Friday, August 7

I got Singlish lah and don't be kancheong spider

"Someone who can only speak English, and not Singlish, meanwhile, may be seen as a bit posh, or worse - not a real Singaporean."

The article yesterday by Tessa Wong at BBC Singapore about Singlish is great fun, as is the accompanying video, with Wong yapping it up in Singlish with Singaporean shopkeepers and interviewing a linguist about Singlish, and just goes to show what happens when distinctly different languages get mashed together.

The Rise of Singlish

Singapore's government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak English - it's the language used in schools, at work, and in government. But in practice many people speak a hybrid language that can leave visitors completely baffled - Singlish.

Singapore is known for its efficiency and Singlish is no different - it's colourful and snappy.

You don't have a coffee - you "lim kopi". And if someone asks you to join them for a meal but you've already had dinner, you simply say: "Eat already."

Singlish first emerged when Singapore gained independence 50 years ago, and decided that English should be the common language for all its different races.

That was the plan. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street.

Repeated Speak Good English campaigns, drummed into Singaporeans in schools and in the media, have had only limited success. Singlish has not only shrugged off these attacks, it has thrived.

It's been documented in a dictionary and studied by linguists. And it has been immortalised in popular culture. Take for example the 1991 comedy rap song Why U So Like Dat? by musician Siva Choy, which dramatises an argument between two schoolchildren.

"I always give you chocolate, I give you my Tic Tac, but now you got a Kit Kat, you never give me back!" sings Choy.
"Oh why you so like dat ah? Eh why you so like dat?"
Over time, Speak Good English campaigns have evolved from trying to stamp out Singlish, to accepting that properly spoken English and Singlish can peacefully co-exist. 

The language has even come to be seen as part of Singaporean identity and heritage - it appears in advertising campaigns for SG50, the big celebration of Singapore's Jubilee Year, and will feature on floats in Saturday's National Day Parade.
[Some of the floats]


Among ordinary Singaporeans, Singlish tends to be spoken in informal situations - with friends and family, taking a taxi or buying groceries. It indicates casual intimacy. English, on the other hand, is used for formal situations - at school, or at work, especially when meeting strangers or clients.

Over time, it has become a social marker - someone who can effectively switch between the two languages is perceived to be more educated and of a higher social status than someone who can only speak Singlish.

Someone who can only speak English, and not Singlish, meanwhile, may be seen as a bit posh, or worse - not a real Singaporean.

So how do you speak it?

The grammar mirrors Mandarin or Malay, the indigenous language of Singapore, by doing away with most prepositions, verb conjugations, and plural words, while its vocabulary reflects the broad range of Singapore's immigrant roots. Besides borrowing from Malay, it also has words from Hokkien and Cantonese (from southern China), and Tamil from southern India.

Having coffee, "lim kopi", is a combination of the Hokkien word for drink, "lim", and the Malay word for coffee, "kopi".

A person who worries a lot is a kancheong spider - "kancheong" is from the Cantonese word for anxious, and the term evokes the image of a panicked spider scurrying around.

If a situation is intolerable, you may exclaim, "Buay tahan!" The word "buay" is Hokkien for cannot, and "tahan" is Malay for tolerate.

But Singaporeans have also appropriated English words and turned them into something else.

To reverse is to "gostan", from the nautical term "go astern" - a reminder that Singapore was once a British port.

"Whack" means to attack someone, and transposing that to Singapore's favourite pastime, eating, it can also mean ravenously attacking or digging into a hearty meal.

Singlish also has an array of words borrowed from Mandarin and other Chinese languages (not just Cantonese and Hokkien), or simply invented, that don't mean anything on their own, but dramatically alter the tone of what you're saying when tacked on to the end of a sentence.

"I got the cat lah," is an assurance that you have the cat. "I got the cat meh?" is the puzzled realisation that you may have lost it.

Some Singlish phrases are also used in Malaysia but others are unique to Singapore.



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