Singapore English (Vs. “Singlish”)

If I could nominate a “dialect of the 21st Century,” I would probably go with Singapore English, a native English dialect spectrum spoken in a region with few competitors (for nearly 1/3 of Singaporeans, English is the primary language spoken at home). This video, on a rather banal topic, incidentally provides a nice survey of different Singapore English speakers:

So what can we say here? For the most part, Singaporean accents seem non-rhotic, but this is not entirely consistent. Note, for example, that the announcer pronounces /r/ at the end of “more” at 2:07, but drops it in “important” a few seconds later. In this respect and several others, SE shares some similarities with Received Pronunciation or some type of international “Standard” English. It obviously differs in some ways, however: for instance, the diphthong in “goat” is fairly consistently pronounced as a monophthong.

As with London English, /l/ is sometimes vocalized at the end of syllables and ‘th’ occasionally becomes /f/. SE’s prosody has a vaguely Carribean flair, particularly in the way final, unstressed syllables get slightly more emphasis than many English speakers are used to. A few other surface-level resmemblances come to mind: Welsh, South African (particularly in the “pure” /i/ in words like ‘feet’), and sometimes Indian English (perhaps not coincidental since the country has drawn a large population from that sub-continent as well.

Given that Singapore is a small city-state, with many young people no doubt seeking education beyond its borders, it seems especially “vulnerable” to outside influences on its speech. For example, if you hear a hint of Australian English in the speech of pop star Dawn Wong (who speaks at 2:20), you probably aren’t imagining things; she was educated at the University of New South Wales.

It should be noted that much of the English heard in the above clip is not what is known as “Singlish” but rather a more “cultivated” dialect known as Standard Singapore English. Linguist Jakob Leimgruber notes the difference (emphasis mine):

In addition to Standard Singapore English (SSE), we have the vernacular, Colloquial Singapore English (CSE), often called ‘Singlish’ by speakers, government language planners, and, indeed, linguists. This is a variety of English that is very different from the standard, and the following sections set out to describe its pronunciation and grammar. Singlish co-exists with SSE in a relationship that has been termed ‘diglossia’ (Ferguson 1959, Richards 1983, Gupta 1989, 1994), which essentially means that SSE is restricted in use to situations that are characterised by a high level of formality, whereas Singlish is used in all other instances.

This statement doesn’t entirely gel with my (admittedly limited) experience with Singapore English. In the same YouTube Channel that produce the previous clip, for instance, one finds this interview with Singaporean rapper Shigga Shay:

It strikes me that this young man is speaking an informal variant of Standard English, rather than the more creole-like Singlish.  But the intricacies of Singaporeans’ relationship to English are rather new to me, and I’d love to hear from any Singaporeans willing to comment.

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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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8 Responses to Singapore English (Vs. “Singlish”)

  1. Aussprache says:

    When I went to Singapore, I heard more Mandarin than English.
    :/

  2. Max Pinton says:

    I spent a week in Singapore a few years ago, so I’m no expert, but I had picked up a copy of The Coxford Singlish Dictionary and was looking forward to hearing some good creole. Sadly, as a tourist you just don’t run across it, or at least I didn’t.

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  4. Eric says:

    Singlish is certain a variation of English, influenced by many difference dialect of which one major is Chinese, or to be exact, Futian Dialect … not only in terms of pronunciation, but also the grammar, diction ect …

    As a Chinese going to Singapore, you would find life is easy even if the local people using English to talk to you; The way they use English is quite similar to the way we speak Chinese most of the time. Well.. of course the cultures are close since above 90% of the singporean people had Chinese origins.

    I found this extremely funny though:

  5. tympg says:

    I am from Malaysia, next door to Singapore, and you will find that while ethnic Chinese Malaysians sound the same as their Singapore counterparts, ethnic Malays and Indians have their own distinct accents when speaking English.

    Historically, Malaysian and Singapore English are non-rhotic, but since the 90s there has been a trend to “sound” more American, especially by media types like DJs and TV presenters. Sometimes the attempt at rhoticity goes too far, resulting in such words like “urs” (us), “Malaysher” (Malaysia) etc.

  6. Dan says:

    If you’re interested in hearing the whole gamut of English varieties spoken in Singapore, I really recommend watching the local satire show called ‘Noose’.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVC4LdTTkmo

    In this clip, you will hear, what I call 1) newscaster’s English, which you will never hear in Singapore except if you tune in to Channel News Asia, 2) Standard Singapore English spoken by English-educated Singaporeans, as well as the more colloquial variety, 3) Singlish. At the last one third of the clip, the lady or ‘Auntie’ represents a sizable minority in Singapore whose native tongue is English, not British or American English, but Singaporean English. These people speak, think and dream almost exclusively in English, despite the Government’s insistence that their mother tongue is Chinese.

    If you watch other clips, you can also hear other various English-es spoken by the new wave of immigrants to Singapore: Mainland Chinese, Filipinos, etc. The ‘Noose’ is a very accurate representation of how English is actually being spoken in Singapore.

  7. Renée Sonce says:

    You’ll find that SSE is a queer mix of American and British. I believe ‘colour’ is the received spelling in Singapore, but I’ve never heard a single local say prɪv.ə.si (preev-uh-see) for ‘privacy’ or ˈɡær.ɪdʒ/ (gair-ij) for garage. America are (you’ll also never see this quintessentially British grammar rule around!) winning the linguistic influence war, I believe.