1819 to 1963. Following its introduction into Singaporean schools, English began to permeate the streets outside them, and was picked up by the Malay, Chinese and Indian populations. After independence, the newly formed Singaporean government made the decision to continue teaching in English after identifying that there was a need for a common language in the country.

Many British expatriates moved back to England after Singapore’s independence. In the unregulated environment following their departure, the English spoken in Singapore became substantially influenced by Malay—the native language—and the other languages brought over by immigrants: Tamil and the Chinese Mandarin and Hokkien dialects.

The grammar of Singaporean English began to mirror the grammar of these languages. For example, a modern-day Singaporean could say “I go bus-stop wait for you,” to mean that he will wait for you at the bus stop. This phrase could be translated into either Malay or Chinese without having to change the grammatical structure of the sentence. Those unfamiliar with the grammatical structure of these languages, as a result, have a hard time picking up Singlish.

Words from the other languages became appropriated into the creole as well, creating an entire Singlish lexicon that is used today. The word “ang moh,” for example, is a Hokkien word which literally translates to “red hair,” but is used in Singlish to describe people of Caucasian descent. The Malay word “makan” is commonly used to mean food, or the act of eating. The Tamil word “goondu,” which means “fat” in its original language, is used in Singlish to describe a person who is not very smart.


An advertisement written in Singlish on the Singaporean island of Pulau Ubin. (Photo: Michael Elleray/CC BY 2.0)

Perhaps the most famous Singlish word is the ubiquitous “lah,” an example of the language’s more playful sensibilities. It is essentially a filler word with no meaning. “Lah” can be placed anywhere in a sentence, but is often used as a form of audible punctuation at the end. Another popular exclamation is “wah lao,” or the even more flamboyant “wah lao eh,” used to express surprise or wonder.

One of the many barriers to picking up Singlish is its complicated intonation. English is a stress-timed language, which means that some syllables are longer, and others are shorter. Singlish, however, is syllable-timed, which means that each syllable is pronounced for an equal amount of time, making Singlish far more staccato in nature.

Where it gets even more complicated is in the tones. English is a non-tonal language, which means that words do not have particular tones associated with them. Chinese, on the other hand, is a tonal language, in which words change their meaning depending on the tone used to speak them. Singlish retains all the tones of the Chinese words that it borrows, but maintains no tones in its English, Malay and Tamil words, making it a semi-tonal language.

There’s more. Though Singlish is prevalent all over Singapore, it operates on a spectrum dependent upon the circumstances, making it even harder to trace down. In formal settings, for example, Singlish tends to be toned down to its acrolectal form: Singlish words and grammatical structures are eliminated, and only the accent remains. In the day-to-day, however, a more colloquial form of Singlish is used.


A warning sign in Singapore written in the country’s four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. (Photo: Gabbe/Public Domain)

Pogaru, who moved to Singapore with his family at the age of eight, explains that his ability to speak Singlish only came when he joined the Singapore Armed Forces at the age of 18. “Singlish to me was just an accent with a “lah” thrown in at the end of a sentence,” he says of his opinion of the creole before joining the army. “I didn’t think much of it.”

His experience with Singlish drastically changed in his first year of National Service, the two-year period of compulsory service required of all male citizens of Singapore. “I vividly remember an incident in Basic Military Training where my sergeant told my platoon, ‘You all have 15 minutes. Go up and lepak [relax],’” says Pogaru. He spent the next 15 minutes trying to figure out what “lepak” meant and what exactly the sergeant wanted. “Singlish was the language of communication in NS, and I realized that I would have to learn some new vocabulary to truly understand what was happening.”

Though Pogaru has worked hard to increase his understanding of Singlish over the years since his time in the army, he’s not quite sure he has it down yet. “Despite knowing Singlish, I still have not been able to impress my Singaporean friends with my attempts to sound local,” he says. “Guess I just have to keep practicing.”

Advertisements
Singaporean English is Almost Impossible to Pick Up

PAP’s History of Backstabbing

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan, returning candidate for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC at GE2015, boldly said in the PAP rally at Commonwealth on 7 September 2015: “I have just one message to send to the SDP: in the PAP, we do not have the tradition of backstabbing our mentors.” This prompted The Online Citizen to produce the following video.

Vivian Balakrishnan kept talking about how Lee Kuan Yew is the PAP. Well, if so, backstabbing mentors and comrades is the PAP way. Here we see how the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew made his entire career out of backstabbing his mentors and comrades.

John Laycock

In 1950, LKY returned to Singapore from the UK and Laycock gave LKY a job at his law firm where he was a senior partner. Laycock not only take LKY as his personal pupil but paid him $500 a month, which at that time was five times the median salary. He then also gave LKY’s wife a job there. In 1951, Laycock asked LKY to be his election agent for the General Elections and LKY agreed. Laycock later allowed LKY to take on cases for the trade union ― the cases which would make LKY’s name. He let LKY use his admin staff for political activities. Laycock also made LKY a partner in his firm.

In return, LKY did not support Laycock in the 1955 elections, but started his own political party (PAP) and in his campaign speeches he openly attacked the European establishment and criticized them heavily. A few months later, Laycock asked LKY to leave his company.

Devan Nair

Devan Nair was one of the founding members of the PAP but LKY saw him as a threat. In the 1955 elections, LKY sabotaged Nair’s campaign. Nair was supposed to get his help for ferrying his supporters to the polls but LKY’s wife denied the use of those cars to Nair, causing Nair to lose Farrer Park by a tiny margin. In his autobiography, LKY wrote: “Devan Nair lost and I was greatly relieved.” All this when Nair was a fellow party member and comrade to him.

Despite everything, Nair stood by LKY through thick and thin, turning back on his old comrades to stand by LKY. He was a true friend to LKY. In 1985, Nair was forced to resign from the Presidency under unclear circumstances. LKY could have left it at that. He could’ve let Nair go off quietly into the sunset. But LKY alleged that Nair was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a wife-beater, that he was mentally-impaired, using information that could only have come from Nair’s personal private medical records. LKY put all this on a white paper in Parliament in 1988.

Nair later wrote an open letter to LKY, angrily attacking this: “Disgusting concoction of misinterpreted truths, half truths, and untruths. Not to speak of gaping omissions.” He said: “I have been a victim of a total smear. A furious attempt at utter demolition.”

Lim Chin Siong

Lim Chin Siong was Assemblyman for Bukit Timah and one of the three PAP members of the Legislative Assembly. LKY also saw Lim Chin Siong as his rival in PAP. In 1956, the Lim Yew Hock government accused Lim Chin Siong of saying “beat the police” in a speech that preceded a riot. LKY was sitting on that stage behind Lim Chin Siong at that speech. He knew that Lim Chin Siong had specifically told the crowd NOT to beat the police. But in the Assembly, when Minister Chew Swee Kee announced that Lim Chin Siong had been detained without trial for saying “beat the police”, LKY neither corrected Chew nor condemned the arrest.

Other fellow PAP members

Before the 1959 Elections, LKY had promised to release all political detainees from prison if PAP won the elections. But a month before the elections, LKY met the British colonial governor William Good. To Good’s atonishment, LKY told him that his intention was to release only six of the detainees. He had no obligation to the rest of his party members who were in prison because they were his rivals within the party. He had no intention of releasing any others.

Tunku Abdul Rahman

From 1961 to 1963, LKY was working with Tunku Abdul Rahman to create Malaysia. But Tunku kept complaining to the British that LKY kept trying to stab him in the back. As it became clear that LKY was manipulating the merger to save his own political career by destroying his political opponents in Singapore, Tunku got angrier and angrier. At one point, Tunku was “highly offended by LKY’s deceit”. He derided LKY as spineless. He declared, “I can never trust that man again.” He also described LKY as a thoroughly untrustworthy man.

Goh Keng Swee

Goh Keng Swee was LKY’s Economics tutor in Raffles College and after 1959 was his Finance Minister. In November 1962, LKY was about to arrest all his important political opponents and detain them without trial. But LKY was worried that this would make him really unpopular. So LKY actually suggested to the British that before the arrests, he would resign as Prime Minister, leaving Goh Keng Swee who would succeed him as Prime Minister to take the blame for the arrest, thus allowing himself to escape blame and return later as PAP’s and Singapore’s saviour.

Reaction

Shortly after Balakrishnan’s speech about PAP not having a history of backstabbing, an image of him with the quote was posted on his Facebook page. But a few hours later, it was gone. Also, the video of that particular Balakrishnan’s speech rally had been deleted from the PAP’s Youtube channel. Clearly he recognizes that he has made a mistake. He once said in Parliament: “Always be honest and upfront with your people. All of us will make mistakes. When a mistake is made, just come clean and say so. But don’t cover up.”

The video can be downloaded from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXcJL7f0Mw8

#Sg #Singapore #Singapura #thelioncity #littlereddot #sgpolitics #GE2015 #LeeKuanYew #VivianBalakrishnan

PAP’s History of Backstabbing