SINGLISH: BROKEN ENGLISH OR BADGE OF IDENTITY?
An intelligent way of experiencing a new country and its people's mentality is learning the local language. In the case of Singapore, nothing could be truer.
Two things struck me as incomprehensible when I first came to Singapore: its incessant humid heat and the local English, quirky enough to instill an inferiority complex in a linguist like me who had been painstakingly mastering English as a second language. With Professor Higgins as a role model, I could differentiate a Manchester accent from that of a Dubliner's, and would never confuse the dynamic verbalisation of New Yorkers with the sluggish Dixie drawl. But the language spoken in the Lion City remained a mystery to me for months.
Linguistic Blast from a Turbulent Past
Singlish is rooted in Singapore's short but tumultuous history. Immigrants of three major ethnicities – Malay, Chinese and Indian – came to the island in the early 19th century to establish trade here. They all spoke different languages and dialects, turning Singapore into a Babylon of sorts. Over time, these tongues affected each other and, in a much stronger way, the English language of the British colonisers. This resulted in Singlish, a colourful and unique Singaporean English that lives by the rules of Chinese grammar and is generously sprinkled with words from Hokkien, Malay and Indian dialects. On top of that, the intonation has a sing-song quality to it drawn from indigenous Asian cultures.
As if it is not mind-boggling enough, Singlish is spoken at machine-gun speed with words pronounced so abruptly that the most common and simplest of them become a challenge to Western ears. For instance, «act», «cast», «stopped» or «file» are chopped in Singlish to «ac», «cas», «stop», and «fi». The dental fricative «th» is more often than not substituted with [t] or [d], turning «thighs» into «ties», «three» into «tree» and «that» into «dat».
In written form, Singlish is no less puzzling: complex phrases are avoided, verbs may be left out, definite articles are generally ignored and indications of plurality, tenses and voices are optional. Have a look at an eye surgery ad which I personally have come across more than once in local media: «Advantage of Epi-LASIK: preserve more cornea tissue; suitable for those involve in contact or aggressive sports». I assure you: those are not typos – this is Singlish at work.
Let Me Hear You Speak and I'll Tell You Who You Are
Nearly all Singaporeans are bilingual, learning an Asian language or dialect with the family and English at school. Many speak three or four languages. The influence of their mother tongue is evident in the way Singaporeans pronounce English words and the intonation they employ. If you are exposed to Singlish long enough, you will be able to tell to which ethnic group a person who telephones you belongs. Chinese Singaporeans have the strongest accent. This was the reason why a Russian friend of mine, while taking driving classes in Singapore, asked for an instructor of Malay origin.
The government admonishes its citizens for speaking Singlish and advises them to learn proper English to boost the city-state's image as a commercial and financial hub. Since 1980, all school education has been taught in the English language which serves as the official language for business and administration among Singapore's four state languages. Today, most of overseas-educated or simply language-conscious Singaporeans are able to switch smoothly from Singlish to standard English, while less educated citizens stick to the grammatically and phonetically unconventional Singlish, which is a recipe for disaster for tourists visiting Singapore, especially those whose mother tongue is not English.
All Cats Are Grey in the Dark, All Caucasians Are Redheads in Singapore
The most ubiquitous Singlish words a foreigner learns first in Singapore are ang moh and lah. When you hear ang moh in a locals' conversation, rest assured they are talking about you, for this means a "white person" (literally, "red hair" in Hokkien).
Lah is a particle that emphasises the point made in a sentence. Surprisingly, while posing some difficulty for native English speakers, it does not whatsoever for Russians, for we have the particle «æå», which has similar connotations. When translating into Russian, just substitute lah for «æå», and you have it! Try this: "Too expensive, lah!" or "I told you, lah!". Lah has become a Singaporean brand of sorts, a badge of cultural identity. W!LD RICE, a Singaporean theatre company that takes its inspiration from the city-state's diverse cultures and comes up with hilarious gags of distinctive local flavour, called one of its plays Cinderel-LAH!.
While purists may bemoan the loss of Queen's English, those who see a broader picture admit that Singlish is the first building block of a Singaporean cultural identity and a distinct legacy of the country's unique story. Fun, energetic and extremely laconic, Singlish is spoken by all classes of Singaporean society.
by Julia Sherstyuk