I recently had an out-of-body experience. I was in a jewelry store (quite a few rungs down from the kind with the iconic blue boxes) trying to buy a battery for my watch. It was an uphill battle, mostly because I’d landed one of those salespeople for whom customer service and product knowledge are decidedly murky concepts.
I watched as she worked her way through every battery in the store in the hopes that one of them would fit. Frustrated by the growing pile of alkaline rejects littering the counter, I picked up a battery that looked exactly like the one in my watch and asked for clarification: “This one no good, is it?”
That’s when my soul hit the eject button and hovered above my body in stunned silence. I’d done something I’d never done before* — something I’d never intended to do.
I’d spoken Singlish.
Singlish is it?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this uniquely Singaporean delight, Singlish is a glorious linguistic stew that began life as a pidgin language in Singapore’s early days. Nowadays it’s spoken in varying degrees all over the island.
The vocabulary is a mash-up of English, Malay, various Chinese languages such as Hokkien and Cantonese, and Indian languages such as Tamil and Punjabi. Here’s a sampling:
- Ang moh: Caucasian. (Literally, “red hair.”)
- Atas: snobby, high-brow.
- Blur: stupid, slow to catch on.
- Cheem: profound, complicated.
- Chope: to reserve a seat. (In the video shown below, Terry uses tissues to chope a seat in the hawker centre.)
- Dowan: short for “I don’t want”.
- Is it?: used at the end of statements as a question particle.
- Kancheong: nervous, uptight.
- Kaypoh: annoyingly curious or being a busybody.
- Kayu: lousy.
- Lah: used at the end of a sentence (sometimes every sentence) for emphasis. The Canadian counterpart is eh.
There’s a lot of variation in the degree to which Singlish can be spoken. Some Singaporeans speak the full-on version that’s completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Others merely pepper their English with Singlish words and phrases, a practice I found only slightly confusing (probably as confusing as speaking with a Canadian was for them. I had to explain certain Canadianisms — such as Molson muscle, tuque, chesterfield and double-double — many times in Singapore. And everywhere else, for that matter.)
Bookjunkie, who blogs at Tiny Island and Singapore, Actually, is a pepperer. “I tend to use some words and expressions when I am in causal conversations with people close to me,” she says. “I hardly say lah even though my mum uses it quite a bit. I hear people in the office using Hokkien Singlish expressions like sien, which means ‘fed up with life and boring’ but I don’t really like that term because I find it so negative.”
Singlish: the battle lines are drawn
Even though Singlish is the “unofficial” fifth official language of Singapore, its use has become increasingly controversial. Prime Ministers past and present have expressed a clear preference for Standard English — the global language of commerce — over the vernacular. In fact, the government launched the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) in 1999 to encourage Singaporeans to reject what then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called “English corrupted by Singaporeans.” The campaign slightly shifts its focus every year, and is still running today.
Many Singaporeans think Singlish is an abomination. My friend Sally, for example, refuses to allow her children to speak it. “It just sounds horrible,” she told me. Spending five minutes in any kopitiam (coffee shop) on the island, however, gives the distinct impression the majority of her compatriots disagree.
Hwee Hwee Tan, writing in Time magazine, had this to say:
“Singlish is crude precisely because it’s rooted in Singapore’s unglamorous past. This is a nation built from the sweat of uncultured immigrants who arrived 100 years ago to bust their asses in the boisterous port. Our language grew out of the hardships of these ancestors. And Singlish is a key ingredient in the unique melting pot that is Singapore.”
Bookjunkie, echoing the feelings of many Singaporeans, agrees that Singlish is a unique reflection of national identity. “I feel that it is so much a part of us,” she told me, adding that Standard English is taught in schools, and that Singaporeans are generally quite adept at switching from one to the other, depending on the situation.
Singlish supporters claim their language captures certain aspects of the Singaporean experience better than English ever could. Even current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admits, “There is a certain humour and nuance reflecting the Singaporean psyche which perhaps English may not express as adequately as Singlish.” Bookjunkie couldn’t agree more: “The best jokes are always in Singlish, which is why I love the standup comedy of Kumar.”
If you’ve never heard it, the video below will give you an easily digestible taste of Singlish. And if that’s still not enough for you, here’s an interesting article on the subject, featuring an interview with the founder of the Speak Good Singlish Movement (the counter-campaign to the SGEM.)
You can also check out the Coxford Singlish Dictionary and try a little Singlish yourself. Don’t be pai seh!
*Okay, yes — there was also that time I accidentally blurted, “Park on Toh Tuck, can or not?” to the guard at the girl’s school in Singapore, when I’d fully intended to say, “Am I allowed to park on Toh Tuck Road?” He nodded vigorously and replied, “Can, lah!” That brief exchange netted me a $70 parking ticket, so you can understand why I’m so kancheong about speaking Singlish.