S is for Singlish

Singapore is a fascinating country, home to a unique set of cultures, traditions and behaviours. You’ll find a great many things here that you won’t find elsewhere in the world, but nothing will come close to being as uniquely Singaporean as Singlish does. A beautiful, complex and heady mix of English and a few local languages that can completely befuddle an outsider, Singaporean English or Singlish is the perfect gauge of how long you’ve lived in Singapore and how successfully you’ve been integrated into the society.

I’ve lived in Singapore for close to 10 years now. Of those 10 years, the first 4 were extremely sheltered, limited to the metaphorical walls of the university campus. I had very little interaction with the locals, so I barely heard or spoke any Singlish. Most of my friends were fellow Indians, and the few local friends I had spoke regular English, which is what you’d expect in a university setting.

For 4 years, I was just outside the reaches of the local culture, and so, when I stepped out into the working world and experienced the sudden influx, I was caught completely unawares. Suddenly, it was all up in my face, assaulting my senses. By the time I left teacher training (also a fairly university-like setting) and set foot inside a local school brimming with hormonal adolescents, Singaporean culture was practically smacking me in the face.

My first year teaching in a local secondary school was pretty much an exercise in comprehension. I’d struggle to understand the kids, they’d struggle to understand me. The former is a perfectly acceptable situation, because I was only just getting exposed to Singlish, which despite the name, is more different from English than it is similar. The latter situation, however, felt outrageous. I was speaking in perfectly standard English, in full sentences, with as neutral an accent as possible, and I was still receiving complaints about being too difficult to understand. Somehow, my use of grammatical elements like conjunctions and prepositions were actually making it harder for the kids to follow what I was saying.

Through the course of the year, as I listened to them and they listened to me, and much misunderstanding occurred, we came to some sort of middle ground. I call it “middle” ground, but when a couple of kids came up to me at the end of the school year to tell me how much easier they found it to understand me compared to the beginning of the year, I knew it didn’t mean that I had been successful in teaching them English, but rather, that I had well and truly started my journey towards becoming fluent in Singlish.

In educational circles, Singlish has long been considered a problem. If it had been an altogether different language, there would have been no issue. But because it’s so closely associated with English, and because it so happily flouts so many of the prim and proper “rules” of English, it can very easily creep into areas where formal English is preferred. Most adults can “code switch”, but for kids whose only exposure to English has been through Singlish, it can be very difficult to differentiate the two.

In all other contexts, though, Singlish is a fascinating study in linguistics. From what I’ve gathered from my exposure to it, I posit (in a very non-professional capacity) the following principles upon which it is founded:

1) Pronunciation is overrated. In order to sound natural at Singlish, you must let go of all rigidity and embrace the slackness of your tongue. If you enunciate too clearly, or pronounce the end consonants in your words, you’re already doing it wrong. Imagine saying “lidat” instead of “like that”, “neh mine” instead of “never mind” and “oredi” instead of “already”, and you’re getting the idea.

2) There is no room for superfluousness. If a thought or an idea can be conveyed in 3 words, there’s no need for various grammatical elements to stretch it to 5. Each word in a sentence carries weight. As a general rule, articles serve almost no purpose and can be dropped entirely. Prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns – these are only used when absolutely necessary to facilitate meaning. The same goes for complicated concepts like tense, person, number and voice. If you can do without them, you’re on the right track.

To the ear accustomed to regular English, Singlish can seem disjointed, disorganised and completely random. What is actually happening, however, is that English words are being held together by a complex combination of the grammatical rules of other languages. This is what gives the language that uniquely solid feel – that there’s a way to speak it “properly”, which involves more than just stringing words together in any random order.

Once you get the hang of it (and you are no longer responsible for teaching kids regular English), Singlish is a treat. There are still aspects of it that are foreign to me because they involve words from other languages, but my favourite Singlish sentences and phrases involve only English words, and these are the ones where you can see how truly bizarre and random they might seem to a regular English speaker. Here are 10 of them:

1) Can/Cannot – Any response involving a “yes” or a “no”.

– Do you want to go for a movie?

– Caaaaan.

– You think we’ll be able to finish all this food?

– Caaaaan. 

2) So how? – “So, what’s our next move?” or “How do we proceed from here?”

– I messaged her about the movie, but she’s not replying.

– So how? Should I buy the tickets or not?

3) Cannot anyhow lidat! – “You can’t just do things willy-nilly, in whatever way you want.”

Must join the dots according to number, lah! Cannot anyhow lidat!

4) Cannot make it/CMI – “not up to the task of doing something” or “impossible” or “unlikely to be successful”.

Eh, he never submit his homework last week. He confirm cannot make it in the test tomorrow.

5) Never say! – “You didn’t tell me earlier.” or “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

– Kids, you don’t need to write this down – it’s already in your textbook.

– Wah, cher, never say! I oredi write leh!

6) How can? – “How can this be possible?” or “This is not possible.”

Five essays in two hours? How caaaaan?

7) Why you so lidat? – “It’s so difficult to understand your choices in life.” or “Why are you behaving this way?” or “Why are you the way you are?”

I asked you to get me noodles, not rice! Why you so lidat?!

8) See how – “Let’s wait and see how things turn out.”

– I’m not sure she’ll be able to get out of work in time for the movie.

– See how.

9) Where got? – “What?! Give me specifics.” or “That’s not possible.”

– Hey, did you take my wallet?

– Eh, where got?!

10) Die die – “die trying” or “no way to not do it”

I die die must finish this article by midnight!

Do you have any favourite Singlish words/phrases? Confirm got one, lah. Share share!


6 thoughts on “S is for Singlish

  1. GlassHalfWhat? April 22, 2015 / 10:30 am

    Omg nostalgia overload! I’m so sad I didn’t learn more Singlish when I was there man.

    • Clueless April 22, 2015 / 10:35 am

      Haha, I knew you’d like this! 😀 And you can’t learn Singlish… you just have to be thrown deep-end so you can swim around and be immersed in it!

  2. peeves April 22, 2015 / 9:16 am

    DIe die is by far my favourite. If you’re going to be around in SG longer, learn Mandarin! It was while learning Mandarin that I really began to appreciate Singlish, and how it had evolved; so much of it seems to have originated as a literal translation of a mandarin phrase.

    • Clueless April 22, 2015 / 9:53 am

      Yeah, I’ve read enough essays with weird phrases to know how much the direct translation habit persists among the Mandarin speakers!

      I did sign up for a conversational Mandarin class at the community centre, but then I had to give it up because it clashed with tuition timings and I needed the money more. 😉 I’m not sure if I’m up to learning Mandarin all the way through to being fluent, though – it seems way too difficult! How far did you get?

      • peeves April 22, 2015 / 1:28 pm

        I took 3 semesters of chinese in college, so I got to a level where I could communicate at a very basic level. Now, however, I have forgotten most of it, and only use mandarin to say “i don’t know much mandarin”

        • Clueless April 23, 2015 / 2:50 pm

          Oh, that’s awesome! If it was a college course, did that mean you had to learn the script as well?

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