Singapore English and Singlish

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Singapore English
Singapore National Day Parade 2014. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Definition

Singapore English is a dialect of the English language that is used in the Republic of Singapore, a lingua franca influenced by Chinese and Malay. Also called Singaporean English.

Educated speakers of Singapore English generally distinguish this variety of the language from Singlish (also known as Singapore Colloquial English). According to Dr. Danica Salazar, world English editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, "Singapore English is not the same as Singlish.

While the former is a variant of English, Singlish is a language on its own with a different grammatical structure. It is also used mostly orally" (reported in the Malay Mail Online, May 18, 2016). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "It appears that a distinct brand of Singapore English is emerging, common to all the ethnic groups living in the country and quite unlike the varieties of English found in most other parts of the world, though it is true that many of its features are shared with the English spoken in Malaysia. It seems likely that the main difference between the English of the various ethnic groups in Singapore lies in the intonation (Lim 2000), though the precise details of the intonation of the different groups have yet to be established. . . .

    "It is quite possible to sound Singaporean but still be easily understood in the rest of the world, and it seems that a mature variety of educated Singapore English is indeed emerging."
    (David Deterding, Singapore English. Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

     
  • The Speak Good English Campaign
    "In Singapore, it's time for another official crusade--and this past month it's been the Speak Good English campaign, aimed at counteracting the spread of 'Singlish,' a local patois including many Hokkien and Malay words and constructions, particularly as it's increasingly heard among new university entrants.

    "Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong complains that the lingo is making too many young folk in the city-state unintelligible . . . at a time when the country is pulling out the stops to integrate itself with the English-speaking global economy."
    ("Rage Against the Machine." The Guardian [UK], June 27, 2005)

     
  • Standard English or Singlish?
    "An opinion piece on Singlish in the New York Times (NYT) makes light of the Singapore Government’s efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary wrote.


    "In a letter published in the newspaper on Monday (May 23 [2016]), Ms. Chang Li Lin said the Government has a 'serious reason' for its policy on standard English.

    "'Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere,' she said.

    "Singaporean poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote in the NYT piece, published on May 13, that 'years of state efforts to quash Singlish have only made it flourish.'

    "'The more the state pushed its purist bilingual policy, the more the territory’s languages met and mingled in Singlish. Through playful, day-to-day conversations, the unofficial composite quickly became a formidable cultural phenomenon,' he said.

    "Calling the Government’s war on Singlish 'doomed from the start,' Mr. Gwee said even politicians and officials are now using it.

    "'Finally grasping that this language is irrepressible, our leaders have begun to use it publicly in recent years, often in strategic attempts to connect with the masses,' he wrote.

    "In her rebuttal letter, Ms. Chang said using Singlish makes it harder for most Singaporeans to master the English language."
    ("NYT Op-ed on Singlish Makes Light of Efforts to Promote Standard English." Channel NewsAsia, May 24, 2016)
     

  • Characteristics of Singlish
    "'Two dollar onny, dis one,' a street vendor might say to you in Singapore. A local might reply, 'Wah! So espensive one, cannot leh.'

    "While this might sound like broken English, it is an example of Singlish, the highly complicated English creole spoken in Singapore. Its staccato, off-grammar patois is the subject of much bemusement for visitors to the country, and it's almost impossible for outsiders to imitate. . . .

    "Singlish comes from the mixing of Singapore's four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. . . .

    "The grammar of Singaporean English began to mirror the grammar of these languages. For example, a modern-day Singaporean could say 'I go bus-stop wait for you,' to mean that he will wait for you at the bus stop. This phrase could be translated into either Malay or Chinese without having to change the grammatical structure of the sentence. . . .

    "Words from the other languages became appropriated into the creole as well, creating an entire Singlish lexicon that is used today. The word 'ang moh,' for example, is a Hokkien word which literally translates to 'red hair,' but is used in Singlish to describe people of Caucasian descent. The Malay word 'makan' is commonly used to mean food, or the act of eating. The Tamil word 'goondu,' which means 'fat' in its original language, is used in Singlish to describe a person who is not very smart. . . .

    "In formal settings, . . . Singlish tends to be toned down to its acrolectal form: Singlish words and grammatical structures are eliminated, and only the accent remains. In the day-to-day, however, a more colloquial form of Singlish is used."
    (Urvija Banerji, "Singaporean English Is Almost Impossible to Pick Up." Atlas Obscura, May 2, 2016)  
     

  • Kiasu
    "[K]iasu is a noun and adjective from the Chinese Hokkien dialect, meaning 'extreme fear of losing, or of being second best.' It's a notion the neurotically ambitious Singaporean and Malaysian professional middle classes regard as so self-defining that their sitcom character Mr Kiasu is a similar emblem of endearingly gruesome national character as Mr Brent is to us.

    "Having made its way to the Singapore-English hybrid tongue called Singlish, kiasu completed its trek across the etymological world in March [2007] when the Oxford English Dictionary included it on its quarterly list of new words."
    (Matthew Norman, "Kiasu, London W2." The Guardian, June 2, 2007)