Colloquial Singaporean English, or Singlish, is the unofficial spoken language here. Whether it’s telling the taxi uncle your next destination or ordering an iced kopi from the coffeeshop aunty, there’s no escaping Singlish if you’re living in Singapore. We chat with linguistics expert and renowned poet DR GWEE LI SUI to find out more.
Why is Singlish important?
Singlish is extremely important as a cultural marker; it’s how most Singaporeans speak when we don’t feel the pressure to sound eloquent in English. We also use it to identify other Singaporeans in an unfamiliar setting. For non-locals, if you can speak a bit of Singlish, it signals to us how open you are to experiencing real Singaporean culture, which is distinct from what appears in brochures!
Tell us about the evolution of the language.
Singlish has been prospering since English and bilingualism became part of Singapore’s language policy in the 1960s. Until then, while Singlish did exist, the street language for many had been Pasar Melayu or “market Malay”. Early Singlish often adapted English phrases, such as turning “a cock and bull story” into “talking cock”, and saying “any-o-how” instead of “anyhow”. It also used to have a lot more Malay terms whereas, these days, you tend to hear more imports from the Chinese dialects. These borrowings aren’t ultimately fixed; they reflect more the extent to which people are mixing or not mixing.
How has Singlish changed over the years?
The internet has definitely transformed the way we communicate – even in Singlish. We are using more abbreviations, such as “OTOT” for “own time own target”, which means to perform a task at one’s leisure. We also have words such as “politisai” and “kolaveri”, which describe politicising and online rage respectively.
At the same time, Singlish has broadened to a point where different communities are using different registers. While the accent stays mostly the same, the choice of words can differ. By listening to someone’s Singlish, you can tell who he or she hangs around with, which socio-economic class he or she belongs to, and even which generation he or she is in.
How can we make sure Singlish is used in the right context?
Code-switching happens when someone switches from one language (or language variety) to another in a conversation. It’s a daily reality for anyone who is bilingual or multilingual, in a multicultural society. It acknowledges the richness of diverse ethnic cultures and helps to preserve it. It further hones our sensitivity to language use in different contexts.
I think code-switching skills cannot be taught in the classroom. It has to be acquired by deliberately exposing yourself to different people and social groups, under different conditions. This way, you can learn how best to signal your friendliness and get yourself understood.
What are some tips for new expats trying to get acquainted with Singlish?
Ask someone directly what he or she means when words – even English words – are used in a way you can’t understand. A speaker can often assume too much, especially when he or she feels comfortable in your presence. Let him or her know that you are curious to know more to ease the awkwardness.
To learn Singlish, there’s no better way than to practise speaking it yourself. Dare to make mistakes; it’s okay, for example, to use “lah” imprecisely at first. Most Singaporeans are happy to affirm or correct your use, or to introduce you to more words. Singlish, in itself, is a great conversation starter.
5 must-know Singlish terms
- Shiok. Use this word to express your immense pleasure from an experience such as eating or sightseeing. Example: “Your nasi lemak very shiok!”
- Sian. Use this word to express your frustration with feeling bored. Example: “This meeting so long, sian man.”
- Buay tahan. This means being unable to tolerate something anymore. Use it for anything from the weather to an irritating person. Example: “I buay tahan your face. Leave me alone.”
- Steady pom pee pee. This can mean well done or all the best. Use it to compliment someone’s work or encourage him or her to keep at it. Example: “Your contribution to our company steady pom pee pee!”
- Alamak. Use this as an exclamation when things go horribly wrong. Example: “Alamak! I forgot to turn off the air-con!”
Did you know?
In 2000, the Speak Good English Movement was officially launched to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct Standard English. Many locals criticised the initiative and saw it as the government trying to eradicate Singlish. Singlish was (and still is) seen as an important aspect of Singaporean identity. Today, the movement seems to be taking a more subtle stance, with its website stating that it “recognises the existence of Singlish as a cultural marker for many Singaporeans”.
Want more tips on how to use Singlish better? Check out Dr Gwee’s web series “Singlish with Uncle Gwee” on Yahoo TV (sg.tv.yahoo.com/singlish), where he takes on common Singlish words and phrases!
For more helpful tips, head to our Living in Singapore section.