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Singlish 101

By , 25 May 2011

Singlish 101
Singlish 101

One of the great things about Singapore is the expansive range of cultures, food, languages and dialects. They have large Chinese, Malay and Indian populations and their government housing plan ensures that they are mixed relatively evenly. As a result, it's hard to say exactly what language people speak colloquially in Singapore because they switch so often depending on who they are speaking to.

Here are some of my recollections of Singlish, which is pretty similar to Manglish, but with less influence from Malay and more from Chinese (especially WRT pronounciation).

  • Lah - An emphatic particle. If you don't hear a Singaporean say lah, you've probably been dropped off in the wrong country lah.
  • Syllable-final glottal stops - My next favourite feature. Apparently a corollary from Chinese which doesn't have syllable-final consonants. Because of this, Singaporeans replace these consonants with glottal stops. My personal favourite is the word 'stuck' which is pronounced /stəʔ'/ with such an emphasis on the stop it gives you a fright :) A multi-syllable example would be 'Woodlands', pronounced something like /wʊʔ.lɛn/.
Singlish 101
  • Word-final consonant reduction - Consonant clusters at the end of words aren't always replaced with glottal stops but seem to be reduced to the sound of the first consonant. I embarrassed myself pretty well discovering this by asking for directions to the nearest /jɑɪntʰ/ (Giant) supermarket when in Singlish it is pronounced more like /jaɪn/. In the end I had to write it down.
  • Short vowels - AFAICT all the vowels in Singlish are short.
  • No /æɪ/ diphthong - Another embarrassing moment. I was asking for my friend Kate using the thick slurring Aussie pronounciation /kʰæɪtʰ/ but in Singlish her name is /kɛʔ/. We got there eventually.
  • British 'o' - This was really strange and I'm not sure how widespread it is, but amidst all the short vowels, reduced consonants and glottal stops a clear British 'o' (/əʊ/) diphthong sometimes emerges. It's freaking hilarious to hear because of the stark contrast with the rest of Singlish. Examples: go /gəʊ/; road /rəʊd/.
  • No dental fricatives - /θ/ becomes /t/ and /ð/ becomes /d/. Examples: 'three' is pronounced /trɪ/ and 'this' is pronounced /dɪs/.
  • Voiced /ʃ/ - I think this is only mid-word. A simple example is 'pressure' which is pronounced something like /prɛʒa/ in Singlish, but /prɛʃə/ in Australian.
  • Mass nouns can be pluralised - The most obvious example of this was at a hawker centre. One shop was selling 'fruit' while the shop immediately opposite it was selling 'fruits'. In my infinite wisdom I didn't take a photo.
  • Semantics - Lots of words are used differently in Australian and Singlish: take vs send; give vs pass; shopping centre vs shopping mall; mobile vs handphone; straight vodka vs vodka neat etc etc. An Australian might say "take her to the shopping centre and give her my mobile", but a Singaporean would say "send her to the shopping mall and pass her my handphone". Sounds funny lah.
  • eh?! interjection. When Aussies are confused they pause... think.. and say either heeeeeiiy? or whaaaat? Singaporeans, on the other hand, will talk and talk and talk and then suddenly terminate with an abrupt eh? accompanied by step or half-step backwards. It's cute :)

That's all for today... your trusty field linguist has exhausted himself ;)


About Roger Keays

Singlish 101

Roger Keays is an artist, an engineer, and a student of life. Since he left Australia in 2009, he has been living as a digital nomad in over 40 different countries around the world. Roger is addicted to surfing. His other interests are music, psychology, languages, and finding good food. Click here to subscribe to his weekly blog, or stalk him on Facebook and Twitter.

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