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IMTLD: The Beauty and Efficiency of Singlish

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International Womens’ Day, International Childrens’ Day, International Teachers’ Day. These are a few International Days that everyone knows regardless of where they are around the world; but there are more interesting days: International Spider-Man Day, International Watermelon Day, and to me, one of the most relevant ones to the polyglot community: International Mother Language Day.

This event takes place on 21 February every year, and was originally proposed by Bangladesh, and was approved by UNESCO in 1999 to promote linguistic and cultural awareness around the world.

Regarding this day, the Lingua-Cultural Experience and Richard Simcott, one of the organisers of the Polyglot Conference Global, had decided to host an event on the day (UTC) of Monday 21 February 2022 to commemorate International Mother Language Day.

I was lucky enough to have been selected as one of the speakers for this event, and chose to speak about “Singlish” as my mother tongue language. Even though my mother tongue is technically Mandarin Chinese, Singlish feels more like a mother tongue to me due to it being the language Singaporeans speak on a daily basis. It is a wondrous mixture of the different tongues that Singaporean natives speak, unique to our country and a magical reflection of our diverse and varied culture.

In the talk, I covered the history of Singlish, its personal significance to me, its beauty and efficiency as well as more fun facts.

1. The History of Singlish

Singlish, being a portmanteau word from English and Singapore, is only natural that it is an English-based creole language originating from Singapore. It contains words, vocabulary, and grammar from other languages and dialects such as Hokkien, Malay, Teochew, Cantonese and Tamil. Singlish is also semi-tonal as words of Sinitic origin generally 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.

Singapore was once a British colony from 1819 to post-WW2, after Sir Stamford Raffles landed on our shores. When Singapore was declared as a free trading port by the British, people from all over the world came to Singapore to search for a better life: a high proportion of these people were from the South coast of China, including Canton, Fujian, Hainan, and also parts of India. Hence ,it’s really no surprise that these languages and dialects form the core of Singlish.

After the establishment of English as a medium of education in Singapore, elements of English quickly filtered out of schools and onto the streets, resulting in the development of a pidgin language spoken by non-native English speakers as a lingua franca used for communication between speakers of the many different languages. Singlish evolved mainly among the working classes who learned elements of English without formal schooling, mixing in elements of their native languages. After some time, this new pidgin language, now combined with substantial influences from Indian English, Peranakan, southern varieties of Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, became the primary language of the streets.

As Singlish grew in popularity, children began to acquire Singlish as their native language, a process known as creolization. Through this process of creolization, Singlish became a fully-formed, stabilized and independent creole language, acquiring a more robust vocabulary and more complex grammar. I am proud to say that some of our Singlish words have even been featured in the Oxford English Dictionary, such as shiok, blur and ang moh. It would of course also be wonderful if there could be more global recognition of our unique Singaporean identity.

2. Singlish’s Personal Significance to Me

I am fortunate to be able to count several languages as my mother tongues, including English, Mandarin, Singlish and even French. However, I would say that Singlish might just be the one closest to my heart!

Many will argue that Singlish, being the unique product of a multicultural society, is the true bond for citizens of our island country. It takes the essence, grammar and vocabulary of many languages and dialects such that the speaker can express himself, his feelings and his intention in the most efficient way and the listener will be able to comprehend and decipher the message with precision, from both what was spoken and left out.

The particles unique to Singlish such as lah, leh, ler and lor are so specific and heartwarming to us Singaporeans that it always gives me a heartwarming feeling when I hear the familiar accent and words, especially when I am travelling overseas. The beauty of Singlish lies in how it can give me a sense of home even when I am halfway across the world.

3. The Beauty and Efficiency of Singlish

Remember the particles I mentioned earlier? They’re one of the ways that can truly demonstrate the beauty and efficiency of Singlish. In my first example, I’ll illustrate how the particles improve our communication efficiency.

Let’s say someone asks me about my age, “Hi, Xing-Yi! How old are you this year?” To this question, I would obviously reply that I am 15 years old. However, using Singlish, I could say

“15 lor”, “15 liao”, etc.

15 lor, has an implied meaning that you might be asking an obvious question because I had previously told you my age and my answer to you is merely stating the obvious, while 15 liao, when translated to standard English, would be something along the lines of “I am already fifteen years old.”

Moving away from particles, I believe the other way to demonstrate the uniqueness of Singlish is how our locals order our coffee at the local Kopitiams - the Hokkien version of coffeehouses, cafes or coffee shops. You can think of it as a local Starbucks which sells local delicacies in addition to drinks, of which coffee is but one of them.

You may refer to the above picture (credits to Fun Toast for the guide), for an example of how the different languages and dialects in Singlish intersect to allow us to order a cup of coffee in a few syllables; black coffee, for example, is Kopi O for us. What’s so special about that?

Well, Kopi is Malay for coffee, while O is Hokkien for black. Regardless of race, language or religion, Kopitiam baristas will always understand you when you order coffee like the above guide dictates: do stop by for a drink if you ever visit Singapore!

4. Miscellaneous and Conclusion

In recent times, Singlish is considered by linguists to be an independent language with its own systematic grammar. Linguists from universities around the world have referred to local productions to demonstrate to students how Singlish has become a unique language variety.

Interestingly, Singlish is not looked fondly upon by authorities as it is not considered standard English, though phrases are sometimes used in campaigns and advertisements for humorous effects; I would however of course hope that Singaporeans can learn to embrace this culture even more, and perhaps even bring it partially into schools and workplaces!


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