The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay (mainly Bahasa Melayu rather than Indonesian), Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi and to a lesser extent various other European, Indic and Sinitic languages, while Singlish syntax resembles southern varieties of Chinese. Also, elements of American and Australian slang have come through from imported television series. Recently, due to the fact that Mandarin is taught to most Singaporean Chinese students in school, Mandarin words have also found their way into Singlish.
The Singaporean government currently discourages the use of Singlish in favour of Singapore Standard English as it believes in the need for Singaporeans to be able to effectively communicate with the other English users in the world. The government runs the Speak Good English Movement to emphasise the point.
Singlish shares substantial linguistic similarities with Malaysian English (Manglish) in Malaysia, although distinctions can be made, particularly in vocabulary. Manglish generally now receives more Malay influence and Singlish more Chinese (Mandarin, Hokkien etc.) influence. Initially, "Singlish" and "Manglish" were essentially the same language, when Singapore and peninsular Malaysia were a single geographic entity Malaya. In Malaya, English was the language of the British administration whilst Malay was spoken as the lingua franca of the street. Thus, even the Chinese would revert to Malay when speaking to Chinese people who did not speak the same Chinese varieties. The Chinese varieties themselves also contained many loan-words from Malay, eg Cantonese: baa sat, lo di (from Malay 'pasar', 'roti' meaning 'market', 'bread'), Hokkien gu li, jam bban (from Malay 'guli', 'jamban' meaning 'marble', 'latrine'/WC).
After Singapore's independence in 1965, and successive "Speak Mandarin" campaigns, a subtle language shift among the post-'65 generation became more and more evident as Malay idiomatic expressions were, and continued to be, displaced by idioms borrowed from Chinese spoken varieties, such as Hokkien.
Acrolectal: This is the "highest-class" form of speech, used by the well-educated in formal situations. Acrolectal Singaporean English is roughly the same as formal British English with the exception of some pronunciation differences that occur due to the influence of Singlish pronunciation Acrolectal Singaporean English does exhibit, however, a much smaller degree of Singlish pronunciation features than do Mesolectal, Basilectal, and pidgin variants of Singlish. For example, speakers of acrolectal Singaporean English attempt to restore the phonemes /θ/ and /ð/ (as in thin and then).
Mesolectal: This is more "middle-class", and is used in formal and semi-formal situations. At this level, features not found in other forms of English begin to emerge.
Basilectal: This is the colloquial speech used by almost everyone, educated or not, in informal settings, and is the speech usually referred to as "Singlish". Here can be found all of the unique phonological, lexical, and grammatical features of Singlish. Many of these features can be attributed to Asian languages such as the Chinese languages, Malay, or Indian languages such as Tamil, though some cannot.
Pidgin: This is the "pidgin" level of Singlish, which is probably a good representative of an earlier stage of Singlish, before creolization took place and solidified Singlish as a fully formed creole. Like all pidgins, speakers at the pidgin level speak another language as a first language, and Singlish as a second language. However, since many people today learn Singlish natively, the number of speakers at the "pidgin" level of Singlish is dwindling. This is because by definition, a pidgin is not learned natively.
The coexistence of basilectal Singlish and acrolectal Standard English can also be analysed as a diglossia, which is a split between a "high" formal language and a "low" informal language.
The Sociolect Continuum of Singaporean English
Each of the following means the same thing, but the basilectal and mesolectal versions incorporate some colloquial additions for illustrative purposes.
| Basilect ("Singlish") |
"Dis guy Singrish si beh"
| Mesolect |
"Dis guy Singlish
damn powerful one leh."
| Acrolect ("Standard") |
"This person's Singlish
is very good."
The phenomenon of code switching, or the alternation between multiple languages within the same conversation, further complicates the linguistic situation in Singapore. Since many Singaporeans can speak English at multiple points along the sociolect spectrum, code switching can occur very frequently between acrolectal and basilectal Singaporean English. In addition, as many Singaporeans are also speakers of the Chinese languages, Malay, or Indian languages such as Tamil, code switching between English and other languages also occurs very frequently.
Due to its origins, Singlish shares many similarities with pidgin varieties of English, and can easily give the impression of "broken English" or "bad English" to a speaker of some other, less divergent variety of English. In addition, the profusion of Singlish features, especially loanwords from Asian languages, mood particles, and topic-prominent structure, can easily make Singlish incomprehensible to a speaker of standard English. As a result, the use of Singlish is greatly frowned on by the government, and two former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong,have publicly declared that Singlish is substandard English that handicaps Singaporeans, presents an obstacle to learning proper English, and renders the speaker incomprehensible to everyone except another speaker. Current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has also said that Singlish should not be part of Singapore's identity. In the interest of promoting equality and better communication with the rest of the world, in 2000 the government launched the Speak Good English Movement to eradicate it, at least from formal usage. In spite of this, in recent years the use of Singlish on television and radio has proliferated as localised Singlish continues to be popular among Singaporeans.
Singlish is strongly discouraged in Singaporean schools at a governmental level as it is believed to hinder the proper learning of standard English, and so faces a situation of diglossia. The use of Singlish when speaking in classes or to teachers, however officially frowned upon, is rather inevitable given that many teachers themselves are comfortable with the variety. For many students, using Singlish is also inevitable when interacting with their peers, siblings, parents and elders. In polytechnics, students feel the greater need to socialise with their peers in a learning environment less rigid than primary or secondary school, and as a result Singlish is popular . The government continues to wage an uphill battle in discouraging students from developing a Singlish-speaking habit.
Singaporean men find speaking Singlish necessary during their time in the military, or national service (NS), as Singlish has replaced Hokkien as the standard vernacular in the Singapore Armed Forces. The informality of Singlish fits well in stressful training situations, and are used among soldiers regardless of ethnic groups and level of education . Many phrases originating in the military have filtered into the lexicon over the years and they have become a method of distinguishing those who have undergone NS (National Service). One such phrase is kena arrow.
In most workplaces, Singlish is avoided in formal settings, especially at job interviews, meetings with clients, presentations or meetings . Nonetheless, select Singlish phrases are sometimes injected into discussions to build rapport or for a humorous effect, especially when the audience consists mainly of locals.
In other informal settings, such as during conversation with friends, or transactions in kopi tiams (coffee shops) and shopping malls, Singlish is used without restriction. The only exception is that that it may be considered impolite to speak Singlish when a foreigner is present, as it is likely that he or she will have difficulty comprehending what is being said.
It should also be noted that Singlish itself consists of a diverse continuum ranging from an acrolect that is very similar to British or American English, to a mesolect that is more divergent, to a basilect that is nearly incomprehensible to the average native speaker of English. In a formal situation, the acrolect may be acceptable, while the basilect would be unacceptable; in an informal situation, the situation may be reversed with the acrolect being too stiff and the basilect more acceptable.
Singapore humour writer Sylvia Toh Paik Choo was the first to put a spelling and a punctuation to Singlish in her books Eh Goondu (1982) and Lagi Goondu (1986) which are essentially a glossary of Singlish which she terms 'Pasar Patois'.
There is variation within Singlish, both geographically and ethnically. Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and other ethnic groups in Singapore all have distinct accents.
The East Coast area, particularly the districts that stretch from Siglap to Katong, is renowned as a the prestigious aerie of this ex-British colony. A residential and cultural mecca of sorts for the British civil servants, the elite Chinese tycoons, the aristocratic Peranakan and the Eurasian communities that formed from intermarriages, the East Coast accent is the de facto acrolectal accent of Singapore. The East Coast community is the "English-educated" or "English-ed" community in Singapore.
All of these communities were formed by the earliest immigrants to Singapore and thus have been British subjects for at least 3 or more generations. Thus, they have received no other "native education" than solely British colonial education. Especially true for those born before 1965, all of the education received has been direct English rather than British influences. Many of the East Coast communities were descendants or in other ways, privileged to be granted British colonial education similar to those in Britain. As such the acrolectal standard of English does not diverge from the acrolectal standard in Great Britain at this time.
The English-educated in Singapore received their English pedagogical instruction through missionary schools and convents such as the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS), Methodist Girls' School (MGS), Marymount Convent School, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), Canossa's Convent (defunct). However, as decolonization occurred, many expatriate English returned to Britain and the post-65 generation - those that were born with the nationality as "Singaporean" rather than as "British subjects" became increasingly taught by non-native teachers. In the late 1990s, due to budget constraints and privatization of public schools, the standard of English language instruction fell, leading to confusion of grammar and vocabulary. Hence, in an unregulated socio-linguistic environment, the spontaneous varieties of a creolized English began to form after the 1960s. English language began to be taught by native Malay teachers as many affluent middle-class Singapore born Chinese found careers in banking and corporate sectors or abroad and Singapore born European, Eurasian and Indian communities (the group most fluent in colonial English due to the long history of colonization in India) built legal careers that were more commercially viable.
As such, since the 1990s, the English being taught in public schools has been influenced by Malay intonation and grammatical roots. Being originally a Malay island, the Government thus had to give priority to the indigenous minority of Singapura to avoid racial tensions and conflicts that led to many riots and deaths in the 1960s. Prominent members of society still speak the acrolectal Queen's English in formal situations including Benjamin Sheares, David Marshall, Harry Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Siew Chow, Francis Seow and other affluent descendants of the East Coast communities.
However, after 1965, with colonial attitudes being unpopular politically, a new "culture-free" English was promoted through the newsreading of television newscasters in the former SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation), through to its renaming as TCS (Television Corporation of Singapore) and to the current MediaCorp. This post-1965 accent, often ridiculed and slightly satirized in Singapore theatre by the English-educated classes, is known as the "Channel 5 accent" named after the English Channel owned by the State media group. This gave rise to a new standard of artificially-constructed but standardised acrolectal English for Singapore that did not equate to Received Pronunciation in Britain but corresponded to the latter's social function and status within the new Singaporean national context due to draconian state monopoly, censorship and control over media in this early stage of Singaporean national politics. Despite this, the more affluent English-educated classes continued to support the original Christian missionary and Convent schools financially to stem the degradation of English language instruction. Despite all attempts, the English language in Singapore began to naturally creolize. The post-1965 English-educated accent is hence different from that of the pre-1965 "English-ed accent". For example, PM Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang, sons of the political figure Lee Kuan Yew, do not speak their father's Queen's English accent. The pure English diphthongs in words like "home", the liaison in pronunciation of "r" at the end of words ending with "r" followed by a word beginning with a vowel (such as "ever emerging", pronounced in Queen's English as "eveR emerging" does not occur. Instead, diphthongs are converted into simplified vowels, and elements of Chinese, Malay and other accents and influences begin to exert itself on the evolving acrolect.
In the East Coast, the teaching professions, especially teaching English, was a popular option in the European, Eurasian, Peranakan and Chinese communities who descended from privileged colonial Civil Service families for the Queen's Crown, from the beginning of the last century up till the 1970s. From 1970s onwards, the permanent decolonization meant that the original Queen's English taught began to experience deformation and modification from other languages. As a result, whole generations of school-children in the Siglap/Katong districts were taught English with an "English-ed", modified Queen's English accent minimally influenced by Eurasian, Peranakan and Hokkien Chinese intonation. Their Siglap/Katong accent, though not a pure form of Queen's English, is considered to be the prestigious variant of English in Singapore. Because the East Coast / Katong crowd is also the ruling and civil service classes, many uneducated immigrant Chinese, Malay (from Malaysia), Indian (new Tamil immigrants) who are trapped in the lower rungs of the social scale, often mock and ridicule this "un-modern" and "foreign-sounding" English. With the rise of the consumerist and mass middle-class, second-generation immigrants of humble origins have begun to deliberately deform taught acrolectal English for street pidgin patois as a form of identity-creation, self-actualization and self-determination.
Parallel to this, British economic, political and linguistic influence began to decline starkly throughout the world as colonies gained independence, such as India, while the United States of America rose as a superpower and American English superseded as the international economic and cultural prestige variant. This change became more pervasive with the rise of Hollywood and American popular culture. As such, even among the "English-educated classes", the type and use of English shifted again as more affluent families, scholarship boards and charities sent the youth to boarding schools, colleges and universities in the United States over the United Kingdom. Many more Singaporeans then began to be born abroad to a jetsetting English-ed class and descendants of the ex-Civil Service class for left for higher-paying education, legal and corporate positions in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and a huge middle-class segment to Australia and New Zealand. As such, the English-educated class born after 1965 do not speak the Queen's English any more, nor do they hold the "Channel 5 accent" as a standard, reverting between the prestige variant of the countries they received schooling in, and the bourgeois patois for familiarity. As such, the English-ed accent in Singapore has become an international hybrid similar to that of affluent families in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo. This constitutes about less than 5 per cent of the population.
This English-ed accent has become an extremely controversial issue in Singapore as it obviously reflects the socio-economic and class divides in a supposedly meritocratic society. The results of meritocracy are not a politically comforting answer because they spell "class divide" and "class tensions". Many in the lower middling classes and better-informed students also started to imitate the American English and British English they receive from popular and instructional media and abandoned the often erroneous intonations, pronunciations from their teachers, in part fired by adolescent rebellion.
Meanwhile, the poorer classes who could not even afford to or have access to UK and US-based media sources and who could not even cope with the economic pressures of day-to-day living suffered. Despite the rapid transformation and success of Singapore into an Asian Tiger along with Hong Kong, South Korean and Taiwan from Newly Industrialized Countries (NIC) status in the 1980s, wage differentials and class divides widened. Many poorer Singapore-born children failed to learn the acrolectal standard prescribed by society. They could have been more fluent in their mother tongue such as the various Chinese and Malay languages, than they were in English. However, due to the importance of English language for university entrance, many of those from more humble families entered the polytechnic track instead of the prestigious pre-university junior college education track. This class pushed for the widespread use and acceptance of Singlish because as a result of their education and environment in which they were born in, they are neither here nor there and can only communicate in a pidgin, generalized as "Singlish". This gave rise to the popularity of shows highlighting the Singlish problem, or even using Singlish dialogue such as "The Ra Ra Show", "Phua Chu Kang", "Under One Roof" by 'Channel 5'.
Social reactions were mixed in all levels of Singapore, from the government civil service to the lower rungs of society, many were repulsed, relieved, gained pride, felt ashamed depending on their family background and personal socio-political objectives. When unemployment rose during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Singlish came under official attack as undermining an economic competitivity factor - English language fluency. For linguists and sociologists, it is interesting to note that the phenomenon is not unique to Singapore. Post-colonization and post-handover Hong Kong experienced a similar "Chinglish" phenomenon, an Asian linguistic diglossia.
Broadly speaking, there is a one-to-many mapping of Singlish vowel phonemes to British Received Pronunciation vowel phonemes, with a few exceptions (as discussed below, with regard to egg and peg). The following describes a typical system. Some speakers may further merge /e/ and /ɛ/; other speakers (especially better educated ones) make a distinction between /i/ and /ɪ/, /ɛ/ and /ɛə/, or /ɑ/ and /ʌ/. There is generally no distinction between the non-close front monophthongs, so pet and pat are pronounced the same /pɛt/.
At the acrolectal level, the merged vowel phonemes are distinguished to some extent, and for some speakers elements from American English are introduced, such as post-vocalic [r] (pronouncing the "r" in bird, port, etc.). Current estimates are that about 20 per cent of university undergraduates sometimes use this American-style post-vocalic [r] when reading a passage.
Mapping between Singlish and British RP vowels:
|Singlish phoneme||RP phoneme(s)||as in|
|/ɛ/ (before a voiced plosive)||leg|
|/aɪ/ (before /l/)||mile|
|/ə/ - see below||/ɜː/||bird|
Overall, the differences between the different ethnic communities in Singapore are most evident in the patterns of intonation, so for example Malay Singaporeans often have the main pitch excursion later in an utterance than ethnically Chinese and Indian Singaporeans.
The grammar of Singlish has been heavily influenced by other languages and dialects in the region, such as Malay and Chinese, with some structures being identical to ones in Mandarin and other Chinese languages. As a result, Singlish has acquired some unique features, especially at the basilectal level. Note that all of the features described below disappear at the acrolectal level, as people in formal situations tend to adjust their speech towards accepted norms found in other varieties of English.
Singlish is topic-prominent, like Chinese and Japanese. This means that Singlish sentences often begin with a topic (or a known reference of the conversation), followed by a comment (or new information) Compared to other varieties of English, the semantic relationship between topic and comment is not important; moreover, nouns, verbs, adverbs, and even entire subject-verb-object phrases can all serve as the topic:
The above constructions can be translated analogously into Chinese, with little change to the word order.
The topic can be omitted when the context is clear, or shared between clauses. This results in constructions that appear to be missing a subject to a speaker of British, American, South African, Australian, or New Zealand English, and so called PRO-drop utterances may be regarded as a diagnostic feature of Singapore Colloquial English (or 'Singlish'). For example:
It is more common to mark the plural in the presence of a modifier that implies plurality, such as "many" or "four".
Many nouns which seem logically to refer to a countable item are used in the plural, including furniture and clothing. Examples of this usage from corpus recordings are:
The copula, which is the verb "to be" in most varieties of English, is treated somewhat differently in Singlish:
When occurring with an adjective or adjective phrase, the verb "to be" tends to be omitted:
Sometimes, an adverb such as "very" occurs, and this is reminiscent of Chinese usage of the word 'hen' (很）:
It is also common for the verb "to be" to be omitted before passives:
and before the "-ing" form of the verb.:
Slightly less common is the dropping out of "to be" when used as an equative between two nouns, or as a locative:
Past tense marking is optional in Singlish. Marking of the past tense occurs most often in strong verbs (or irregular verbs), as well as verbs where the past tense suffix is pronounced as /ɪd/. For example:
Due to consonant cluster simplification, the past tense is most often unmarked when it is pronounced as /t/ or /d/ at the end of a consonant cluster:
The past tense is more likely to be marked if the verb describes an isolated event (it is a punctual verb), and it tends to be unmarked if the verb in question represents an action that goes on for an extended period:
There seems also to be a tendency to avoid use of the past tense to refer to someone who is still alive:
Note in the final example that although he speaker is narrating a story, she probably uses the present tense in the belief that the tour guide is probably still alive (and maybe to avoid putting a curse on him!).
Instead of the past tense, a change of state can be expressed by adding already or liao (/liɑ̂u/) to the end of the sentence, analogous to Chinese 了 (le). This is not the same as the past tense, but more of an aspect, as it does not cover past habitual or continuous occurrences, and it can refer to a real or hypothetical change of state in the past, present or future.
The frequent use of already in Singapore English is probably a direct influence of the Hokkien liao particle. For example:
Some examples of the direct use of the Hokkien particle are:
Negation works in general like English, with not added after "to be", "to have", or modals, and don't before all other verbs. Contractions (can't, shouldn't) are used alongside their uncontracted forms.
However, due to final cluster simplification, the -t drops out from negative forms, and -n may also drop out after nasalising the previous vowel. This makes nasalisation the only mark of the negative.
Another effect of this is that in the verb "can", its positive and negative forms are distinguished only by vowel:
Also, never is used as a negative past tense marker, and does not have to carry the English meaning. In this construction, the negated verb is never put into the past-tense form:
In addition to the usual way of forming yes-no questions, Singlish uses two more constructions:
In a construction similar (but not identical) to Chinese, or not is appended to the end of sentences to form yes/no questions. Or not cannot be used with sentences already in the negative:
The phrase is it is also appended to the end of sentences to form yes-no questions. It is generic like the French n'est-ce pas? (isn't it so?), regardless of the actual verb in the sentence, and is strongly reminiscent of the Chinese 是吗 (Pinyin: shi ma) as well as its frequent use amongst South Indian speakers of English. Is it implies that the speaker is simply confirming something he/she has already inferred:
The phrase isn't it also occurs when the speaker thinks the hearer might disagree with the assertion.
There are also many discourse particles, such as hah, hor, meh, ar, that are used in questions. (See the "Discourse particles" section further down in this article.)
Another feature strongly reminiscent of Chinese and Malay, verbs are often repeated (e.g., TV personality Phua Chu Kang's "don't pray-pray!" pray = play). In general verbs are repeated twice to indicate the delimitative aspect (that the action goes on for a short period), and three times to indicate greater length and continuity:
The use of verb repetition also serves to provide a more vivid description of an activity:
In another usage reminiscent of Chinese, nouns referring to people can be repeated for intimacy. Most commonly, monosyllabic nouns are repeated:
However, occasionally reduplication is also found with bisyllabic nouns:
Adjectives of one or two syllables can also be repeated for intensification:
Due to the frequent use of these repetitions on short words, Singlish expressions often sound to speakers of American or British English as if they are spoken by children, which non-Singlish speakers find quite amusing, and contributes to the impression of Singlish as an informal and sometimes intimate language.
Kena is used as an auxiliary to mark the passive voice, in addition to "to be" and "to get". It is derived from a Malay word that means "to encounter or to come into physical contact", and is only used with objects that have a negative effect or connotation. It is interesting to note that verbs after kena may appear in the infinitive form (i.e. without tense) or as a past participle. It is similar in meaning to passive markers in Chinese, such as Hokkien tio or Mandarin 被 bèi:
Note that kena is not used with positive things:
Usage of kena as in the above examples will not be understood, and may even be greeted with a confused reply: But strike lottery good wat! (But it's a good thing to strike the lottery!). However, when used in sarcasm, kena can be used, for example:
When the context is given, Kena may be used without a verb:
Using another auxiliary verb with kena is perfectly acceptable as well:
Some examples of Singlish phrases with Kena:
The word one is used to emphasize the predicate of the sentence by implying that it is unique and characteristic. It is analogous to the use of particles like 嘅 ge in Cantonese, 啲 e in Hokkien, or 的 de in southern-influenced Mandarin. One used in this way does not correspond to any use of the word "one" in British, American English, Australian English, etc: It can be compared to the British usage of 'eh'. It might also be analysed as a relative pronoun, though it occurs at the end of the relative clause instead of the beginning (as in Standard English)
Under the influence of southern-influenced Mandarin, de can also be used in place of one.
The word then is often pronounced or written as den /dɛn/. When used, it represents different meanings in different contexts. In this section, the word is referred to as den.
i) "Den" can be synonymous with "so" or "therefore". When it is intended to carry the meaning of "therefore", it is often used to explain one's blunder/negative consequences. In such contexts, it is a translation from Chinese "所以".
Be careful that "den" cannot be freely interchanged with "so". It will sound grammatically erroneous when employed inappropriately. The following examples are inappropriate:
ii) "Den" is also used to describe an action that will be performed later.
iii) "Den" can used at the beginning of a sentence as a link to the previous sentence. In such cases, it often carries a connotation of an exclamation.
iv) "Den" can be used to return an insult/negative comment back to the originator. When used in such a way, there must first be an insult/negative comment from another party. In such contexts, it is a translation from Chinese "才".
v) "Den?" can be used as a single-worded phrase. Even if "den" is used in a single-worded phrase, even with the same pronunciation, it can represent 4 different meanings. It can either be synonymous with "so what?", or it can be a sarcastic expression that the other party is making a statement that arose from his/her actions, or similarly an arrogant expression which indicating that the other party is stating the obvious, or it can be used as a short form for "what happened then?".
[Synonymous with "so what?"]
[Sacarstic expression] Speakers tend to emphasize the pronunciation of 'n'. Context: A is supposed to meet B before meeting a larger group but A is late for the first meeting
[Arrogant expression] Speakers have the option of using "Den" in a phrase, as in "Ah Bu Den" or "Ah Den"
[What happened then?]
Particles in Singlish are highly comparable to Chinese. In general, discourse particles occur at the end of a sentence. Their presence changes the meaning or the tone of the sentence, but not its grammaticality.
Particles are noted for keeping their tones regardless of the remainder of the sentence. Most of the particles are directly borrowed from southern Chinese varieties, with the tones intact.
The ubiquitous word lah (//), rarely spelled as larh or luh, is used at the end of a sentence. It may originate from the Chinese character (啦, Pinyin: Lè/Là), though its usage in Singapore is also influenced by its occurrence in Malay. It simultaneously softens the force of an utterance and entices solidarity, though it can also have the opposite meaning so it is used to signal power. In addition, there are suggestions that there is more than one lah particle, so there may be a stressed and an unstressed variant and perhaps as many as nine tonal variants, all having a special pragmatic function
Note that 'lah' is often written after a comma for clarity, but there is never a pause before a lah. This is because in Malay, 'lah' is appended to the end of the word and is not a separate word by itself. It must also be noted that although 'lah' is usually spelled in the Malay fashion, its use is more akin to the Hokkien use.
In Malay, 'lah' is used to change a verb into a command or to soften its tone, particularly when usage of the verb may seem impolite. To drink is minum, but 'Here, drink!' is "minumlah!". Similarly, 'lah' is frequently used with imperatives in Singlish:
'Lah' also occurs frequently with "Yah" and "No" (hence "Yah lah!" and "No lah!..."). This can, with the appropriate tone, result in a less-brusque declaration and facilitate the flow of conversation. (On the other hand, 'lah' with a low tone might indicate impatience.)
Lah is often used with brusque, short, negative responses:
Lah is also used for reassurance:
Lah can also be used to emphasise items in a spoken list, appearing after each item in the list.
Although lah can appear nearly anywhere, it cannot appear with a yes-no question. Other particles should be used instead:
The particle wat (/wɑ̀t/), also spelled what, is used to remind or contradict the listener, especially when strengthening another assertion that follows from the current one:
It can also be used to strengthen any assertion:
Mah (/mɑ́/), originating from the Cantonese (嘛,ma), is used to assert that something is obvious and final, and is usually used only with statements that are already patently true. It is often used to correct or cajole, and is equal to the word duh. This may seem condescending to the listener:
Lor (/lɔ́/), also spelled lorh or loh, from Cantonese, is a casual, sometimes jocular way to assert upon the listener either direct observations or obvious inferences. It also carries a sense of resignation, that "it happens this way and can't be helped":
Leh (/lɛ́/), from Hokkien, is used to soften a command, request, claim or complaint that may be brusque otherwise:
Especially when on a low tone, it can be used to show the speaker's disapproval:
Hor (/hɔ̨̌/), from Hokkien and Cantonese, also spelled horh, is used to ask for the listener's attention and consent/support/agreement:
Ar (/ɑ̌/), also spelled arh or ah, is inserted between topic and comment. It often gives a negative tone:
Ar (/ɑ̌/) with a rising tone is used to reiterate a rhetorical question:
Ar (/ɑ̄/) with a mid-level tone, on the other hand, is used to mark a genuine question that does require a response: ('or not' can also be used in this context.)
Hah (/hɑ̌/), also spelled har, originating from the British English word huh, is used to express disbelief or used in a questioning manner.
Meh (/mɛ́/), from Cantonese, is used to form questions expressing surprise or scepticism:
/sjɑ̀/, also spelled sia, is used to express envy and for emphasis. The term "siah" is derived from Hokkien which consists of two words 'si' (literrally die) and 'ah' (a form of exclamation).
Summary of discourse and other particles:
|(Nothing)||Can.||"It can be done."|
|Solidarity||Can lah.||"Rest assured, it can be done."|
|Seeking attention / support (implicit)||Can hor / huh?||"It can be done, right?"|
|Characteristic||Can one / de (的).||"This can be accomplished."|
|(Vividness)||Liddat very nice.||"This looks very nice."|
|Acceptance / |
|Can lor.||"Well, seems that it can be done, since you say so."|
|Assertion (implies that listener should already know)||Can wat/ Can lor (in some situations, when used firmly).||"It can be done... shouldn't you know this?"|
|Assertion (strong)||Can mah.||"See?! It can be done!"|
|Assertion (softened)||Can leh.||"Can't you see that it can be done?"|
|Yes / No question||Can anot?||"Can it be done?"|
|Yes / No question |
|Can izzit?||"It can be done, right?"|
|Yes / No question |
|Can meh?||"Um... are you sure it can be done?"|
|Confirmation||Can ar... (low tone).||"So... it can really be done?"|
|Rhetorical||Can ar (rising).||"Alright then, don't come asking for help if problems arise."|
|Change of state (finished)||Can already / liao.||"It's done!"|
|(Indifference?)||Can huh (low tone).||"It can be done..."|
Nia is originated from Hokkien which means 'only', mostly used to play down something that has been overestimated.
"Then you know" is a phrase often used at the end of a sentence or after a warning of the possible negative consequences of an action. Can be directly translate as "and you will regret not heeding my advice".
"There is"/"there are" and "has"/"have" are both expressed using got, so that sentences can be translated in either way back into British / American / Australasian English. This is equivalent to the Chinese 有 yǒu (to have):
Can is used extensively as both a question particle and an answer particle. The negative is cannot.
Can can be repeated for greater emphasis or to express enthusiasm:
The Malay word with the same meaning boleh can be used in place of can to add a greater sense of multiculturalism in the conversation. The person in a dominant position may prefer to use boleh instead:
The phrase like that is commonly appended to the end of the sentence to emphasize descriptions by adding vividness and continuousness. Due to its frequency of use, it is often pronounced lidat (lye-dat):
Like that can also be used as in other Englishes:
In British English, "also" is used before the predicate, while "too" is used after the predicative at the end of the sentence. In Singlish (also in American and Australian English), "also" (pronounced oso, see phonology section above) can be used in either position.
"Also" is also used as a conjunction. In this case, "A also B" corresponds to "B although A". This stems from Chinese, where the words 也 (yě), 还 (hái) or 都 (dōu) (meaning also, usage depends on dialect or context) would be used to express these sentences.
The order of the verb and the subject in an indirect question is the same as a direct question.
"Ownself" is often used in place of "yourself", or more accurately, "yourself" being an individual, in a state of being alone.
Not all expressions with the -self pronouns should be taken literally, but as the omission of "by":
Some people have begun to add extra "ed"s to the past tense of words or pronouncing "ed" separately.
Singlish formally takes after British English (in terms of spelling and abbreviations), although naming conventions are in a mix of American and British ones (with American ones on the rise). For instance, local media have "sports pages" (sport in British English) and "soccer coverage" (the use of the word "soccer" is not common in British media), though the word "football" is also taken to be synonymous with "soccer" in Singapore.
Singlish also uses many words borrowed from Hokkien, the Chinese dialect native to more than 75% of the Chinese in Singapore, and from Malay. The most well-known instance of a borrowing from Hokkien is 'kiasu', which means "frightened of losing out", and is used to indicate behaviour such as queueing overnight to obtain something; and the most common borrowing from Malay is 'makan', meaning "to eat".
In many cases, English words take on the meaning of their Chinese counterparts, resulting in a shift in meaning. This is most obvious in such cases as "borrow"/"lend", which are functionally equivalent in Singlish and mapped to the same Mandarin word, "借" (jiè), which can mean to lend or to borrow. ("Oy, can borrow me your calculator?"); and 'send' can be used to mean "accompany someone", as in "Let me send you to the airport", possibly under the influence of the Mandarin word "送" (sòng). However, we might note that Malay '(meng)hantar' can also be used to mean both "send a letter" and "take children to school", so perhaps both Malay and Chinese have combined to influence the usage of 'send' in Singapore.
For punctuation and spelling of Singlish see also Sylvia Toh Paik Choo's:
These published works are generally in English, but they describe the prevalence of Singlish in Singapore, and use many Singlish terms such as in dialogue.