Speak to any Singaporean, and you will find a bit overwhelmed by words like “lahs”, “mahs” and “mehs”. Such language is called Singlish, a colloquial form of English that is familiar to Singaporeans everywhere in the world. Its features are unique and highlight Singapore’s multicultural demographic.

What is Singlish?

Singapore is a cosmopolitan melting pot of races. The Chinese, Malays and Indians, descendants of immigrants who arrived from China, the Malay Archipelago, and India comprise the majority of the population. Standard English is among the four official languages spoken in the country, owing to its British colonial past. The others, of course, are Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil.

Singapore’s cultural diversity has resulted in an informal, localized form of English. Singaporeans of all races infuse Standard English with the vocabulary of the languages they speak. They sprinkle it with Chinese, Hokkien and Malay phrases. The sentence structure of Singlish bears their influence as well.

5 Unique Features of Singlish

Singlish Stresses the Complex Language Environment of the Country

Singlish is a one-of-a-kind language, and its characteristics may require some explanation. Here are five which will tell a listener that a Singaporean is speaking.

1. Functional Particles
Singaporeans are heavy users of pragmatic particles. These are words borrowed from mostly Southern Chinese dialects, notably Hokkien. They serve different, practical purposes. The most common ones are “ah” (to indicate uncertainty), “lah” (to make an assertion or statement), “hah” or “mah” (to ask questions), Singlish speakers may end their sentences with “what” to contradict their conversation partners.

Examples of these sentences are:
a. Her dress is too short lah ( being assertive)
b. Take this away, hah? (asking a question)
c. The first door to the left ah? (indicating uncertainty)
d. Mary was the one who brought the food to you, mah? (asking a question for clarity or confirmation) .

2. Verb Groups with No Subjects
Singaporeans do not express the subjects of sentences when others can infer them. This habit stems, in large part, from the use of shortened Mandarin sentences. The Inferred or retrievable sentence subjects are in parenthesis. Examples of this are:

a. “(You) Go to airport,” from the Chinese sentence, “qu ji chang

b. “(I)Still got headache”, from the Chinese phrase “hai tou tong
c. “Don’t want lah”, from the Chinese phrase “bu yao

3. Conditional Clauses without a Subordinating Conjunction
You will find that a Singlish speaker often eliminates conjunctions such as “if” or “when” in sentences. These would be necessary when speaking Standard English. The missing words are in parenthesis. Some instances of these are:

a. You sit there, then where I sit? (if)
b. Shout again, I go (if)
c. I stand here, can hear also (if)

4. Missing Verbs
Singlish users remove the verb “to be” from sentences. This language habit is another derived from contracted Chinese phrases. The missing verbs are in parenthesis. Examples are:

a. “She scared. (is)”, translated from the Chinese phrase, “ta pa”

b. “Today, I going shopping (am)”, translated from the Chinese sentence “Jing tian wo qu guang jie.”
c. “Your book there (is)”, translated from the Chinese sentence “Ni de shu zai na

5. Vocabulary from other languages
Singlish borrows words from other languages, particularly Malay and Chinese. These words have specific functions. Some instances of borrowed vocabulary include:

a. Alamak, a Malay word to indicate dismay or surprise e.g. “Alamak! I already late!”
b. Sian, a Chinese word that shows a speaker’s boredom e.g. “This lecture is so sian.”
c. Susah, A Malay word for “useless.” e.g. “Fixing that spoilt car, susah lah”

The Great Singlish Debate
Singlish's unique features make it an important part of Singapore’s national identity.

A perennial debate exists in Singapore over the use of Singlish, and it stresses the complex language environment of the country.

Code mixing or the merging of vocabulary from different languages is seen as an unacceptable norm in Singapore. The government discourages Singlish in the mass media and schools, viewing it as a non-standard, pidgin language that people from other countries find hard to understand.

To encourage the use of Standard English, it has introduced the Speak Good English Movement. It favors the use of Standard Mandarin as well. As such, Singlish does not have an official dictionary. Its proponents suggest that it emphasizes Singapore’s cultural diversity. They argue that it is an integral part of people’s lives, and is a hallmark of Singapore’s culture. This local language allows Singaporeans to identify with each other, even on foreign soil.

Eradicating Singlish is impossible regardless of the contention; its unique features make it an important part of Singapore’s national identity.  Despite its controversial nature, Singlish is here to stay!

For more learning trivia about language quirks, subscribe to our newsletter.