Sidebar: Singlish, lah!

An Essential Guide to Singlish by Miel Prudencio Ma

You’ve probably heard of Spanglish. If not in the real sense, then at least related to the semi-charming but ultimately forgettable movie starring Adam Sandler and Penelope Cruz. Well Singlish is kind of like that. Only instead of a mix between English and Spanish it’s a language that has English at its core and is sprinkled with expressions from Malay and various Chinese and Indian dialects.

Let me give you a quick history lesson. The island nation of Singapore was a British colony from the early 1800’s until it declared independence in 1965. Until the Brits came the island was sparsely populated, so Sir Stamford Raffles came up with a city plan for this future trading post. But the Brits couldn’t build it themselves. Many Chinese, Malaysians, and Indians emigrated from their home countries to Singapore and participated in the development of the colony.

Back to present day: we have a country that is a melting pot of cultures where many residents are bi- or tri-lingual. We have English as the official language of the education system and the government. And we have Singlish, a colloquial blend of the official and the familiar.

The most common Singlish expression I’ve heard is “lah”, a word that’s used at the end of a sentence for emphasis: “That big dog, lah!” (Lexi looks like a horse to locals), or “Dun have lah” (as in ‘no we don’t carry size 9 sandals, are you crazy? Women aren’t supposed to have feet that big’).

My favorite Singlish expression is the use of the word “can” as affirmative answer to any question:

     Q: “Hey Michael, can you get me a glass of wine?”

     A: “Can.”

     Q: “And while you’re up how about some dark chocolate… and a foot massage?”

     A: “Also can.”

Another interesting feature of Singlish is to repeat words twice. In my photography class we learned techniques for walk walk photography (sightseeing) and were taught that zoom lenses make the far far near near and wide angle lenses make the near near far far. My Makansutra book (Singapore food guide) lists the best of the best eateries as die die must try.

I was planning on learning some Dutch in preparation for our next posting but maybe I’ll just pick up the book in the picture above and see how fluent I can become in Singlish during our last 4-5 months on this funny little island. Must try, lah!


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