Singaporean English as she is broke! | Daily News

Singaporean English as she is broke!

Singapore national  icon the merlion, continually spouting water has become a simile for profuse vomiting
Singapore national icon the merlion, continually spouting water has become a simile for profuse vomiting

Last week, we dealt with the Sri Lankan English vocabulary which is replete with ‘Singlish’ colloquialisms. The jargon still remains a quaint sort of conversational legacy even among those who have been so assiduously tutored in the Queen’s Language. Today in the same vein, let us talk about the English-based colourful patois spoken colloquially by our Asian Singaporean neighbours.

‘Singlish’ is also the name conferred on the English-based creole spoken colloquially in Singapore. English is one of Singapore's official languages, along with Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. Although English is the lexifier language, Singlish has its unique slang and syntax, which are more pronounced in informal speech. It is usually a mixture of all three official languages and other local dialects like Hokkien, Cantonese or Teochew. Singlish is used in casual contexts between Singaporeans, but is avoided in formal events.

Singapore's government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak standard English which is widely used as a language of business, law and government. But in practice many people speak the hybrid language that can leave visitors completely perplexed. Another factor that could lead to confusion among visitors is the Singaporean staccato accent which may affect the flow of English, causing the fragmented syllables that reflect the Chinese background of some speakers.

Despite the government’s best attempts to educate its people to use Standard English, including a campaign to ‘Speak Good English, Singlish still prevails among most Singaporeans who feel it is now a part of their national identity. The pro-Singlish and anti-Singlish lobbies have strong opposing views which they have voiced stridently over the years. Proponents see it as something unique that binds the different cultures and gives Singaporeans an identity. Opponents - including the Government - say Singlish impedes the learning of standard English, which is the country's working language and which gives Singaporeans a competitive advantage.

To some, Singlish proudly displays the multi-cultural character of Singaporean society. To others, it is a colloquialism that makes them squirm in embarrassment. Whatever side of the debate one fancies, perhaps one of the reasons Singlish is so widely used in entertainment is its ability to bring people closer together. Singapore is a melting pot of many races and cultures. More pragmatically, Singaporeans also use it to save time. That is because a key feature of Singlish is how verbs are dropped and single words loaded with meaning. It could be described as curt and disjointed but has good, old-fashioned economy going for it as well. That is why it is described by some as language suited for the linguistically lazy.

Singlish also indicates casual intimacy and sort of cultural camaraderie among Singaporeans notwithstanding their standing on the social ladder. English, on the other hand, is used for formal situations, at school, or at work, especially when meeting foreign business clients. Over time, it has become a social indicator, in the sense that 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. Still, an individual who can only speak English and not Singlish, may be seen as a bit too swanky, or worse, not a true blue Singaporean.

The word ‘lah’ in Singlish is a discourse particle in linguistic terms, that is, a word that does not change the semantic meaning of the sentence, but used for pragmatic functions such as indicating tone. Essentially it is a suffix of no standard meaning used by both Singaporeans and Malaysians regardless of race. It is usually used at the end of a sentence. For example: “Is she your girlfriend? No lah! That one is Jimmy’s!”

Here are a few more typical Singaporean conversational snatches: “Hey could you lend me your copy of today’s afternoon newspaper?” Answer: “Sorry I don’t have lah! I didn’t even go out today.” Or sometimes it could convey a tone of dismissive exasperation as when confronted by a habitual borrower. “Hundred dollar? No lah, where got?!" “I’m really quite certain that I saw your husband buying brandy at supermarket yesterday.“ Answer: “No lah, cannot be! My husband is not that kind one lah!" ‘Aiyo’ the multi-purpose word is used as similarly in Sri Lanka to express disappointment, annoyance or sympathy. Example: “Aiyo! why did you fall down again?”

Surely, in racy Singapore when time is money, one really can’t afford spend time on those extra syllables when it is possible to get your meaning across with far fewer words. Aside from being an identity marker, Singlish is appealing because it conveys information concisely. It leaves out some of the conjugations such as past tense, prepositions, and other grammar rules of standard English. Here is an example: If you ask someone whether he can undertake something the question posed will be: “Can anot?” Yet one must admit that Singlish is colourful, vibrant and snappy as well as being brilliantly innovative in conjuring up words and phrases. Some Singlish phrases are also used in Malaysia but others are unique to Singapore. For example 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. You must concede that it a pretty smart analogy that even a child can relate to. There are more acquired inventive phrases such as, ‘Die-die must try’ with the archetypal Singaporean twist of cutting extraneous words to give it more punch. This is normally used to say that something is so absolutely astounding that you have to try it. Its usage is not only limited to food, but this is where the phrase is most frequently used: “Hey guys! That ‘hokkien mee’ from Alexandra Centre so ‘shiok.’ You die-die must try!”

But Singaporeans have also appropriated English words and turned them into something else. ‘Whack’ means to attack someone, and is used transposing it to Singapore's favourite pastime, eating, it can also mean ravenously attacking a hearty meal. The Malay word for an arrogant person is ‘yaya.’ Add a rhyming word to it and you knock such a self-important character off his pedestal.

I actually spent a couple of working years in Singapore and was amused by their inventive phraseology. But nothing tickled my fancy so much as a colleague’s Singlish description of the office dandy who swaggered around putting on airs. He was nicely put in his place by a young woman co-worker who told him: “Look Edward, you think you so very ‘stylo milo’ but you dunno even how to write a memo. How come you think you are some ‘yaya papaya’ when the whole office is laughing at you.”

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