The Government Campaign to Get Rid of Singapore's Unofficial Language
Imagine that the language you speak with your friends, with your family, with people on the street, a language unique to your country and objectively very interesting and cool, is, officially, considered lesser and unworthy. This kind of thing has happened around the world throughout history: African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers in the United States, for example, have also had their language marginalized and demeaned by the ruling power. Now, itâs happening in Singapore.
Singapore is an immigrant country with four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. Officially, English is the most commonly spoken language in Singaporean homes, having recently and just barely edged out Mandarin. Unofficially? Thatâs completely wrong. Because whatâs likely the actual most common language spoken does not appear on the census. That language is called Singlish.
Singlish can broadly be categorized as a creole, which is a full language that arises suddenly, usually with one language as its base, but with unique grammatical features and many words from at least one other language. This kind of language comes about when people who donât speak the same language are suddenly living in the same place. Many creoles came from the slave trade: one person speaks one language, another speaks a second language, and theyâre both moved to a place where they have to work together and live together and communicate. The base language is usually the language of the ruling class or imperi al power; itâs a language that those two slaves need to understand a little, but they bring elements of their own languages into it. At first, this kind of language is classified as a pidgin, which is sort of a shorthand that exists solely for necessary communication alongside other full languages. But in some cases, it evolves into a full language of its own, one that can handle all the tasks any other language handles, at which point itâs called a creole.
Singlish has its base in English, because Singapore was a British colony for most of its modern history. But the vast majority of the population came from countries where English was not the dominant language, mostly mainland China, Malaysia, and India. Thus Singlish was born.
âSinglish itself, in its full-blown version, can get quite hard to understand [for non-Singaporean English speakers],â says Jakob Leimgruber, a sociolinguist and assistant professor who wrote his thesis on Singlish. Singaporeans are rarely monolingual, and conversations can often include bits and pieces, or full sentences, in multiple languages, which can make trying to isolate Singlish a bit tricky. But, despite the fact that Singapore is made up of multiple ethnic groups who speak different languages, Singlish itself is âremarkably consistent,â says Leimgruber, across the entire populace.
At least, itâs consistent across all ethnic groups. Socioeconomically, itâs more likely that poorer and/or older Singaporeans would speak Singlish more often; younger and wealthier Singaporeans are more likely to be able to switch between Singlish and more widely understood varieties of English. But Leimgruber says that few, if any, Singaporeans would be completely unfamiliar with Singlish, largely due to the countryâs compulsory military service, which places people from all economic backgrounds together.
The language includes lots of loanwords from the other major languages spoken in Singapore, especially Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. These are really, really common, to the point where sometimes it can sound as if the speaker has simply switched languages mid-thought. And there are some pronunciation things; words that end with a lot of consonants, for example, tend to get simplified, so a word like âtextsâ would be pronounced more like âtex.â But it gets much more interesting than that; it has a whole mess of totally distinct grammatical features that make it unusual.
An easy one to understand is the word âlah,â which is whatâs known in linguistics as a tag. Itâs attached, often but not exclusively, to the end of sentences. Itâs roughly similar to the Canadian âeh,â and various other English words or phrases used around the world (âright,â âyou know,â âinnitâ). It is ubiquitous in Singapore, as associated with Singlish as the Canadian âehâ is with Canada, although interestingly there is no pause between the end of the sentence and âlah,â as there is with âeh.â Imagine it as justâ¦not having a comma. âSo youâd just race into it lahâ? Singlish has so, so many of these lightly modifying tags: leh, mah, lor, hor, har, ar. They all convey slightly different things about the relationship between the speaker and listener, or the way the speaker wants the listener to interpret what was just said.
Singlish speakers use the present tense when referring to people who are alive, or probably still alive. In English, you might say, âI went to Thailand last year, and the guide spoke fluent Spanish.â In Singlish, it would be, âthe guide speaks fluent Spanish.â The thinking is that the guide continues to speak Spanish; whether you are in Thailand does not affect the guideâs ability to speak Spanish.
Then thereâs the word âkena,â which is pronounced something like âkih-NAH.â There are words like this in Asian languages such as Malay and Hokkien, but not really in English. Itâs a grammatical word used to mark the passive and usually right before or even instead of a verb; it means something, some verb action, happened to the subject of the sentence. Interestingly, itâs only ever used for negative things; you could say âthe teacher kena scolded him,â but not âthe teacher kena praised him.â âTioâ is similar, though it can be used for positive actions as well, like âShe tio money on the ground.â
The English word âthenâ has, in Singlish, been changed to âden,â and its meanings have been pretty radically changed. It can be used to describe an action that will happen in the future, as in âI den t alk to you.â It can be used in about a dozen other ways, meaning âtherefore,â as a link to a previous sentence, or alone as a sarcastic sort of âoh yeah?â meaning. The pronunciation might subtly change as well, by lengthening or dragging out the final consonant, to indicate the way in which the word is being used.
âDenâ is one of many examples of ways in which Singlish sort of sounds like English, but actually packs a whole other bunch of meanings into it. If you were to just translate âdenâ as âthen,â you wouldnât really be getting it; you canât use âdenâ in some places youâd use âthen,â and vice versa, and it sometimes means something other than what âthenâ would mean.
Singlish also uses a lot of reduplication, which is repeating the same word. English doesnât do this much; it might have a phrase like âvery, very big,â in which the repetition is used to amplify the word âvery.â âVery, very bigâ is even bigger than âvery big,â which is bigger than âbig.â In Singlish, thatâs not at all how reduplication works. Take a sentence like this: âYour son short short.â
For one thing, thatâs not a typo; Singlish, like Hebrew and a few other languages, simply doesnât use the verb âto be.â (Singlish also often omits articles like âtheâ and âa/an.â) But the reduplication thing: âshort shortâ doesnât mean âvery short.â Instead the reduplication of the word is a dampener, taking the whole phrase to something more like âshort-ish.â This kind of reduplication can be used with both adjectives and verbs; you can take a walk walk, which would be a very mild stroll.
Anyw ay, thatâs just a brief survey, and it might even underplay exactly how different from English Singlish really is. Leimgruber says Singlish is mostly mutually comprehensible with English, but Iâm not so sure. Take a look at the Singlish dub of Beauty and the Beast.
Singlish is spoken across all ethnic groups in Singapore, even across economic strata. But the government hates it. Since the year 2000, the Singaporean government has been conducting a campaign called the âSpeak Good English Movement,â which is specifically designed to discourage the use of Singlish and encourage the use of standard English.
Interestingly, the Singaporean government does not have a firm definition of what âstandard Englishâ means; they arenât strictly teaching British Received Pronunciation or New England Prep School English or Australian English or anything else. By âstandard,â they seem to simply mean âEnglish that can be readily understood by English speakers outside Singapore.â
The campaign is not overtly violent or racist in the same way marginalization of Irish Gaelic or AAVE speakers was and is. The Singaporean government does outreach, posting signs around public transit telling people the âcorrectâ way to pronounce words, hosting writing competitions for kids in school, that kind of thing. âThese words are very similar and many often get them confused, but do you know when itâs more appropriate to use a particular word? Put your grammar skills to the test and see how you fare!â reads one quiz. Is it âThe mother put her children to sleep at nightâ or âthe mother put her children to bed at nightâ?
The governmentâs reasoning is that English is the international language of commerce, and that Singapore has an inherent advantage because, it being a former British colony, English is already widel y spoken. But if instead itâs Singlish that people are speaking, this could make for a serious obstacle to international financial success.
Since the early 1980s, the idea that any one language can be âcorrectâ or âgood,â while others are âincorrectâ or âbad,â has been widely panned by linguists. Bill Labov, pioneering linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the first to study AAVE as a regular language, one with rules that canât be broken and unique features and an evolution, rather than as some mangled form of standard English. Since then, the idea that all languages are just, you know, different, rather than good or bad, has been the norm. Singaporeâs shunning of Singlish is, from that perspective, retrograde and maybe even offensive.
Singlish itself is pretty well-studied, though a lot of the publicationsâ"dictionaries, for exampleâ"are more jokey than serious academic works. And Singaporeans have not risen up to protest the marginalization of Singlish. âThereâs much less of an advocacy for Singlish in Singapore,â says Leimgruber. There are someâ"again, jokeyâ"organizations, like the Speak Good Singlish Movement Facebook page. (âHarlow, welcome to the Speak Good Singlish Movement. Our Gahmen has been damn siao on, trying to tell us to speak good engrish, good chinese. This is the Facebook Singlish Speakerâs Corner, let it all out my friends. Donât be paiseh.â)
But Singaporeans seem fairly comfortable switching between Singlish and Singapore-inflected English, or Mandarin or Malay or any of the other languages spoken in Singapore. Leimgruber says that Singaporeans donât disagree that some mutually comprehensible form of En glish is important to learn, and in many situations (speaking to foreigners, job interviews) will switch to English. The degree to which people are aware of the differences between Singlish and English varies; most Singlish speakers will probably not use the many Mandarin or Malay words when speaking a more standard English, but some of those grammatical differences would likely remain.
But, says Leimgruber, Singlish is not really in any danger of dying out, despite the governmentâs hopes. (He says that in cases where the government really feels the need to connect with the populace, like in elections, government officials will sometimes lapse into Singlish.) Itâs as close to a unique national language as Singapore gets lah?Source: Google News Singapore | Netizen 24 Singapore