Singapore is a multicultural society. Its ancestors came mainly from China, India and the Malay Archipelago, hence creating cultural diversity within Singapore. At present, the major ethnic groups are Chinese, Malays and Indians.
Standard English(StdE) is the official language and the medium of instruction used in schools. It is the common language shared amongst everyone despite having different native tongues.
As most Singaporeans are bilingual, there is a tendency to code switch between their native tongue and StdE. Here is an example.
Let’s go and jalan-jalan.
In this example, the word jalan means ‘walk’ in the Malay Language and was borrowed to replace the English word. In StdE, it would be ‘Let’s go and walk.’
Various words of different languages could be used within the same sentence that has StdE as its basic sentence construct. Here is an example.
Walao! Why must trainee teachers wayang in class?
The word walao is from the Hokkien dialect and it could refer to either ‘my father’ or ‘my husband’. However, it is often used in an uncouth manner to express an exclamation in a negative situation when one is exasperated. The word wayang refers to a theatrical performance in the Malay Language but is used as a verb in this sentence, showing conversion of the word wayang from a noun to a verb. The meaning of wayang in this sentence has a negative connotation and means using methods that seem to suggest that one is just putting on a show.
There are other examples including the ending particles such as ‘lah’, ‘leh’, ‘lor’, ‘meh’ etc. ‘Lah’ is taken from a Chinese character 啦 or from the Malay Language while ‘leh’ and ‘lor’ are Hokkien words and ‘meh’ is a Cantonese word.
Here is a table showing the different functions of these ending particles.
This phenomenon of borrowing words from other languages has brought about the birth of a unique derivation of English called the Singapore Colloquial English (SCE) , which Singaporeans affectionately term as Singlish.
Singlish is most frequently used in informal settings such as within families, in the neighbourhood or with close friends. Singaporeans use Singlish when they want to reduce their social distance with another person. This shows that speaking Singlish influences a person’s perception of their relationship with another person. For example, to create a closer relationship with the fruit seller at the wet market, one can say,
Uncle, wah…today’s fruits very fresh hor? How much ah?
Compare this to
Hi uncle, today’s fruits seem to be very fresh. May I know the price of these fruits?
The second sentence, spoken in Standard English, is more polite but will increase the social distance between the interlocutors.
Singlish, being a fusion of languages, is also seen as an identity for Singaporeans. This language, being so unique, gives Singaporeans a sense of belonging to a community when they meet others who can speak Singlish too. This can be exemplified through an experience I had when I was having a vacation. I was travelling in a remote part of Chiangmai and I happened to identify some Singaporeans as they were speaking Singlish. We were so excited to meet each other that we started to communicate in Singlish and this immediately helped us to create a connection and bond, forming a Singaporean community even in a foreign land.
To sum up, speaking Singlish influences our thoughts and perception of our relationship with others in 2 ways:
- Singaporeans use Singlish when they want to reduce their social distance with another person.
- Singaporeans see Singlish as a national identity which gives them a sense of belonging to a community.
I will end off this section with a video on how Singlish is used in a cute and tongue in cheek manner by this little boy who calls himself Dr Jia Jia.