Standard Singapore English

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Standard Singapore English is the high variety dialect of English spoken in Singapore. While generally based on British English due to Singapore's status as a former colony, there are some features of the language that are distinctly American, due to America being the global hegemon of the 21st century.

History of SSE

The roots of SSE are derived, of course, from the country's 141 years as a Crown Colony of the British Empire (discounting the Japanese occupation).

During the colonial era, the received standard of English was British English (colloquially known as Queen's English) and Received Pronunciation. The English dialect of the streets was a sort of pidgin. After independence, British English in Singapore evolved into SSE, and the Pidgin English into Singlish.

After the two World Wars, the role of the United Kingdom as the global hegemon became nought, and the role was taken over by the United States. In the 21st century, especially, this hegemony began to show itself in SSE, and many British-inherited features of SSE were lost.

Description

Because of colonial influence, Standard Singapore English generally retains British features such as spelling and pronunciation. 'Tyre', 'colour', and 'aluminium' are generally preferred over their American spellings, for example. There are increasing exceptions to this due to American hegemony, though, as discussed in the section on American influence.

Usage

SSE is spoken in formal contexts, like workplaces and schools. The government, through the Speak Good English Movement, are pushing for the use of SSE even in informal situations.

Accents

There are several accents, not divided by region as in Britain, but rather by class and occupation. The most prestigious accent is the 'Channel 5' accent, used by local television and radio newsreaders.

American influence on a Commonwealth English dialect

Because of the United State's status as the global hegemon after the Second World War (displacing the British Empire) and its corresponding influence in media and culture, traits of American English are increasingly found in SSE. Examples of this influence can be found in grammar rules and pronunciation. Unlike British English, which allows for collective nouns taking plural verbs, collective nouns always take singular verbs in SSE. The phrase 'The Ministry are taking steps to eradicate non-standard English usage', as an example, is never heard. Collective nouns like 'police', which take plural verbs in both major dialects of English, continue to follow received grammar rules. Exclusively British pronunciations like ˈprɪv.ə.si/ and /ˈɡær.ɑːʒ/ (or /ˈɡær.ɪdʒ/) for 'privacy' and 'garage' respectively are rare amongst speakers of SSE. A 2012 NTU study also revealed increasing rhoticity in native SSE speakers (contrary to most English accents in the South of England and elsewhere), and a poor view of the intrusive-r as found in the Received Pronunciation accent. The American media are also accelerating the accepted usage of exclusively American vocabulary and slang, where British slang is relatively unknown. Cockney, for example, has little foothold where American linguistic hegemony happens. This is within the sphere of slang - in more formal registers, the incidence of American words also appear to be on the rise, particularly in the young - in this video for example, the exclusively American term 'elevator' is used.

Grammar

Grammar rules may deviate amongst some speakers, due to linguistic interference from other languages. A list of these unique traits follows.

Plurals

Nouns that appear to refer to countable items tend to be used in the plural form in the appropriate contexts.

  • Example: I am selling all my unwanted stuffs to the karang-guni man later.

In British English, 'stuffs' is a singular verb, and not a noun.

Redundant morphemes

Inflectional morphemes like '-ed' are unnecessarily tacked on the words by some.

  • Example: It came to 'passed' that America's hegemony was showing in SSE.

Vocabulary

Words unique to SSE

Standard Singapore English has unique vocabulary, some shared with its more colloquial form.

Words unique to SSE
Word BrE equivalent Notes
Gostan Reverse/go astern A corruption of the naval term 'go astern', which means to go in reverse. Although it originates from naval practice, 'gostan' is used in other transport contexts - driving, for example.
Handphone Mobile phone A direct translation from the Mandarin 手机 (literally 'hand device'), or the Cantonese 手提电话 (literally 'hand-carried telephone'). It sees varying levels of usage in formal contexts, being replaced by mobile in some formal contexts.
Mug Swot From the British mug up, which originally meant the cramming of information at the eleventh hour. 'Mug' in SSE now means to study assiduously, and is hence equivalent to the current and more popular British term 'swot'.
Place House
Revert Reply A corruption of the original meaning. A common mistake in office communications.
Understooded Understood Corruption of the original through the addition of a redundant morpheme.

American words, phrases and other constructions commonly found in SSE

Owing to increasing American linguistic hegemony, uniquely American words are slowly starting to replace their British equivalents in SSE. Users of AmE vocabulary tend to be the young, who tend to be more in touch with American media.

AmE words found in SSE
SSE/AmE Word BrE equivalent Notes
Cellphone Mobile phone/mobile While mobile phone is heard in both Englishes, 'cell phone' is more popular in American English. The replacement of 'mobile' with 'cell phone' takes place in contexts where handphone is not used, of course.
'Different than' 'Different to', or the more universal 'different from' 'Different than' is technically incorrect, though widely used. The adjective 'different' should only take one of two propositions ('to' or 'from), as the word different sets apart two agents by exclusion, rather than by a degree of comparison.
Elevator Lift 'Elevator' is a genericized trademark.
Guitar pick Guitar plectrum The British word is of Greek origin, while 'pick' comes from Middle English.
Maneuver Manoeuvre 'Maneuver' is a simplified form of the original, French-esque 'manoeuvre'.
Math Maths The distinction comes from a disagreement of sorts in truncating the original 'mathematics'. AmE favours dropping the '-ematic', while BrE favours dropping only 'ematic'. The British term is technically correct, as 'mathematics' was originally a plural noun.
Program Programme The '-me' ending comes from Victorian-era francophilia (Cf. manoeuvre). 'Programme' is used only to refer to television and radio programmes in BrE, while 'program' is traditionally used for computer software. In AmE, 'program' is used for television programmes and computer programs.
-ize and -yze word endings (colonize, analyze) -ise and -yse (-ize and -yse in Oxford spelling) word endings (BrE: colonise, analyse; OED: colonize, analyse) The -ize ending in American English is generally etymologically accurate (and hence preferred by Oxford), while the -yze ending is not (Oxford use the -yse word ending instead).
-or word endings (color, honor) -our word endings (colour, honour) The simplified -or word endings were proposed by American Noah Webster.

Pronunciation

Pronunciations unique to SSE

Unique pronunciations not heard of in British or American Englishes are found in SSE. A non-exhaustive list of these words is found below. As with grammar, these pronunciations may very amongst speakers; these are based on common observations.

Pronunciations unique to SSE
Word SSE pronunciation BrE pronunciation Notes
Abandon /əˈbʌnd(ə)n/ /əˈband(ə)n/ Possibly due to influence from the Mandarin.
Also /ˈɔːsɔ/ /ˈɔːlsəʊ/
Area /'eɪːrɪə/ /ˈɛːrɪə/
Bed /beɪd/ /bɛd/ Also applies to words with the same vowel sounds like 'dead' and 'head'.
Calendar ˈkəlɪndə ˈkalɪndə Rare example of a schwa in SSE, although 'misplaced'.
Children /'tʃurən/ tʃɪldrən/ Often heard in SCE, may occur in SSE. Rendered as chewren in writing occasionally.
Colleague /ˈkəliːg/ /ˈkɒliːg/ Oddly rendered 'corlick' in the EDMW English sociolect, which does not reflect the true pronunciation of the word in SSE.
Cigarette /'sɪɡ.ərət/ /ˌsɪɡ.əˈret/ Again, a 'misplaced' schwa.
Divorce /dʌɪˈvɔːs/ /dɪˈvɔːs/ The 'mispronunciation' is likely due to influence from the Mandarin and hypercorrection based on other words like 'divers' and 'diverse'.
Era /ɛːrə/ /ˈɪərə/
Home /hɔm/ /həʊm/ or /heɪm/ /heɪm/ is a 'plummier' and more conservative pronunciation.
Love /ləv/ /lʌv/, /lɒv/, or /lɑv/
Penis /'pɛnɪs/ /ˈpiːnɪs/
Police /puliːs/ /pəˈliːs/
Primary prɛm(ə)ri/ /ˈprʌɪm(ə)ri/ Sometimes corrupted to /prɛmbri/, especially amongst the working-class.
Renaissance /'rɪnʌɪs(ə)ns/ or /'rɪnʌɪsɑns/ /rɪˈneɪs(ə)ns/ or /rɪˈneɪsɒ̃s/ /rɪˈneɪsɒ̃s/ appears to be the most popular pronunciation in the UK, while /rɪˈneɪs(ə)ns/ is the preferred variant of the OED. The SSE pronunciation occurs possibly due to influence from the Mandarin.
Saturday /ˈsɑtədeɪ/ /ˈsatədeɪ/
Singapore ˌsɪŋ'ɑpɔː/ /ˌsɪŋəˈpɔː/ Probably due to influence from the Mandarin (Wade-Giles Hsin1 chia1 p'o1, Pinyin Xīnjiāpō).
Tuition /'tjuːʃən/ /tjuːˈɪʃ(ə)n/

British pronunciations

British pronunciations found in SSE
Word SSE/BrE pronunciation AmE pronunciation Notes
Direct dʌɪrɛkt /dɪˈrɛkt/ /dɪˈrɛkt/ is closer to the root Latin directus; this pronunciation is heard in some parts of the United Kingdom, and is preferred by the OED. The Cambridge Dictionary recommends dʌɪrɛkt.
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American pronunciations

Because of American linguistic hegemony, the British pronunciations of certain words are effectively unheard of in Singapore.

American pronunciations found in SSE
Word SSE/American pronunciation BrE pronunciation Notes
Adult /əˈdʌlt/ /ˈadʌlt
Garage /gəˈrɑːʒ/ /ˈgarɑː(d)ʒ/' or /ˈgarːɪdʒ/' /ˈgarːɪdʒ/' is more obscure in Singapore, as /ˈgarɑː(d)ʒ/' is the pronunciation prescribed in British dictionaries; /ˈgarɑː(d)ʒ/' is closer to the original French, while /ˈgarːɪdʒ/' appears to be an Anglicisation.
Poor /pʊə/ /pɔː/ /pɔː/ is the 'current' pronunciation in standard British English. /pʊə/ is generally associated with older RP accents from the 1960s. Compare 'home' above.
Privacy /'prʌɪvəsi/ /ˈprɪvəsi/ /'prʌɪvəsi/ is also heard to a lesser extent in Britain.
Z ziː zɛd zɛd is more true to the root French word, zede. ziː was originally a dialectal pronunciation of Z from 17th century Britain, as was ˈɪzəd (izzard).