An Introduction to Singlish

As a Singaporean, Singlish (a portmanteau of Singapore and English) is a true representation of our multicultural society. It is seamlessly integrated in...
An Introduction to Singlish

As a Singaporean, Singlish (a portmanteau of Singapore and English) is a true representation of our multicultural society. It is seamlessly integrated in many of our daily conversations and it can be understood by all Singaporeans, regardless of your race or mother tongue. We explore this uniquely Singaporean creole language and what makes it so interesting.

Busting some Singlish myths

Is Singlish taught in schools?

Of course not! You can think of Singlish as a sort of slang and it should only be used in casual conversations. Lessons in school are taught in standard English (specifically British) and students would learn the correct grammar and vocabulary. As such, most Singaporeans have learned to code-switch to standard English when speaking with foreigners so they can be better understood.

Is Singlish just Singaporean-style English?

Yes…and no. The beauty of Singlish is that it is an amalgamation of the different languages spoken in Singapore like English, Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. It combines to form a common language that everyone in Singapore uses and can mutually understand, no matter what your background is.

Characteristics of Singlish

Shortens sentences

Singlish is actually a very efficient language that gets to the point with fewer words or syllables. For example, if you wanted to say “I am able to do that”, you can simply summarise it in one word in Singlish: “Can”. Singlish also tends to simplify the pronunciation of certain phrases, like “I don’t want to/I don’t want it” would be “dowan” and “never mind” sounds like “nehmine”. There are even Singlish terms that are shortened versions of English words, like “sabo” for “sabotage” and “cher” to address a teacher.

Has its own grammar structure

One distinctive feature of Singlish is that it sometimes borrows from Chinese sentence structure. For example, the phrase “I have eaten already” would be translated to “I eat already” in Singlish, which is directly taken from the Chinese phrase “我吃了”. In addition, it has its own sentence modifiers, like “lah”, “leh” and “lor”, to change the nuance of sentences in different contexts.

Semi-tonal language

Another element that Singlish borrows from the Chinese language is its tonal nature. Certain Singlish terms taken from Mandarin and other Chinese dialects would carry the original tones when spoken. The different sentence modifiers are also paired with a specific tone to convey a certain emotion or add emphasis. Using the earlier example of the word “Can”: When you pair it with the modifier “meh”, you typically say it with a rising, questioning tone to express disbelief or scepticism.  

Redefines certain English words

Certain English words can take on a whole new meaning in Singlish. For example, the word “blur” is a noun or verb that means something is unclear. However, in Singlish, it is used to describe someone who is not focused or attentive to things going on around them, as if their head is constantly stuck in a hazy cloud. This is why people assume native English speakers cannot understand Singlish but with enough contextual clues, you can probably get the gist of the conversation.

Fun facts about Singlish

You can find Singlish in the Oxford dictionary

According to the latest record, there are a total of 27 Singlish words in the Oxford English Dictionary, including adjectives, common nouns and even local food! Words like “kiasu” (Hokkien for “afraid to lose”) and “gahmen” (simplified pronunciation of “government”) are some of the words you can find in the dictionary now; who knows what other words they might add on in the future!

Google Assistant knows Singlish!

If you own an Android phone, you can try speaking Singlish with your device’s Google Assistant function. This update was first introduced in 2017 and in the initial stages, the amount of Singlish Google understood was rather limited. Now that it’s been a few years, more recent tests show that Google has gotten better with its Singlish vocabulary, even being able to make Singaporean jokes! You can even ask Google questions about where to go and visit in Singapore as well, which is great for tourists visiting Singapore for the first time.

There’s a Singlish-speaking hero in Overwatch

For all you avid gamers out there, some of you might know that Overwatch’s newest hero, Echo, was based on a fictional Singaporean character. Scientist Mina Liao created Echo as a self-learning robot to aid in Overwatch missions and over time, the robot learned to imitate Liao’s voice and speech habits. Some of Echo’s voice lines in the game include Singlish phrases like “So shiok!” (a word originating from Malay that describes delight after a positive experience) and “Double confirm” (used when you’re extra confident about your response). That said, Blizzard chose an English voice actress for Echo, so her Singaporean accent isn’t that authentic.

Singlish is truly a language that embodies Singapore. It’s not really a language that can be taught but it’s definitely something you will pick up naturally if you come to work or live in Singapore. Over time, once you learn the language, it will definitely help you to assimilate into the Singaporean culture.

Hi, I’m Lydia from Singapore! I’m a budding linguist who loves learning about languages around the world, from their intricacies to the cultures behind them. I also love sharing my knowledge of the languages I speak and helping those who want to get started on their language learning journey.