Singlish, as it’s known worldwide, is a language influenced by a smorgasbord of languages including Malay, Tamil and Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. It might be hard to catch the words at first, but once you get the hang of them, they’ll roll off your tongue! Here are just some of the many Singlish terms you’ll want to know, and a little more about its background.
Some commong Singlish expressions
Agak-agak (ah-gah ah-gah): Malay term meaning “an estimate” or “just about there”.
Example: “There are no fixed portions for this recipe; I just agak-agak.”
Aiyo (ai-yo): A multi-purpose word that can be used to express disappointment, annoyance or sympathy.
Example: “Aiyo, why did you fall down again?”
Alamak (ah-lah-mak): Possibly derived from Malay; used as an exclamation to express dismay, shock or surprise.
Example: “Alamak! I totally forgot to bring my wallet!”
Atas (ah-tas): Derived from the Malay word for “upstairs”, often used to describe someone with high standards and class.
Example: “Ben will never want to eat at that hawker centre, he’s too atas!”
Bo jio (boh-chio): A frequently used word in Singapore, especially among teens, “Bo jio” is used when someone doesn’t invite you to hang out. It can either be used as a standalone or within a sentence.
A: “I went to watch the new Thor film yesterday.”
B: “Bo jio!”
Buay sai (boo-ay sai): A Hokkien phrase that means unable or incapable to do something.
A: “Are you free later?”
B: “Buay sai, I’m having dinner with my friends.”
Buay tahan (bu-eh tah-han): Derived from Hokkien and Malay and meaning “can’t stand” or “can’t endure”; often used in dire situations or as an exaggeration.
Example: “I buay tahan the boss’s jokes already.”
Chim (cheem): Origins are unclear, but probably Hokkien; it means intellectual or profound, sometimes also used with a condescending tone.
Example: “What is this professor talking about? He’s too chim, I don’t understand him at all!”
Chiong (chee-ong): Slight variation of the Hokkien word for “hurry up”; it means to charge or to attack something.
Example: “There’s so much work to do, I’m going to have to burn the midnight oil and chiong all the way!”
Eeyer (eee-yer): Used to convey disgust or dislike towards something or simply when something you encounter is unpleasant.
Example: “Eeyer! Don’t be so gross!”
Goondu (goon-doo): Derived from a mix of Malay and Tamil for “nut” and “heavy”; used in a local context to suggest that a person is stupid.
Example: “Please don’t trust him with that project, he’s a goondu and will probably screw it up.”
Gostan (go-stun): A Malay twist on the nautical phrase “go astern”, which means to reverse or move backwards; often used as a verb.
Example: “If you gostan your car any further, you’ll hit the lamppost!”
Jialat (jia-lat): Derived from Hokkien, “jialat” is used to describe a negative or disastrous situation.
Example: “My interview yesterday was damn jialat.”
Kan cheong (kan chee-ong): A Cantonese and Hokkien term meaning nervous, harried or uptight.
Example: “The deadline isn’t until next month; why so kan cheong for what?”
Kaypoh (keh-poh): Used when someone is being nosy; it works as an adjective or a verb.
Example: “Why you so kaypoh?” / “Don’t kaypoh lah.”
Kiam (ki-yam): Hokkien for “salt”; usually used to refer to a stingy person.
Example: “My boss is so kiam; he said he won’t increase our salaries this year.”
Kiasu (Kia-soo): Literal translation from Hokkien to mean “afraid of losing out”; usually implies negative qualities and rude behaviour.
Example: “Look at that kiasu woman jumping the queue for the free popcorn.”
Makan (mah-kahn): The Malay word for “to eat”.
Example: “I’m so hungry, let’s go makan!”
Paiseh (pie-say): Derived from Hokkien, meaning shy, embarrassing or “to have a sense of shame”.
Example: “I think it’s really paiseh for a guy to be seen driving around in a pink car covered with Hello Kitty stickers.”
Shiok (shee-oak): Use this word to express your immense pleasure from an experience such as eating or sightseeing.
Example: “Your nasi lemak very shiok!”
Sian (see-an): Another Hokkien word that conveys boredom, tiredness or frustration towards something.
Example: “Doing work on a Saturday is so sian.”
Siao (si-ow): Hokkien for “crazy” or “insane”, used most frequently as an exclamation whenever a situation has gone wrong.
Example: “Oh my god, I just saw a man jump into the Singapore River! Is he siao or what?”
Sia la (see-ah la): An expression that is similar to “oh my gosh”.
Example: “Sia la, I forgot to submit my document!”
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!
More about Singlish
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 do we ensure we’re using Singlish 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.
Trivia Corner: 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”.
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