Ah, Singlish. How should we start leh?
As Singaporeans, or just anyone living in Singapore, we all know about Singlish: officially known as the Colloquial Singaporean English, it’s usually frowned upon by your English teachers who secretly use it when you’re not around.
While the Government and educational institutions discourage the use of Singlish, we all know it’s never going to be obsolete; an absence of Singlish in Singapore is akin to an absence of chicken rice in hawker centres.
But how much do you know about Singlish, other than it’s “low-SES” (which, by the way, is factually incorrect)? Do you know that Singlish has its own grammar? Or that people with PhD are doing studies on it?
Here are eleven facts about Singlish that you, as a Singaporean, should know.
If you prefer to watch this instead, here’s a video we’ve done for this topic:
Still here because you prefer to read? Well, here goes.
Basic Facts About Languages
Before you can understand Singlish, you need to know what a language is.
If you can read this, you’d more or less know that language is, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, a “method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.”
However, while a language is “structured” and “conventional” now, it’s always changing and evolving.
You should be familiar with grammar and vocabulary (which we’ll use the word “diction” from now on to sound more atas and more “correct”), so here are two examples how of English has evolved through the years.
If you say, “Let me Google that and I’ll email you the link by this afternoon” to someone today, most people would understand that.
However, say that in 1980 and the other person would go, “What?”
In 1980, these words would confuse him: Google, email and link. It’s because they’ve not existed yet.
Now, how about grammar? That should remain the same for hundreds of years, right?
No, you wait long long.
If you can time travel back to, say, 1601, you’d be able to meet the great William Shakespeare, whose books have been published for years and sold over four billion copies.
When he meets you and is surprised at how we’ve all become slaves to our smartphone, he might just look at you deeply in your eyes and say, “What fools these mortals be!”
When you say, “Huh? You say what?”
He’ll reply, “Sigh no more. Sigh no more.”
Do you dare to say, “Mr Shakespeare, your grammar not that good ah?”
Of course not, because four hundred years ago, that was how people spoke.
While the change in diction is faster (only faster due to technological changes), grammar is also evolving but at a much slower pace.
And here’s how Singlish comes about. It’s evolved form of English. Kind of.
Singlish, an Evolution Made by Traders
Unlike other varieties of English (e.g. British English), Singlish is considered an infant that grows very fastly.
Languages would take hundreds of years to evolve, but Singlish is technically only about 50 years old.
Back then, Singaporeans were mainly speaking Malay, and for the Chinese community, they were either speaking Hokkien, Cantonese or Teochew with each other. Then with a need to trade with other regions and with the British, they had to speak English.
In an effort to communicate, they use the language they’ve known and just “translate” it to English. For example, instead of “What do you want?”, they’ll think of the phrase in Chinese / Hokkien / Canto of “你要什么?”, and since 你 is “you”, 要 is “want” and 什么 is “what”, they’ll say, “You want what?”
Perfect Singlish, isn’t it?
Soon, this became the main form of communication and ta-da: Singlish is born.
Official Name of Singlish
Do you know that there’s an official name for Singlish?
The variety of English your English teacher uses when she’s teaching you is called the Standard Singapore English. Technically speaking, that’s not British English but is heavily borrowed from British English.
Because if it’s British English, PIE won’t be called PIE, but PIH (Pan-Island Highway).
The other variety is Singlish, which is called Singapore Colloquial English.
In fact, if we go even deeper into Singapore English, there are three types:
Type A (Acrolect): Very, very standard English that Amos Yee would be proud of
Type B (Mesolect): A little not that standard (e.g. using “can” or “actually” repeatedly) but still grammatically accepted by your English teacher
Type C (Basilect): Full Singlish mode. You know I talking about what one lah.
Most of us use Type B when conversing with other Singaporeans in formal setting, and Type A when we converse with an Ang Mo. We use Type C when we buy our food from the hawker.
In Goody Feed, we use a mixture of Type A (less) and Type B (more), and sometimes use Type C when we try to be funny and relatable. Can tell, right?
So, the question is: What exactly is Singlish?
Singlish is a Dialect
Okay, before that, you need to understand what is called a “variety of language”. Let’s use English as an example.
We should be familiar with American English (color) and British English (colour). These are actually English dialects.
The easiest way to understand what a dialect is this: if it’s the same language and you can agak agak understand it, it’s a dialect.
For example, you can understand British English though it’s a tad difficult to understand; it’s considered a different dialect.
If someone speaks to you in Malay, which you completely don’t understand, it’s a different language.
So, when I speak to my English teacher, who might be an Ang Mo, in Singlish, she might find it hard to understand but she will eventually understand.
Of course you’re asking: aren’t dialects Hokkien, Cantonese or Teochew?
Well, that’s something that linguists are still debating about, because they use the same Mandarin words but a Hokkien speaker can’t understand a Teochew speaker. Let’s leave that to those people with PhD in linguistics to work on.
Just remember this: Singlish is merely another variety of English.
And in each dialect, there’s its own grammar and diction.
Singlish Has Its Own Grammar
Your English teacher have often corrected your “grammatical errors”, but have you thought of who came out with the rules of “correct” grammar?
Your English teacher? Nope, she might have learned it from someone. Who’s that someone? David Beckham? William Shakespeare? XiaoBeach73?
Who has such power to decide that “I drinks water” is grammatically incorrect?
Here’s the answer: society.
You see, the rules of a language evolve, so when many people use “I drink water” instead of “I drinks water”, the former becomes the “accepted” form. In other words, if all Singaporeans start using “anyhowly”, it’ll slowly make its way into the dictionary and become “accepted”.
Grammar works the same way: with more usage, and more acceptance of that usage, it becomes rules. There’s no authority to govern that; grammar is, therefore, fluid.
An example? Singlish.
When you’re full, you’d have to say “I full liao”, and not “I liao full”. The rules aren’t set by the Singlish King, but by us, the users.
To write down the grammar of Singlish is going to take me a year, but as a professional Singlish user, you should be acutely aware of the rules.
So, don’t pray pray. Not any Ang Mo can come anyhowly speak Singlish ‘cuz Singlish got grammar one.
But if Singlish is just another variety of English, has its own set of grammar and works just like British English, why is it frowned upon by your English teacher Mrs Teo?
Communication with Other Countries
The Government does have a point: we need to use Standard Singapore English when conversing with people from other countries. While Singlish is generally understandable to them, they’ll take a longer time to comprehend what you’re trying to say.
And with Singapore so dependent on trade, it’s essential that we know Standard Singapore English.
However, why can’t we know both Singlish and Standard Singapore English?
It’s called code-switching, and in Singapore, most of us can do so, jumping two tiers from Basilect when ordering food from a hawker to Acrolect when speaking to the Google staff from the US.
But not all of us can do that. Some of us are so used to Singlish, we’d freeze when we need to code-switch. You’d have seen them before; those people who literally just go, “Erm…erm, yes. Yes. Yes,” when an Ang Mo speaks to them.
Now, if we can code-switch, why are some Singaporeans still speaking Standard Singapore English everywhere they go? Do they not know Singlish?
No. They do.
It’s because of this disturbing reason.
Association with Low-SES
Let’s use an example: there are some super pretentious people who would be proud that they can’t speak Mandarin well even if they’re Chinese.
And then there are some insecure people who would feel ashamed that they can’t converse in Queen’s English.
I’m not going to cite chim studies here because we’re low-SES, but here’s the simple reason why: Standard Singapore English is associated with the rich in Singapore. Singlish is associated with the poor.
And that’s why even if someone knows Singlish, he’d tend to use Standard Singapore English in all settings, just to portray a high-SES image when he’s eating Maggi Mee every day.
We call this kind of people bastards.
Okay, only I call these kind of people bastards.
Accent Has Nothing to Do with Singlish
You’d have experienced this: your childhood friend went to England to study for three years, and when he came back, his accent changed into a British accent.
Here’s the shocker: that British accent is fake. Give it one or two months and he’ll revert to the Singapore accent.
Accent is essentially the way we pronounce our words, and fact of the matter is that accent is forever.
When we were children, we’d be exposed to different accents and acquire (note: it’s acquired and not learned) the pronunciation of words and sentences. And biologically, our vocal cords would develop based on the accents we’re exposed to.
And as we grow older and acquire that language, that accent would stick with us forever.
This is why if you stay in Singapore for the first twelve years of your life and then move to England for fifty years, you’ll still have that Singapore accent even if you’re exposed to British accent three times more.
Accents has nothing to do with Singlish, Standard Singapore English or whatever: it’s just the way we pronounce words and sentences.
So please, don’t anyhowly say accent is related to Singlish. You can change your dialect with time but you can never change your accent.
But read on because the younger folks might be different.
Singlish and Manglish Are Almost the Same
When you go to Malaysia, you’ll also hear Malaysians saying stuff like “Yalah, our nasi lemak of course not as good as the Singapore one lah! Singapore nasi lemak boleh lah!”
So, are they also speaking Singlish?
Technically, no. Their version of Singlish is called Manglish, but it is very, very similar to Singlish. There are just slight differences, like they’d spell “shiok” as “syok” and have more diction that are uniquely Manglish.
And yes, they’re just like Singapore, with Malaysian Standard English and Manglish as their main English dialects. In fact, my colleague who took linguistics in university studied a module called “Singapore and Malaysia English”—in which everything is same same but different.
But for Mandarin, that one 几不一样啦 (quite different).
By the way, here’s a bonus fact: the accents of Singaporeans and Malaysians are same. That’s why Malaysians who’ve stayed in Singapore long enough can blend in very, very easily.
After all, we share the culture, though our nasi lemak is a tad better.
Singlish is Studied By Many Linguists
Don’t pray pray.
We’ve a few linguistics students / graduates here, and they’ve all read scholarly papers written about Singlish because it’s a hot topic among linguists (people to study languages).
According to a Straits Times article, more than 40 academics outside of Singapore (pretty sure linguists in Singapore have become English teachers instead #justsaying) have written papers about Singlish.
(FYI, when we say papers, we’re not referring to A4 papers hor: we’re talking about scholarly papers, those super high-SES studies made by PhD holders.)
One of them said, “I can’t help but be fascinated by Singlish, which has a number of grammatical properties not shared by other English varieties.”
Here, let another professor tell you why Singlish is goody:
Once again, please, don’t pray pray with Singlish.
Would the Internet Change Singlish?
Okay, this isn’t actually a fact but something that we’ve told BuffLord95 to write for his thesis (yes, he’s studying English & Business).
Remember how I’ve spoken about how language evolves, and how exposure would influence accents and dialects acquired by children?
In my generation, the English exposure I had was though mainstream TV and school—and that was also where most of us picked up our accent and dialect.
Nowadays, kids are staying at home, watching YouTube videos by Logan Paul or Jake Paul or whatever Paul.
In other words, their exposure is now different.
I know of kids in Singapore who’re starting to use English accent that’s more American than Singaporean, and the use of Singlish is also a tad different, with diction that’s used primarily in the US.
Would it change everything?
We’ll have to wait and see.
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