Singlish

As I’m strapped for time today, I’ll open up the floor to a question: does anybody know anything about Singlish?

This term refers to a creole language in Singapore, a mix of English and various East Asian languages. The spectrum of English in the country seems similar to that of Jamaica, with several “Englishes” ranging from full-on creole to Standard English spoken with a Singaporean accent. This last variant can be found in the video below, which comes from what I’m presuming is a television show:

For the most part, the actors here seem to be speaking standard English (that is, the “acrolect” of Singlish). I found the speech of the daughter particularly interesting: she speaks with what appears to be a unique, native accent of English that I’m unacquainted with. When talking about non-foreign English dialects, we regrettably tend to overlook this part of the world.

You’ll notice I don’t have a clip for Singlish creole, however. Most videos of this language online seem to serve a political purpose: to portray Singlish as improper and destructive.  This hateful crank call by an FM radio station is just one example. Debates about creole in Singapore make similar conversations in the Caribbean seem tame by comparison.

Why the animosity over a language so unique?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to Singlish

  1. David says:

    These people seem to be Chinese, who for some reason, choose to express themselves from time to time in English. Are you sure there is a creole-type language-contact situation in Singapore? It might be just another part of the world where people have a thin wash of English competence as a result of education and the mass media?

    • Malti says:

      Did you even watch it? Except for like, two sentences in Mandarin, it’s all in English, not just “from time to time”.

      And Singapore isn’t “just another part of the world where people have a thin wash of English competence as a result of education and the mass media”, English is the home-language of nearly a third of households in Singapore, and spoken as a first or second language by 80% of the population according to the last census. Their constitution is written in English, and it’s the language of instruction for all subjects in schools.

    • Sravana says:

      It’s a typical Western-centric reaction to seeing people who are not white or have a European language background speak English natively or semi-natively — that it’s just not possible. Many, many people who happen to speak English with a Chinese or Indian or African accent have as much, if not better, fluency in the language than the typical American or Australian or British speaker, and are often more comfortable with English than their supposed ‘native’ languages.

      • boynamedsue says:

        Agreed. Singlish is a valid dialect of English. It is more valid even than Gibraltarian English, as even though that sounds closer to European varieties, it is still excellently learned L2, whereas Singlish is unambiguously L1 for a large number of speakers.

        I’d also like to know more about Singapore Creole, if only to find out whether it is a very well developed pidgin or a true creole.

      • trawicks says:

        @Srvana,

        I think people are wired, in a way, to assume certain ethnicities will speak with a “typical” accent. And, sadly, I think you’re right: “native” dialects of English (particularly those of the British Isles) have been scrutinized meticulously, while there are countless native dialects of English throughout the world that, because of their association with “foreignness” of some kind, are ignored.

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    The young girl almost sounded Jamaican to me… something about the rising intonation on certain syllables.

  3. AL says:

    It’s interesting to me because they spoke a few sentences in Mandarin, but their English accent sounds closer to what I associate with Cantonese speakers.

  4. Min says:

    Also, that clip may be lexically acrolectal, but not phonetically. This is acrolectal:

  5. David says:

    Malti-
    If people are being formally educated in English then you do not have a creole situation. A creole situation is when a pidgin (a language informally developed by people who do not have any knowledge of each others languages) becomes a native language. Such a vernacular has well-known characteristics. Singapore English is not like that. It is the universal second language of citizens in a multilingual state which uses English as a state-sponsored lingua-franca and medium of education. The clip simply shows English spoken by people whose native language is a dialect of Chinese. There are many people in Singapore whose native languages are Malay and Tamil – do you imagine they speak English the same way as these Chinese people do?

    • dw says:

      I’m not familiar with Singlish, but it’s possible that there is a similar situation to the Caribbean, where there was historically a geniune creole that is gradually being replaced/influenced in more educated speakers by standard English.

    • Ellen K. says:

      David, there does not have to be a “creole situation”, as you call it, in the present, in order for a creole language to exist. There has to have been one in the past.

      Now, I know nothing about Singapore history. Still, with just facts about Singapore in the present, and what I know about the history of the English language (in particular, who spoke it where and when), it’s pretty easy to conclude that once upon a time, there was a first contact situation between English, and Singapore. Once upon a time, no one in Singapore learned English in school.

      So, it’s certainly possible that in the past there was, in Singapore, the kind of situation where a pigeon forms and develops into a creole. I certainly wouldn’t conclude otherwise based only on the present.

    • Sravana says:

      I’ve been to Singapore, and the Singaporeans of Indian/Tamil heritage (not the new immigrants) have an accent more similar to the Chinese speakers than Indians.

      A creole situation is when a pidgin (a language informally developed by people who do not have any knowledge of each others languages) becomes a native language.

      I don’t see how that is incompatible with Singlish, as long as you can accept that (1) it is a native language — perhaps in addition to Chinese or Tamil or Malay — of many speakers, and (2) transmission of English through the educational system is also a type of informal language development. The teachers themselves are Singlish/English speakers after all! And of course, Chinese and Tamil and Malay heritage speakers interact with one another outside an educational context, and use English or Singlish to communicate.

  6. Fluffy Ears says:

    I am a Singaporean, an English speaking Singaporean at that. The clip you posted with the fat woman and her daughter is taken from a Chinese movie called ‘I not stupid’, so most of that movie is probably in Chinese.

    The fat woman does not speak ‘acrolectal’ or ‘standard English’, she speaks quite terribly in my opinion, her pronunciation is really bad. I would probably think her first language is Chinese if I met her in Spore. Her daughter though does speak with almost the same accent as me, most English speaking Sporeans sound something like her.

    ‘Singlish’ is basically simple broken English used by Sporeans whose English are poor to communicate. It is not a creole and definitely not a language. There are no grammar rules and no standard pronunciation. It is basically illiteracy. In fact, I resent the word ‘Singlish’ because it almost implies that is ‘Singaporean English’ when in fact, that is just pure stupidity and illiteracy at work and does not represent the nation. Why associate the country with the speech of these illiterates who cannot even read the menus or their own phone bills? To me, ‘Singaporean English’ is simply English spoken with a Singaporean accent.

    The general fluency of English here is quite poor. Why? Lots of reasons. Because we are a young nation born in 1965. Prior to 1965, the people in Spore were mostly first generation coolies from China or India who stuck to their own communities and spoke Chinese or Indian. Except for a minority of local born called ‘Peranakans’, most people in Spore did not consider themselves Sporean and certainly did not intend to stay in Spore for good. Education was only reserved for the rich. They were mostly illiterate and only needed to know how to carry sacks of rice from the boats to the pier.

    Even today, 60% of Sporeans have Primary school and below as their highest education. The educational attainment of the population here is shitty low and the population is still largely illiterate. Contrast this with America where 80% of Americans have high school and above as their highest education. This is made worse by the fact that there are four ‘official’ languages in Spore and 40% of people living here are foreigners, mostly non English speaking Asians from China/Malaysia/India. If you include transient tourists, easily more than 50% of people you see on the streets are foreigners these days.

    As an English speaking Sporean, I feel quite sad these days. The situation here has become so bad that many retail assistants or cashiers cannot even understand the simplest of English that a local primary one (7 yo) kid understands. The hawkers here are so illiterate that they can’t even read their own menus (which are all in English by the way) or take a simple order like ‘iced tea’. They can’t even pass the primary one exams, in fact, most of them probably have never entered the gates of a school. So you have stalls with shopfronts and menus in English but the guy manning the shop or stall, many of whom are foreign workers these days, can’t even read his own menu or shop name. It is really really ridiculous.

    The govt here is obssessed with economic growth and the economy here has grown too large for the native population to handle. Any Sporean with secondary sch education works in an office. The retail assistants or hawkers here are mostly totally illiterate Sporeans (the ghetto highly rude kind) and foreign workers, doing the jobs that no sane Sporean wants to do because these jobs involve standing on your feet all day long with very little pay.

    • Fluffy Ears says:

      Umm, I just listened to the video with my speakers on and the daughter does not sound like an English speaking Sporean. Her speech is hard, she has trouble pronouncing some syllables and she has a Chinese sound to her voice; she is definitely Chinese speaking. The speakers on my laptop are quite soft so I couldn’t hear the video the first time around. Her accent is quite different from mine.

      Perhaps this clip shows the contrast between an English speaking Sporean and a Chinese (broken English) speaking one best. It is also about the only time I can laugh and not grimace at such broken English, haha.

    • Go for aesthetic appeal says:

      I have gathered the impression from the discussion on quora that there have been quite some debates over the “proper English” (so to speak) and Singalish within the Singaporeans. Apparently some of the younger generations seem to have attached a sense of identity and national pride with Singalish. They prefer to talk with their peers in Singalish but can switch to standard English comfortably when needed to. They even consider those locally educated Singaporeans but speaking with a British or North American accent as pretentious social climbers.

      Personally I find Singalish unpleasant to ears. Someone above mentioned that it sounds like cantonese accent but to my ears it is quite different. The majority of the chinese in Singapore are of hokkien and Hakka descendants. Cantonese, hokkien and Hakka are the 3 major regional dialects spoken in the southern part of china. Hokkien is largely spoken in fujian province on mainland china and the nearby Taiwan. Cantonese is spoken in the Guangdong province and Hong Kong. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew is of Hakka origin but not sure if he speaks any of the dialect as it seems that he only started to learn Mandarin Chinese in his retirement age. Despite of sharing the same chinese written script(which is not phonetically based but rather based more on sight information than sound. Sight information coded script is more stable and less prone to changes than the phonetically based script.), these dialects are mutually unintelligible to each other in the spoken form. The most widely spoken dialect in china is mandarin, which covers central and northern china. The official spoken standard in china, Taiwan and Singapore is also based on mandarin despite native mandarin speakers only make up a very minor(or insignificant in the case of Singapore) percentage of the population in Taiwan and Singapore. Mandarin with a northern accent especially from around the Beijing area sounds far more pleasant to my ears than the southern dialects. As a matter of fact, southern accent could carry a stigmatizing effect on its speaker in china just like a cockney accent in Britain. Cantonese accent is in particularly the worst perceived. The reason that cantonese having taken on a representative role for chinese in the west for more than a century has a lot to do with 1) the cantonese coolie laborers export when black slavery was banned in the west, and 2) the colonial history of Hong Kong. Both are not of celebrated history for chinese and the cantonese clan is considered by other chinese as the weakest link. Hong Kong is at the southern tip of the cantonese speaking area and was ceded to the British in 1840 after china losing the opium war. Chinese was only made the official language in Hong Kong in early 1970s, with much credit to the call for national pride resulted from the cultural revolution influenced red riot in Hong Kong in late 1960s. As a political effort to curb the influence from the mandarin speaking red china, the colonial government consciously helped uplift the status of cantonese to be the standard in Hong Kong. It could be a culturally sensible move considering the local population is largely(>90%) cantonese speaking but the down side is the spoken form of cantonese is quite incompatible with the written text in official documents and textbooks which are mandarin based. This might have explained the general poorer chinese writing skill among the Hong Kong people when comparing with china, Taiwan and Singapore. By comparison, Cantonese is far less well regulated than mandarin. Despite being the first of all chinese dialects exposing to the west, there is still not an agreed roman phonic standard system for its pronouciation and some cantonese pronouciations do not have corresponding written script in chinese. The different choice of standard has become one of the many sources of conflict between the people in Hong Kong and china after the handover. Many linguists have predicted that cantonese is on its way out. I believe so simply based on the fact that cantonese sounds very unpleasant to my ears and many other chinese ears.

      my comment seems to have gone very far fetched from the topic here but with English becoming the most widely spread language around the globe with many varieties and accents arising, the experience of the chinese language, the most spoken native language with a long history and variable dialects/ accents, could be taken as a reference for comparison.