Difference between revisions of "Singlish"

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Singlish, sometimes known in the academic community as Singapore Colloquial English, is an English-based creole language[1][2][3] spoken in Singapore. According to the 2000 census, 71% of Singaporeans are literate in the English language,[4] although there is no way to know who among these are Singlish speakers. Singlish is commonly regarded with low prestige in Singapore. For this reason, more basilectal forms of Singlish are not generally used in formal communication.

The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay, 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.[Citation Needed] Also, elements of American and Australian slang have come through from imported television series and films.[Citation Needed] In the last two decades, an increasing amount of Mandarin words have found their way into Singlish because Mandarin Chinese is taught to most Singaporean Chinese students in school. Japanese words are becoming more common[Citation Needed] as young Singaporeans become exposed to Japanese culture, particularly through Anime.[Citation Needed]

Singlish shares many similarities with Manglish, the creole of neighbouring Malaysia.[Citation Needed] However, the social context of English in Singapore, where it is the most dominant official language, and the medium of all education, is rather different from the social contexts in Malaysia and Brunei, where Malay is dominant.[5]

The Singaporean government currently discourages the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English, citing the need for Singaporeans to be able to effectively communicate with the other English users in the world. The government created the Speak Good English Movement to emphasise the point.[6] In response, efforts to emphasize the proper usage of Singlish in everyday settings have been initiated at the grassroots level.[Citation Needed]

Overview and history

Singapore English derives its roots from 146 years (1819–1965) of British colonial rule over Singapore. Prior to 1965, the standard form of English in Singapore had always been British English and Received Pronunciation. After Singapore declared independence in 1965, English in Singapore began to take a life of its own, leading to the development of modern day Standard Singapore English. Standard Singapore English began to take root and Singlish began to evolve among the working classes who learned English without formal schooling.[Citation Needed]

Singlish originated with the arrival of the British and the establishment of English language schools in Singapore.[7] Soon, English filtered out of schools and on to the streets, to be picked up by non-English-speakers in a pidgin-like form for communication purposes. After some time, this new form of English, now loaded with substantial influences from Indian English, Baba, Malay, and the southern varieties of Chinese, became the language of the streets and began to be learned as a first language in its own right.[Citation Needed] Creolization occurred, and Singlish is now a fully formed, stabilized, and independent English-based creole language.[Citation Needed]

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. In addition, Singlish has a set grammar and particular phonological and grammatical rules, whereas Manglish does not follow any grammatical rules, and is not mutually intelligible within different variants of Manglish, even disparate regions in Malaysia itself.[Citation Needed]

Initially, "Singlish" and "Manglish" were essentially the same dialect evolving from the British Malaya economy, born in the trading ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang[8] when Singapore and peninsular Malaysia were for many purposes a de facto single entity.

In Singapore, English was the language of administration, which the British used, with the assistance of English-educated Straits-born Chinese, to control the administration in Malaya and governance of trading routes such as the British East Indies spice routes with China, Japan, Europe and America in those ports and colonies of Singapore, Malacca and Penang through the colonial governing seat in Singapore.

In British Malaya, English was the language of the British administration whilst Malay was spoken as the lingua franca of the street, as the British did not wish to antagonize the native Malays.

In British Singapore, however, as the seat of the colonial government and international commerce, English was both the language of administration and the lingua franca.[Citation Needed]

Thus, in Malaysia, even the Chinese would revert to Malay when speaking to Chinese who did not speak the same Chinese varieties. However, in British Singapore, the Chinese would use English when speaking to other Chinese of a different dialect.[Citation Needed]

In Malaya, the Chinese varieties themselves also contained many loan-words from Malay, and more Chinese loan-words from the Cantonese, rather than the Hokkien languages e.g. Cantonese: Cantonese-influenced "baa sat" instead of the Hokkien-influenced "baa saak" in Singapore (from Malay 'pasar' meaning 'market'), "loti" (from Malay 'roti' meaning 'bread'), Hokkien "gu li" and "jam bban" (from Malay 'guli' meaning 'marble', 'jamban' meaning 'latrine'/WC).

In Singlish, "eating bread" would be translated as "jiak bread", jiak being the Hokkien verb for "to eat",[Citation Needed] whereas in Malaysia, "eating bread" would be translated as "makan roti" (Malay verb for "eat" + Hokkien transliteration of the Malay word for "bread").

File:Quadrilingual danger sign - Singapore (gabbe).jpg
Many signs in Singapore include all four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.

After Singapore's independence in 1965, and successive "Speak Mandarin" campaigns,[9] a subtle language shift among the post-1965 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.[Citation Needed]

Sociolect continuum

The English language in Singapore is a sociolect continuum.[Citation Needed] The continuum runs through the following varieties:

Acrolectal: Acrolectal Singaporean English exhibits an absence of or a much smaller degree of Singlish pronunciation features than do Mesolectal, Basilectal, and pidgin variants of Singlish. [Citation Needed]

Mesolectal: This is a mix between Standard English and Singlish. At this level, a number of features not found in other forms of English begin to emerge.[Citation Needed]

Basilectal: This is the colloquial speech.[10] educated or not, in informal settings, and is the speech usually referred to as "Singlish". Here, one can find 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. As with all pidgins, speakers at the pidgin level speak another language as a first language, and Singlish as a second language. However, since a substantial number of people today learn Singlish natively, the number of speakers at the "pidgin" level of Singlish is dwindling.[11] This is because by definition, a pidgin is not learned natively.

The coexistence of basilectal Singlish and acrolectal Standard Singapore 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
powerful sia."
"Dis guy Singlish
damn powerful one lah."
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. Due to international commerce in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, many well-educated Singaporeans aged 40 and below can, in addition to British English, speak French, Japanese, German and Mandarin Chinese.[Citation Needed]

Since many Singaporeans can speak English at multiple points along the sociolect spectrum, code-switching can occur very frequently between the acrolectal (Standard Singapore English) and the basilectal (Singlish). 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 dynamically.

For example, a local Singaporean might speak in a Singlish consisting of English, Mandarin and Malay, loan-words, when chatting with his friends.[Citation Needed]

Usage in society

Singlish is commonly regarded with low prestige in Singapore. For this reason, Singlish is not used in formal communication. Standard Singapore English is preferred by many educated Singaporeans.

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[12] that Singlish is a substandard English that handicaps Singaporeans, presents an obstacle to learning proper English, and renders the speaker incomprehensible to everyone except another Singlish speaker.

Current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has also said that Singlish should not be part of Singapore's identity.[13] In the interests 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,[14] at least from formal usage. The Media Development Authority's free-to-air TV code states that the use of Singlish "should not be encouraged and can only be permitted in interviews, where the interviewee speaks only Singlish."[15] 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, especially in comedies.[Citation Needed]

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.[16] 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.[17] For many students, using Singlish is also inevitable when interacting with their peers, siblings, parents and elders.[Citation Needed] The government continues to wage an uphill battle in discouraging students from developing a Singlish-speaking habit.[Citation Needed]

In most workplaces, Singlish is avoided in formal settings, especially at job interviews, meetings with clients, presentations or meetings. Standard Singapore English is preferred. Nevertheless, select Singlish phrases are sometimes injected into discussions to build rapport or for a humorous effect, especially when the audience consists mainly of locals.[Citation Needed]

In other informal settings, such as during conversation with friends, or transactions in kopi tiams and shopping malls, Singlish is used without restriction. [Citation Needed]

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'.



Template:Unreferenced section Singlish pronunciation, while built on a base of British English, is also heavily influenced by Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese.

There are variations within Singlish, both geographically and ethnically. Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and other ethnic groups in Singapore all have distinct accents.

All of these communities were formed by the earliest immigrants to Singapore and thus have been British subjects for three or more generations. Thus, they have received no other "native education" than solely British colonial education. Especially for those born before 1965, all 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 substantially from the acrolectal standard in Britain at this time, though (as in other colonial outposts) it always tended to be somewhat "out of date" compared with contemporary speech patterns in Britain.

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 (Located in Ajunied). However, as decolonization occurred, many expatriate English returned to Britain; Hence, in an unregulated socio-linguistic environment, the spontaneous varieties of a creolized English began to form after the 1960s.

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 the 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.[Citation Needed] Because that area has also tended to supply the ruling and civil service classes, many uneducated immigrant Chinese, Malay (from Malaysia), and 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.

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 usages of television presenters 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, is sometimes known as the "Channel 5 accent", after the English channel owned by the State media group.[Citation Needed] 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 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.[Citation Needed] 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. 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.

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 largely took over 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.[Citation Needed] 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, or the 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 accent in Singapore has become an international hybrid similar to that of affluent families in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo.

When unemployment rose during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Singlish came under official attack as undermining an economic competitiveness factor - English language fluency.


  Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops Template:IPA     Template:IPA     Template:IPA  
Affricates         Template:IPA      
Fricatives   Template:IPA Template:IPA s (z) Template:IPA     h
Nasals Template:IPA     n     Template:IPA  
Laterals       Template:IPA        
Approximants Template:IPA     Template:IPA   Template:IPA    

(See International Phonetic Alphabet for an in-depth guide to the symbols.)

In general:

  • The dental fricativesTemplate:Ndash Template:IPA and Template:IPATemplate:Ndash merge with Template:IPA and Template:IPA, so that three = tree and then = den.[18] In syllable-final position, -th is pronounced as -f Template:IPA, so with and birth are pronounced weeff Template:IPA and bəff Template:IPA respectively.[19] Under the influence of with, without is often pronounced with Template:IPA in place of Template:IPA: Template:IPA. The dental fricatives do occur in acrolectal speech, though even among educated speakers there is some variation.[20]
  • The voiceless stopsTemplate:Ndash Template:IPA and Template:IPATemplate:Ndash are sometimes unaspirated,[18] especially among Malays.[21] (Aspiration refers to the strong puff of air that may accompany the release of these stop consonants.) The acoustic effect of this is that the Singlish pronunciation of pat, tin and come sound more similar to bat, din, and gum than in other varieties of English.
  • The distinction between Template:IPA and Template:IPA is not stable at the basilectal level, as evinced by TV personality Phua Chu Kang's oft-repeated refrain to "Use your blain!" (use your brain) and "'Don pray pray!'" (Don't play-play, i.e. Don't fool around). One might note, however, that both these examples involve initial consonant clusters (/bl/ and /pl/ respectively), and conflation of Template:IPA and Template:IPA is found less often when they are not part of a cluster.
  • /l/ at the end of a syllable, pronounced as a velarised "dark l" in British or American English, is often so velarised in Singlish that it approaches the Close-mid back unrounded vowel Template:IPA, e.g. sale Template:IPA. /l/ also tends to be lost after the back vowels Template:IPA, /o/, /u/, and for some basilectal speakers, the central vowel Template:IPA. Hence pall = paw Template:IPA, roll = row /ro/, tool = two /tu/, and for some, pearl = per Template:IPA[22]
  • Syllabic consonants never occur. Hence taken Template:IPA and battle Template:IPA, never Template:IPA or Template:IPA. When the final /l/ is vocalised, little and litter may be homophones.[23]
  • Template:IPA, the glottal stop, is inserted at the beginning of all words starting with a vowel, similar to German. As a result, final consonants do not experience liaison, i.e. run onto the next word. For example, "run out of eggs" would be "run-nout-to-veggs" in most dialects of English (e.g. Template:IPA in General American), but "run 'out 'of 'eggs" (e.g. Template:IPA in Singlish. This contributes to what some have described as the 'staccato effect' of Singapore English.[24]
  • Template:IPA replaces final plosive consonants of syllables in regular- to fast-paced speed speech, especially stops: Goodwood Park becomes Gu'-wu' Pa' Template:IPA, and there may be a glottal stop at the end of words such as back and out.[25]
  • In final position, the distinction between voiced and voiceless soundsTemplate:Ndash i.e. /s/ & /z/, /t/ & /d/, etc.Template:Ndash is usually not maintained, especially for fricatives. As a result, cease = seize /sis/ and race = raise /res/.[26] This leads to some mergers of noun/verb pairs, such as belief with believe /bilif/.
  • Final consonant clusters simplify, especially in fast speech.[27] In general, stops, especially /t/ and /d/, are lost if they come after another consonant: bent = Ben Template:IPA, tact = tack Template:IPA, nest = Ness Template:IPA. /s/ is also commonly lost at the end of a consonant cluster: relax = relac Template:IPA.


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.[18][28][29] Some speakers may further merge Template:IPA and Template:IPA;[30] other speakers (especially better educated ones) make a distinction between Template:IPA and Template:IPA, Template:IPA and Template:IPA, or Template:IPA and Template:IPA. There is generally no distinction between the non-close front monophthongs, so pet and pat are pronounced the same Template:IPA.[31]

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 pre-consonantal [r] (pronouncing the "r" in bird, port, etc.).[32] This is caused by the popularity of American TV programming. Current estimates are that about 20 per cent of university undergraduates sometimes use this American-style pre-consonantal [r] when reading a passage.[33]


  Front Central Back
Close Template:IPA   Template:IPA
Close-mid Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA
Open-mid Template:IPA Template:IPA
Open   Template:IPA


Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA

Mapping between Singlish and British RP vowels:

Singlish phoneme RP phoneme(s) as in
Template:IPA Template:IPA meet
Template:IPA pit
Template:IPA Template:IPA day
Template:IPA (before a voiced plosive) leg
Template:IPA Template:IPA set
Template:IPA map
Template:IPA hair
Template:IPA Template:IPA car
Template:IPA bus
Template:IPA (before /l/) mile
Template:IPA Template:IPA mock
Template:IPA thought
/o/ Template:IPA low
Template:IPA Template:IPA food
Template:IPA put
Template:IPA - see below Template:IPA bird
Template:IPA idea
Template:IPA Template:IPA my
Template:IPA Template:IPA mouth
Template:IPA Template:IPA boy
Template:IPA Template:IPA here
Template:IPA Template:IPA tour
Template:IPA Template:IPA cure
Template:IPA Template:IPA fire
Template:IPA Template:IPA power
  • Template:IPA remains Template:IPA in Singlish, except when followed by a voiced plosive (/b/, /d/, or /g/), in which case it becomes Template:IPA among some speakers.[34] However, this is not entirely predictable, as egg has a close vowel (so it rhymes with vague) while peg has an open vowel (and rhymes with tag); and similarly for most speakers bed has a close vowel (so it rhymes with made), while fed has a more open vowel (the same vowel as in bad).[35] Which vowel occurs in each word therefore appears in these cases not to be predictable.
  • Template:IPA remains Template:IPA in Singlish, except when followed by /l/, in which case it is the monophthong Template:IPA.
  • Examples of words have idiosyncratic pronunciations: flour Template:IPA (expected: Template:IPA = flower),;[36] and their Template:IPA (expected: Template:IPA = there). Flour/flower and their/there are therefore not homophones in Singlish. This also applies to Manglish.
  • In general, Singlish vowels are tenserTemplate:Ndash there are no lax vowels (which RP has in pit, put, and so forth).
  • The vowels in words such as day /de/ and low /lo/ are pronounced with less glide than the comparable diphthongs in RP, so they can be regarded as monophthongsTemplate:Ndash i.e. vowels with no glide.[37][38]
  • Where other varieties of English have an unstressed Template:IPA, i.e. a reduced vowel, Singlish tends to use the full vowel based on orthography. This can be seen in words such as accept Template:IPA, example Template:IPA, purchase Template:IPA, maintenance Template:IPA, presentation Template:IPA, and so on. However, this does not mean that the reduced vowel Template:IPA never occurs, as about and again have Template:IPA in their first syllable. It seems that the letter 'a' is often pronounced Template:IPA, but the letter 'o' usually has a full vowel quality, especially in the con prefix (control, consider, etc.).[39] There is a greater tendency to use a full vowel in a syllable which is closed off with a final consonant, so a full vowel is much more likely at the start of absorb Template:IPA than afford Template:IPA.[40]
  • In loanwords from Hokkien that contain nasal vowels, the nasalisation is often keptTemplate:Ndash one prominent example being the mood particle hor, pronounced Template:IPA-nan.


Singlish is semi-tonal as all words of Chinese origin retain their original tones in Singlish. On the other hand, original English words as well as words of Malay and Tamil origin are non-tonal.


One of the most prominent and noticeable features of Singlish is its unique intonation pattern, which is quite unlike British, American or Australian English, etc.[41] For example:

  • Singlish is syllable-timed compared to most traditional varieties of English, which are usually stress-timed.[42][43][44] This in turn gives Singlish rather a staccato feel.[45]
  • There is a tendency to use a rise-fall tone to indicate special emphasis.[41] A rise-fall tone can occur quite often on the final word of an utterance, for example on the word cycle in "I will try to go to the park to cycle" without carrying any of the suggestive meaning associated with a rise-fall tone in British English.[46] In fact, a rise-fall tone may be found on as many as 21 per cent of declaratives, and this use of the tone can convey a sense of strong approval or disapproval.[47]
  • There is a lack of the de-accenting that is found in most dialects of English (e.g. British and American), so information that is repeated or predictable is still given full prominence.[48]
  • There is often an 'early booster' at the start of an utterance,[49] so an utterance like "I think they are quite nice and interesting magazines" may have a very high pitch occurring on the word think.[50]
    File:Coxford Singlish Dictionary.jpg
    Coxford Singlish Dictionary, a published book on Singlish
  • There may be greater movement over individual syllables in Singlish than in other varieties of English. This makes Singlish sound as if it has the tones of Chinese, especially when speakers sometimes maintain the original tones of words that are borrowed into Singlish from Chinese languages.

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.[51]

Generally, these pronunciation patterns are thought to have increased the clarity of Singlish communications between pidgin-level speakers in often noisy environments, and these features were retained in creolization.


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.

Topic prominence

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)[52][53][54] 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:

  • Dis country weather very hot one.Template:Ndash In this country, the weather is very warm.
  • Dat person there cannot trust.Template:Ndash That person over there is not trustworthy.
  • Tomorrow dun need bring camera.Template:Ndash You don't need to bring a camera tomorrow.
  • He play soccer also very good one leh.Template:Ndash He's very good at playing soccer too.
  • Walao, I want eat chicken rice Template:Ndash I am craving for chicken rice.
  • I go bus-stop wait you Template:Ndash I will be at the bus stop waiting for you

The above constructions can be translated analogously into Chinese, with a 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 most other varieties of English, and so called PRO-drop utterances may be regarded as a diagnostic feature of Singapore Colloquial English (or 'Singlish').[55] For example:

  • No good lah.Template:Ndash This isn't good.
  • Cannot anihow go liddat one leh.Template:Ndash You/it can't go just like that.
  • How come never show up?Template:Ndash Why didn't you/he/it show up? (See the use of never in place of didn't under the "Past tense" section.)
  • I li' badminton, dat's why I every weekend go play.Template:Ndash I like badminton, so I play it every weekend.
  • He sick, so he stay home sleep lor.Template:Ndash He's not feeling well, so he decided to stay home and sleep!


Nouns are optionally marked for plurality. Articles are also optional.[56] For example:

  • He can play piano.
  • I like to read storybook.
  • Your computer got virus anot? (Does your computer have a virus?)
  • This one ten cent only one.

It is more common to mark the plural in the presence of a modifier that implies plurality, such as "many" or "four".[57]

Many nouns which seem logically to refer to a countable item are used in the plural, including furniture and clothing.[58] Examples of this usage from corpus recordings are:

  • so I bought a lot of furnitures from IKEA
  • I had to borrow some winter clothings[59]

To be

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:

  • I damn naughty.[60]

Sometimes, an adverb such as "very" occurs, and this is reminiscent of Chinese usage of the word 'hen' (很)or 'hao' (好):

  • Dis house very nice.

It is also common for the verb "to be" to be omitted before passives:

and before the "-ing" form of the verb.:[61]

  • I still finding.[60]
  • How come you so late still playing music, ah?
  • You looking for trouble, izzit?

Slightly less common is the dropping out of "to be" when used as an equative between two nouns, or as a locative:

  • Dat one his wife lah. ("That lady is his wife.")[62]
  • Dis boy the class monitor. (=class president)
  • His house in Ang Mo Kio.

In general, "to be" drops out more after nouns and pronouns (except "I", "he", and "she"), and much less after a clause (what I think is...) or a demonstrative (this is...).

Past tense

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 Template:IPA.[63] For example:

  • I went to Orchard Road yesterday.
  • He accepted in the end.

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:[63]

  • He talk so long, never stop, I ask him also never.

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:[64]

  • When I was young, ah, I go to school every day.
  • When he was in school, he always get good marks one.
  • Last night I mug so much, so sian already. (to mug is to cram for an examination. sian is an adjective for "bored/tired".)

There seems also to be a tendency to avoid use of the past tense to refer to someone who is still alive:

  • the tour guide speak Mandarin[65]

Note in the final example that although the speaker is narrating a story, she probably uses the present tense in the belief that the tour guide is probably still alive.

Change of state

Instead of the past tense, a change of state can be expressed by adding already or liao (Template:IPA) to the end of the sentence, analogous to Chinese 了 (le).[66] 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 (pronounced more like "oreddy" and often spelt that way) in Singapore English is probably a direct influence of the Hokkien liao particle.[67] For example:

  • Aiyah, cannot wait any more, must go oreddy. (Oh dear, I cannot wait any longer. I must leave immediately.)
  • Yesterday, dey go there oreddy. (They already went there yesterday.)
  • Ah Song kana sai oreddy, then how? (If Ah Song were to get in trouble, what would you do?)
    • kana is a phonetical mispronunciation of "kena" by non-Malay speakers, which is itself a Malay word that may mean either "to (have) encounter(ed) something" or "to have to (do something)" (notes further below). Sai is a Hokkien word that means "faeces", and figuratively it means trouble. So kana Sai means touched by trouble, or get into trouble.

Some examples of the direct use of the Hokkien particle are:

  • He throw liao. (He has already thrown it away.)
  • I eat liao. (I ate or I have eaten.)
  • This new game, you play liao or not? (As for this new game, have you played it yet?)


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:

  • How come today you never (=didn't) hand in homework?
  • How come he never (=didn't) pay just now?


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 A-not-A, 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.[68] 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:

  • They never study, is it? (No wonder they fail!)
  • You don't like that, is it? (No wonder you had that face!)
  • Alamak, you guys never read newspaper is it?Template:Ndash "What? Haven't you guys ever read a newspaper?" (No wonder you aren't up to date!)

The phrase isn't it also occurs when the speaker thinks the hearer might disagree with the assertion.[57]

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:[69]

  • You go ting ting a little bit, maybe den you get answer. (Go and think over it for a while, and then you might understand.)
  • So what I do was, I sit down and I ting ting ting, until I get answer lor. (So I sat down, thought, thought and thought, until I understood.)

The use of verb repetition also serves to provide a more vivid description of an activity:

  • Want to go Orcher walk walk see see or not? (Let's go shopping/sightseeing at Orchard Road.)
  • Dun anyhow touch here touch there leh. (Please don't mess with my things.)

In another usage reminiscent of Chinese, nouns referring to people can be repeated for intimacy.[70] Most commonly, monosyllabic nouns are repeated:

  • My boy-boy is going to Primary One oreddy. (My son is about to enter Year/Grade/Standard One.)
  • We two fren-fren one. (We are close friends.)

However, occasionally reduplication is also found with bisyllabic nouns:

  • We buddy-buddy. You don't play me out, OK?[71]
  • Im the kind who is buddy-buddy person.[72]

Adjectives of one or two syllables can also be repeated for intensification:

  • You go take the small-small one ah. (Retrieve the smaller item, please.)
  • You want a raise from this boss? Wait long long ah. (It will never happen.)

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 can be used as an auxiliary to mark the passive voice in some varieties of Singlish.[73]

It is derived from a Malay word that means "to encounter or to come into physical contact",[74] 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:

  • He was scolded. = He got scolded. = He kena scold/scolded.
  • If you don't listen to me, you will get punished, after which you will know that you were wrong = If u dun listen, later you get punished, and then you know = dun listen, later you kena punish/punished then you know.

Note that kena is not used with positive things:

  • *He kena praised.
  • *He kena lottery.
  • *He kena jackpot. (huge winnings from playing the slot machine)

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 win the lottery!).

It is mostly used in vulgar, obscene and offensive contextsTemplate:Dubious, such as:

  • He kena fucked in the Singtel share buyout. (lost large amounts of money)
  • He kena defamation imprisonment. (Imprisoned as a result of defamation proceedings)

However, when used in sarcasm, kena can be used in apparently positive circumstances, though this is considered grammatically incorrect by the true natives of Singapore. It is mostly incorrectly used by European expatriates or Hong Kong and Mainlanders trying to integrate and assimilate into Singapore societyTemplate:Dubious, though with an ironic modicum of success, for example:

  • He kena jackpot, come back to school after so long den got so much homework! (He received a lot of homework upon returning to school after a long absence.)

When the context is given, Kena may be used without a verb, similar to the colloquial-English construction "I am/you're/he is going to get it."

  • Better clean the room, otherwise you kena. (You will be punished if you don't tidy the room.)
  • Dun listen to me, later you kena.

Using another auxiliary verb with kena is perfectly acceptable as well:

  • Better clean the room, otherwise you will kena.
  • Dun listen to me, later you will kena.

Some examples of Singlish phrases with Kena:

  • kena arrow: be assigned an undesirable task. (derives from National Service/military practice of placing arrows on a name list to denote those responsible for a task)
  • kena bully: get bullied
  • kena fine: get 'fined', or charged by the police
  • kena hantam: be hit by something, such as a ball, or to be beaten up (hantam is another Malay word)
  • kena sabo: become a victim of sabotage or a practical joke
  • kena sai: literally "hit by shit"; be harmed by an unpleasant event or object
  • kena tekan: tekan means "press", as in "pressure", in Malay; the phrase means to be physically tortured or punished. Often used in the army, which all male citizens must serve in.
  • kena whack: be beaten badly, in games or in physical fights
  • kena ban/silence: one of the newer uses of kena, it means to be banned/silenced in a computer game. Please note the "silence" is only used when silenced from talking in chat by GMs (Game Masters), not having the "silence" effect that stops you from doing spells.
  • kena zero: getting a zero mark for that paper that he/she was cheating

The word is many a times phonetically mispronounced "kana" by most non-Malays, especially those of the Chinese tongue. It is also interesting to note that informal Malay will socio-linguistically dictate it be pronounced as kene (as in kernel without the r and l), while the word itself in reality has two different meanings; "to have (to) encounter(ed) something" as how it is explained above or "to have to (do something)":

"Kau kene angkat ni." -- You have to carry this.
"Joe kene marah tadi." -- Joe just got scolded.

Singlish, however, is only influenced by the latter application of the word.


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 or 架 ga in Cantonese, 啲 e in Hokkien, -wa in spoken Japanese, or 的 de in some varieties of 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)[75]

  • Wah lau! So stupid one! - Oh my gosh! He's so stupid!
  • I do everything by habit one. - I always do everything by habit.
  • He never go school one. - He doesn't go to school (unlike other people).

For speakers of Mandarin, 的de can also be used in place of one.


The word then is often pronounced or written as den Template:IPA. 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". It is used to replace the Chinese grammatical particle, 才 (see ii).

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". When used in this context, the "den" is prolonged twice the usual length in emphasis, as opposed to the short emphasis it is given when used to mean cai2.

  • Never do homework den (2 beats with shifts in tone sandhi, tone 2) indicating replacement of "所以") kena scolding lor.

- I did not do my homework, that's why (therefore) I got a scolding

  • Never do homework (pause) den (2 beats with shifts in tone sandhi, tone 2) indicating replacement of "然后") kena scolding lor.

- I did not do my homework; I got a scolding after that

  • Never do homework den (1 beat with no shift in tone sandhi, indicating "才") kena scolding lor.

- It is only due to the fact that I did not do my homework that I was scolded.

Be very careful because "den" cannot be freely interchanged with "so".

It will sound grammatically erroneous when employed inappropriately. This is because the grammatical rules in English do not correspond to the grammatical rules in Chinese on a one-for-one basis.

The following examples are inappropriate use of "den", which will immediately sound grammatically illogical to a Singlish speaker:

  • I'm tired, den I'm going to sleep.
  • I'm late, den I'm going to take a taxi.

ii) "Den" is also used to describe an action that will be performed later. It is used to replace the Chinese particle, "才". When used in this context, the den is pronounced in one beat, instead of being lengthened to two beats as in (i).

If shortened, the meaning will be changed / incorrectly conveyed. For example, "I go home liao, "den" (2 beats) call you" will imbue the subtext with a questionable sense of irony, a lasciviousness for seduction (3 beats), or just general inappropriateness (random 2 beats indicating a Hong Kong comedy-influenced moleitou 無理頭 Singaporean sense of humour).

  • I go home liao den call you. - I will call you when I reach home
  • Later den say. - We'll discuss this later

iii) "Den" can used at the beginning of a sentence as a link to the previous sentence. In this usage, "den" is used to replace the Mandarin grammatical particle which is approximately equivalent in meaning (but not in grammatical usage) only to "Then," or "ran2hou4", as in "ran2hou4 hor". In such cases, it often carries a connotation of an exclamation.

When used in this context, in formal Singlish, the particle is lengthened to 2 beats to indicate replacement of "ran2hou4" or 1 beat when used in conjunction with "hor" as in "den hor".

It can also be shortened to 1 beat if the other speaker is a fluent Singapore speaker of Singlish (who tends to speak fast and can deduce via contextual clues which form of meaning the use of den is taking on), but the Singlish variant used when spoken to a wider Southeast Asian audience, is lengthening of the word to 2 beats.

The subtle usage of these particles differentiates a Malaysian speaking Manglish trying to assimilate into society, and a true-blue native-born Singaporean (whether it's a Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Malay or Caucasian speaker of Singlish). In many cases, a mixed child born and bred in Singapore will speak a more subtle form of Singlish (together with the influence of another language such as Dutch, Swedish, German) than a first-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent assimilating into Singapore.

  • I was at a park. Den hor, I was attacked by dinosaur leh!
  • I woke up at 10. Den boss saw me coming in late. So suay!

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".

  • A: You're so stupid!
  • B: You den stupid la - You're the stupid one
  • A: You're late!
  • B: You den late lor. - You're the late one

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?"]

  • A: I slept at 4 last night leh...
  • B: Den?

[Sarcastic 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

  • A: Late liao leh...
  • B: Dennn?

[Arrogant expression] Speakers have the option of using "Den" in a phrase, as in "Ah Bu Den" or "Ah Den". In this case it serves approximately the same purpose as 'duh' in American English slang.

  • A: Wah seh! You actually make this computer all by yourself ah?
  • B: Ah bu den!

[Ah, but then? (What happened after that?)]

  • A: I found $100 today...
  • B: Den what?

Discourse particles

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.

Research on Singlish discourse particles have been many but varied, often focusing on analysing their functions in the sentences they appear in.[76]


The ubiquitous word Oi is commonly used in Singlish.It has a resemblance to the word Hey!, and is used to draw attention and/or express indignation.

Here are some phrases of Oi used in sentences.(please note that these are used in Singapore)

Oi, you forgot to give me my Pencil!

Oi! Hear me can-can lah !

Oi! You know how long I wait for you?!

Please note that Oi is considered slightly rude if used on strangers in public, in the workplace, or on one's elders.


The ubiquitous word lah (Template:IPA), rarely spelled as larh, luh or lurh, is used at the end of a sentence.[77] It may originate from the Chinese character (Template:Lang, Pinyin: Lè/Là), though its usage in Singapore is also influenced by its occurrence in Malay.[78] It simultaneously softens the force of an utterance and entices solidarity,[79] though it can also have the opposite meaning so it is used to signal power.[80] In addition, there are suggestions that there is more than one lah particle, so there may be a stressed and an unstressed variant[81] and perhaps as many as nine tonal variants, all having a special pragmatic function[82]

Note that 'lah' is occasionally after a comma for clarity, though true locals never bother with punctuation, because there is never a pause before '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. "No more work to do, we go home lah!" However, if the preceding clause is already diminutive or jocular, suffixing it with -lah would be redundant and improper: one would not say "yep lah", "nope lah", or "ta lah" (as in the British "Ta" for "thank you").

  • 'Lah' with a low tone might indicate impatience. "Eh, hurry up lah."

Lah is often used with brusque, short, negative responses:

  • I dun have lah!Template:Ndash I just don't have any of that (which you were requesting)!
  • Dun know oreddy lah!Template:Ndash Argh, I don't know anymore than what I told you! or I give up trying to understand this!

Lah is also used for reassurance:

  • Dun worry, he can one lah.Template:Ndash Don't worry, he will be capable of doing it.
  • Okay lah.Template:Ndash It's all right. Don't worry about it.

Lah is sometimes use to curse people

  • Go and Die lah!.

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:

  • He do that ar?
  • Later free or not?
  • Don't tell me he punch her ar?


The particle wat (Template:IPA), also spelled what, is used to remind or contradict the listener,[83] especially when strengthening another assertion that follows from the current one:

  • But he very good at sports wat.Template:Ndash But he is very good at sports. (Shouldn't you know this already, having known him for years?)
  • You never give me wat!Template:Ndash (It's not my fault, since) You didn't give it to me! (Or else I would have gotten it, right?)

It can also be used to strengthen any assertion:[84]

  • The food there not bad what. Can try la.


Mah (Template:IPA), originating from the Cantonese (嘛,ma), is used to assert that something is obvious and final,[85] and is usually used only with statements that are already patently true. It is often used to correct or cajole, and in some contexts is similar to English's duh. This may seem condescending to the listener:

  • This one also can work one mah! Template:Ndash Can't you see that this choice will also work?
  • He also know about it mah! Template:Ndash He knew about it as well, [so it's not my fault!]


Lor (Template:IPA), also spelled lorh or loh, from Cantonese (囉, lor) , is a casual, sometimes jocular way to assert upon the listener either direct observations or obvious inferences.[83] It also carries a sense of resignation, or alternatively, dismissiveness.[86] that "it happens this way and can't be helped":

  • If you don't do the work, then you die lor!Template:Ndash If you don't do the work, then you're dead!
  • Kay lor, you go and do what you want.Template:Ndash Fine, go ahead and do what you want.
  • Dun have work to do, den go home lor.Template:Ndash If you're done working, you should go home. (What are you waiting for?)


Leh (Template:IPA), from Hokkien, is used to soften a command, request, claim, or complaint that may be brusque otherwise:

  • Gimme leh.Template:Ndash Please, just give it to me.
  • How come you don't give me leh?Template:Ndash Why aren't you giving it to me?
  • The ticket seriously ex leh.Template:Ndash Argh, The tickets are really expensive.
  • But I believe safe better than sorry leh.Template:Ndash The thing is, I believe it's better to be safe than sorry.

Especially when on a low tone, it can be used to show the speaker's disapproval:[84]

  • You call her walk there, very far leh.


Hor (Template:IPA), from Hokkien and Cantonese, also spelled horh, is used to ask for the listener's attention and consent/support/agreement:[87]

  • Then horh, another person came out of the house.Template:Ndash And then, another person came out of the house.
  • This shopping center very nice horh.Template:Ndash This shopping center is very nice isn't it?
  • Oh yah horh! - Oh, yes! (realising something)


Ar (Template:IPA), also spelled arh or ah, is inserted between topic and comment.[88] It often gives a negative tone:

  • This boy arh, always so naughty one!Template:Ndash This boy is so naughty!

Ar (Template:IPA) with a rising tone is used to reiterate a rhetorical question:

  • How come lidat one, arh?Template:Ndash Why is it like that? / Why are you like that?

Ar (Template:IPA) 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 (Template:IPA), also spelled har, originating from the British English word huh, is used to express disbelief or used in a questioning manner.

  • Har? He really ponned class yesterday ar! - What? Is it true that he played truant (=ponteng, shortened to 'pon' and converted into past tense, hence 'ponned') yesterday?
  • Har? How come like that one? End up kena caning! - What? How did he end up being caned?


Meh (Template:IPA), from Cantonese (咩, meh), is used to form questions expressing surprise or scepticism:

  • They never study meh?Template:Ndash Didn't they study? (I thought they did.)
  • You don't like that one meh?Template:Ndash You don't like that? (I thought you did.)
  • Really meh?Template:Ndash Is that really so? (I honestly thought otherwise/I don't believe you.)


Template:IPA, also spelled sia or siah, is used to express envy or emphasis. It is a derivative of the Malay vulgor word "sial" or "siol" (derivative of the parent, used interchangeably but sometimes may imply a stronger emphasis). Originally, it is often used by Malay peers in informal speech between them, sometimes while enraged, and other times having different implications depending on the subject matter:

"Kau ade problem ke ape, sial?" -- Do you have a problem or what? (negative, enraged)
"Sial ah, Joe bawak iPod ni ari." -- Whoa, Joe brought an iPod today. (positive, envy)
"Takde lah sial." -- No way, man. or I don't have it, man. (positive, neutral)
"Joe kene marah sial." -- Joe got scolded, man. (positive, emphasis)

Malays may also pronounce it without the l, not following the ia but rather a nasal aah. This particular form of usage is often seen in expressing emphasis. There is a further third application of it, in that a k is added at the end when it will then be pronounced saak with the same nasal quality only when ending the word. It is similarly used in emphasis.

However, Singlish itself takes influence only from the general expression of the term without any negative implication, and non-Malay speakers (or Malays speaking to non-Malays) pronounce it either as a nasal sia or simply siah:


Summary of discourse and other particles:

Function Example Meaning Notes
(Nothing) Can. "It can be done."
Solidarity Can lah. "Rest assured, it can be done."
Seeking attention / support (implicit) Can hor / hah? "It can be done, right?"
Characteristic Can one / de (的). "(Despite your doubts) I know it can be done."
(Vividness) Liddat (like that) 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/ Questioning in a calm manner Can huh (low tone). "It can be done..."
Anger Alamak! Why you go and mess up!? "Argh! Why did you go and mess it up!?"


Nia is originated from Hokkien which means 'only', mostly used to play down something that has been overestimated.

  • Mary: "I not so old lah, I 18 nia."

"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 translated as "and you will regret not heeding my advice". Also a direct translation of the Chinese '你才会知道'.

  • Mother: "Ah boy, don't run here run there, wait you fall down then you know ar."

"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):

  • Got question? Any questions? / Is there a question? / Do you have a question?
  • Yesterday ar, East Coast Park got so many people one! There were so many people at East Coast Park yesterday. / East Coast Park had so many people [there] yesterday.
  • This bus got air-con or not? Is there air-conditioning on this bus? / Does this bus have air-conditioning?
  • Where got!? Where is there [this]?, or less politely, There isn't/aren't any! also more loosely, What are you talking about?; generic response to any accusation. Translation of the Malay "mana ada?" which has the same usage.

Can is used extensively as both a question particle and an answer particle. The negative is cannot.

  • Gimme can? Can you please give that to me?
  • Can! Sure!
  • Cannot. No way.

Can can be repeated for greater emphasis or to express enthusiasm:

  • Boss: "Can you send me the report by this afternoon?" Employee: "Can, Can!" (No problem!)

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:

  • Employee:"Boss, tomorrow can get my pay check or not?" Boss:"Boleh lah ..." (sure/possibly)

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):

  • He so stupid lidat. - He really seems pretty stupid, you know.
  • He acting like a little kid lidat. - He's really acting like a little kid, you know.

Like that can also be used as in other Englishes:

  • Why he acting lidat? - Why is he acting this way?
  • If lidat, how am I going to answer to the gong shi ting? - If that's the case, how am I going to answer to the board of directors?

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.

  • I oso like dis one. (I also like this one.)
  • I like dis one oso. (I like this one too.)

"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.

  • I try so hard oso cannot do. (I tried so hard, and still I can't do it. OR I can't do it even though I tried so hard.)

The order of the verb and the subject in an indirect question is the same as a direct question.

  • "Eh, you know where is he anot?" "Excuse me, do you know where he is?"

"Ownself" is often used in place of "yourself", or more accurately, "yourself" being an individual, in a state of being alone.

  • "Har? He ownself go party yesterday for what?" "Why did he go to the party alone yesterday?"

Not all expressions with the -self pronouns should be taken literally, but as the omission of "by":

  • Wah, hungry liao! You eat yourself, we eat ourself, can? (Hey, I/you should be hungry by this time! Let's split up and eat. (Then meet up again)

Some people have begun to add extra "ed"s to the past tense of words or to pronounce "ed" separately.

  • "Jus now go and play game, character dieded siah!" "When I played a game just now, my character died!"



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, 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".[89]

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. ("Oi (also used as oy, although Singaporeans spell it as oi), 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).[90] However, we might note that Malay '(meng)hantar' can also be used to mean both "send a letter" and "take children to school",[91] so perhaps both Malay and Chinese have combined to influence the usage of 'send' in Singapore.

In pop culture


Notable Sites


  • Cinderel-Lah!
  • Oi! Sleeping Beauty



For punctuation and spelling of Singlish see also Sylvia Toh Paik Choo's:

  • Eh, Goondu! (1982) Singapore: Eastern Universities Press. ISBN 9971-71-168-0.
  • Lagi Goondu! (1986) Singapore: Times Books International. ISBN 9971-65-224-2.

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.

  • Chiang, Michael, Army Daze (Singapore: Times Books International, 1987) ISBN 981-3002-12-3
  • Chong C. S., NS: An Air-Level Story (Singapore: Times Books International, 1994) ISBN 981-204-312-8
  • Gwee Li Sui, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998) ISBN 981-3065-19-2


On March 15, 2007, Demos, a UK think tank, recommended that the UK embrace 'modern' Englishes, since far from being corruptions of English, new versions of the language, like Chinglish and Singlish, have values "that the British need to learn to accommodate and relate to".[94]

See also


Notes and references


Further reading

  • Brown, Adam (1999). Singapore English in a Nutshell: An Alphabetical Description of its Features. Singapore: Federal Publications. ISBN 981012435X.
  • Crewe, William (ed. 1977) The English Language in Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
  • Deterding, David (2007). Singapore English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748625451.
  • Deterding, David, Brown, Adam and Low Ee Ling (eds. 2005) English in Singapore: Phonetic Research on a Corpus. Singapore: McGraw-Hill Education (Asia). ISBN 0071247270.
  • Deterding, David, Low Ee Ling and Brown, Adam (eds. 2003) English in Singapore: Research on Grammar. Singapore: McGraw-Hill Education (Asia). ISBN 007123103X.
  • Deterding, David and Hvitfeldt, Robert (1994) 'The Features of Singapore English Pronunciation: Implications for Teachers', Teaching and Learning, 15 (1), 98-107. (on-line version)
  • Deterding, David and Poedjosoedarmo, Gloria (2001) The Grammar of English: Morphology and Syntax for English Teachers in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Prentice Hall. (Chapter 19: Singapore English). ISBN 0130930091.
  • Foley, Joseph (ed. 1988) New Englishes: the Case of Singapore, Singapore: Singapore University Press.
  • Foley, J. A., T. Kandiah, Bao Zhiming, A.F. Gupta, L. Alsagoff, Ho Chee Lick, L. Wee, I. S. Talib and W. Bokhorst-Heng (eds. 1998) English in New Cultural Contexts: Reflections from Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Management/Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195884159.
  • Gopinathan, S., Pakir, Anne, Ho Wah Kam and Saravanan, Vanithamani (eds. 1998) Language, Society and Education in Singapore (2nd edition), Singapore: Times Academic Press.
  • Gupta, Anthea Fraser (1992) 'Contact features of Singapore Colloquial English'. In Kingsley Bolton and Helen Kwok (eds.) Sociolinguistics Today: International Perspectives, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 323–45.
  • Gupta, Anthea Fraser (1994). The Step-Tongue: Children’s English in Singapore. Clevedon, UK: Multimedia Matters. ISBN 1853592293.
  • Ho, Mian Lian and Platt, John Talbot (1993). Dynamics of a contact continuum: Singapore English. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198248288.
  • Lim, Lisa (ed. 2004). Singapore English: a grammatical description. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins. ISBN 1588115763.
  • Low, Ee Ling and Brown, Adam (2005) English in Singapore: An Introduction. Singapore: McGraw-Hill.
  • Melcher, A. (2003). Unlearning Singlish: 400 Singlish-isms to avoid. Singapore: Andrew Melcher Pte. Ltd. ISBN 9810489528
  • Newbrook, Mark (1987). Aspects of the syntax of educated Singaporean English: attitudes, beliefs, and usage. Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang. ISBN 3820498869.
  • Ooi, Vincent B. Y. (ed. 2001) Evolving Identities: the English Language in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: Times Academic. ISBN 981210156X.
  • Pakir, Anne (1991) ‘The range and depth of English-knowing bilinguals in Singapore’, World Englishes, 10(2), 167–79.
  • Platt, John Talbot and Weber, Heidi (1980). English in Singapore and Malaysia: status, features, functions. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195804384.
  • Shelley, R., Beng, K.-S., & Takut bin Salah. (2000). Sounds and sins of Singlish, and other nonsense. Kuala Lumpur: Times Books International. ISBN 9812043926
  • Tongue, R. K. (1979) The English of Singapore and Malaysia (2nd edition). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
  • VJ Times Editorial Team. (2000). Singlish to English: basic grammar guide. Singapore: VJ Times. ISBN 9812211616
  • Wee, Lionel (2004) 'Singapore English: Phonology'. In Edgar W. Schneider, Kate Burridge, Bernd Kortmann, Rajend Mesthrie and Clive Upton (eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 1017–33.
  • Wee, Lionel (2004) 'Singapore English: morphology and syntax'. In Bernd Kortmann, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 1058–72.
  • Wong, J. O. (2001). The natural semantic metalanguage approach to the universal syntax of the Singlish existential primitive. CAS research paper series, no. 30. Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies, National University of Singapore. ISBN 9810438176

External links

Template:English dialects by continentde:Singlish fr:Singlish ko:싱글리시 he:סינגליש ms:Singlish nl:Singlish ja:シングリッシュ pl:Singlish ru:Сингапурский вариант английского языка simple:Singlish fi:Singlish vi:Singlish

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