Singlish under siege

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Singapore has four official languages:  Malay (de jure national language), English (de facto main language), Mandarin, and Tamil.  There are also a number of other languages that are spoken by significant numbers of the population, e.g., Hokkien-Taiwanese, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Fuzhou (Hokchia, Hokchew), Pu-Xian Min (Henghua), and Shanghainese (Wu).  But the most commonly spoken Singaporean tongue of all is a creole, Singlish, that isn't even listed in the census.  Now, as described in this article, the government of Singapore has launched a campaign to eradicate Singlish from the island republic's linguascape:

"The Government Campaign to Get Rid of Singapore’s Unofficial Language:  Singlish, a creole, is spoken all over the country, but politicians want citizens to 'speak good English'", Atlas Obscura (June 26, 2018).

As quoted in this exceptionally informative article, sociolinguist Jakob Leimgruber states, “Singlish itself, in its full-blown version, can get quite hard to understand [for non-Singaporean English speakers]”.

Singlish has many (to me) charming characteristics.  As a regular visitor to Singapore, one of the most distinctive features of Singlish are the tags lah, leh, mah, lor, hor, har, ar, etc.  Uttered without a preceding pause (comma), they convey subtle nuances "about the relationship between the speaker and listener, or the way the speaker wants the listener to interpret what was just said."  I think of them as comparable to, but not identical with, the sentence final particles that are ubiquitous in Sinitic languages.

The article compares the current situation regarding Singlish with what happened to African-American Vernacular English (AAVE):

Since the early 1980s, the idea that any one language can be “correct” or “good,” while others are “incorrect” or “bad,” 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 can’t 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. Singapore’s shunning of Singlish is, from that perspective, retrograde and maybe even offensive.

Although Singlish in Singapore lacks the advocacy of AAVE in the United States, it seems remarkably resilient in its ability to resist regulation.  In that respect, it resembles the Haitian Creole one hears being spoken by cab drivers in Philadelphia and elsewhere.  It's French based, and I can understand much of it, but it's certainly not French.  Similarly, Singlish is English based, and I can understand much of it, but it's certainly not English.

Singlish exists on a continuum from "pure, proper English" to unadulterated Singlish, which has varying degrees, amounts, and kinds of non-English elements.  Here follows a series of brief tutorials on how the Singaporean government is trying to "correct" Singlish usage:

88.3Jia FM Speak Good English Movement Video 1

88.3Jia FM Speak Good English Movement Video 2

88.3Jia FM Speak Good English Movement Video 3

88.3Jia FM Speak Good English Movement Video 4

88.3Jia FM Speak Good English Movement Video 5

The final word on Singlish for today is the final paragraph of Nosowitz's article:

But, says Leimgruber, Singlish is not really in any danger of dying out, despite the government’s 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.) It’s as close to a unique national language as Singapore gets lah?


"Xinhua English and Zhonglish" (2/4/09)

"Pinyin for Singlish" (3/7/16)

"Singlish: alive and well" (5/14/16)

[h.t. Andy Averill]


  1. Charles in Toronto said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 10:34 am

    First off, so much mansplaining…

    I am confused as to why "nowadays, not so much" is seen as not good English. It's not specifically idiomatic to my Canadian ears but would not sound out of place in conversation.

    "Return back", "discuss about" – if a friend used these in conversation I would not flag them as bad for being redundant because casual speech is full of redundancies.

    Video 3 is interesting – the pronunciations mostly sound like they're within the range of what ESL speakers might say, but I would never correct them. (Expresso, though I've heard anglophones say without hesitation.) I once had a Singaporean housemate in student co-op housing and English was indeed her first language but I undoubtedly offended her when my ears perceived her as ESL due to Singlish quirks.

    I had to laugh in Video 4 that the correct pronunciation guide for "ration" was "RARE-SHUN".

    "Less" for "fewer" is so common in English that it shouldn't really matter. On the other hand "revert" for "reply" is pretty unique.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 11:42 am

    On the "Chinese" side, is the "Speak Mandarin" campaign still going?

    I think of them as comparable to, but not identical with, the sentence final particles that are ubiquitous in Sinitic languages.

    Must be because, while most of them are from Sinitic, some are from Malay.

  3. Paul said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 11:54 am

    @David Marjanović

    Singaporean here. The "Speak Mandarin" campaign is still ongoing, but it's been criticised for working too well – more and more youths no longer know how to speak the "dialects" (i.e. Hokkien, Cantonese, etc) of their grandparents, which apparently signifies a lack of understanding of their culture and their roots. So I'd say the movement has died off


  4. Adrian said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    Am I to understand that “The teacher kena scolded him” means "The teacher was scolded by him"?

  5. Jakob said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    [quote]Am I to understand that “The teacher kena scolded him” means "The teacher was scolded by him"?[/quote]

    Actually that should be "He kena scolded [by the teacher]". It's hard to get these things right in a phone interview…

  6. AntC said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 6:57 pm

    Thanks Victor,

    Your list of languages didn't include any from the Indian sub-community: Punjabi, Hindi, … did you never visit Serangoon Road?

    I remember being taken by a Singaporean friend to an open mic comedy night somewhere on the East Coast Road. He thought I'd enjoy it because they'd be speaking English. Well it was Singlish to the max, with all sorts of 'in' references and digs at the authorities. The audience just howled, but I caught only occasional words.

  7. AntC said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 7:12 pm

    Strewth! those videos are annoying. The worst sort of peevery. I'd happily dunk a whole tureen full of dumplings on Robin's head. Kai-Ying is way too tolerant of him.

    And what Robin is complaining about is just English with local colour — not even 'thick' Singlish,

  8. cliff arroyo said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 12:55 am

    I find my reaction to Robin's helpful corrections would be to make sure I said the things he doesn't like as much and often as possible.

    Are we sure that isn't the goal? Bland deracinated "English" is not really a very good marker of national identity while a distinctly local variety can be.
    Maybe the ultimate goal is to get move Singaporeans toward a distinct national variety (rather than semi diglossia)?

  9. Bathrobe said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 5:15 am

    'Revert' in the meaning 'reply' appears to be extensively used in Indian English.

  10. Murugaraj said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 5:22 am

    //Your list of languages didn't include any from the Indian sub-community: Punjabi, Hindi, … did you never visit Serangoon Road?//
    To set the record straight, the very first sentence of this post mentions Tamil, as one of the official languages of Singapore. Tamil, as you may know, is the language spoken by an Indian subcommunity.

  11. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 10:00 am

    At first I thought the "sin" in Singlish referred to "Sinitic", then I realized it was for "Singaporean"… am I right?

  12. Don Osborn said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    From a language policy pov, interested to note that Singapore is one of those countries that distinguishes (in its Constitution, art. 153A) between "official" and "national" languages. Of the four official languages, it seems particular attention has been given to how Mandarin & English are spoken. Nothing similar for Malay or Tamil?

  13. David Marjanović said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    'Revert' in the meaning 'reply' appears to be extensively used in Indian English.

    'GET BACK TO ME' in the meaning 'reply' appears to be standard in 419 scams, so is probably widespread in West Africa, except perhaps not in all-caps all the time.

    it was for "Singaporean"… am I right?


  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 10:55 am

    @Vulcan With a Mullet

    Yes, you are right.

    And the "Singa-" part of Singapore goes back to the Sanskrit word for "lion". It's the "City of Lions".


    "An old name for Singapore" (9/6/16)

    That's why the official mascot of the city is the Merlion, of which there is an imposing statue at One Fullerton in a dedicated park next to Marina Bay.

  15. Eidolon said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

    I am not sure as to why Leimgruber believes that Singlish is not in any danger of dying out. He himself states:

    > "Socioeconomically, it’s 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 country’s compulsory military service, which places people from all economic backgrounds together."

    Sure, they become familiar with it, but what would be the incentive of continuing to speak it and teaching it to their children, given its relatively lower socioeconomic status? The article also mentions that Singaporeans recognize the importance of speaking standard English, that there isn't much of a Save Singlish campaign going on, and that Singlish speakers almost always speak other languages, too. This is a situation in which a dialect can often disappear.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see Singlish replaced by another variety of English – closer to standard, but still probably with local differences – within a century or so. Maybe it will be called Singlish 2.0.

  16. Jakob said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 1:44 pm


    I guess what I meant was that it is pretty safe for the time being – can't say what will happen a generation or two down the road. The pressures are certainly high, and come from a variety of places – the education system, the social ladder, the global financescape…

    Still, I wouldn't underestimate its emotional value to Singaporeans. Singlish is arguably the only truly national variety, all official languages have exonormative standards, and Standard English in its non-local (at least phonetic) form is often derided as inauthentic. So there are also pressures to use it locally for the purpose of 'doing' the 'real' Singaporean. Lubna Alsagoff nicely captured that with her cultural orientation model.

  17. Eidolon said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

    Thanks, Jakob, for explaining your argument more. So I guess the survival of Singlish is up to local pride and sense of identity, possibly transmitted through military service. Not an unusual situation when it comes to threatened or potentially threatened languages; my guess is that the immigration situation will decide it, in the end.

  18. Ken Westmoreland said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

    "Singapore’s shunning of Singlish is, from that perspective, retrograde and maybe even offensive."

    Yes, from *that* perspective, but this is a country once led by Lee Kuan Yew, who said "We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think."

    The problem that Singlish and AAVE face is that they tend to be spoken by people in close proximity to those who speak standard forms of English, and so are compared unfavourably to them, in contrast to Tok Pisin (Pidgin English) in Papua New Guinea and Krio (Creole) in Sierra Leone, which are spoken in rural and sparsely populated countries where few people speak standard English.

    As a result, they both flourish, being used on the radio and in print, with Radio Australia having a Tok Pisin service online as well as radio, which gives you an idea of how developed it is, complete with its own distinct orthography, which gives it a degree of gravitas and authority, hence 'bagarap' (intransitive verb 'to fail') and 'bagarapim' (transitive verb 'to damage') rather than the more undignified 'bugger up' and 'bugger up him'.

    Similarly, Krio has achieved such status in Sierra Leone that people now complain about 'corruption' from African languages, denouncing such barbarisms (!) as 'a de pan kam' to mean 'I am coming' instead of 'a de kam'.

    By contrast, Singlish and AAVE don't have that advantage – they can't 'dance like nobody's watching', because others are watching them, and judging them, pointing out where they are considered to be 'wrong', because unlike Tok Pisin and Krio, they don't have their own newspapers and radio stations, or their own orthography, although the BBC's Nigerian Pidgin website uses an orthography closer to standard English.

    In any event, the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore, which has been around since 2000, has not been nearly as successful as the Speak Mandarin Campaign – I briefly attended a Singapore government primary school in the early 1980s, not long after the campaign first started, and remember a teacher denouncing some children who she had heard 'talking in dialect'.

    However, the term 'dialect' is a misnomer given that Hokkien and Teochew are as different from Mandarin as German and Dutch are from English – if anything is a 'dialect', it's Singlish, but like AAVE, it's a language without an army or a navy, and doomed to remain like that, unlike Tok Pisin or Krio, or similar creole languages like Haitian and Seychellois Creole, derived from French.

  19. Eidolon said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 10:36 pm

    Ironically, perhaps, another comparison to Singlish would be Beijing Mandarin, which isn't a creole – but then neither is AAVE – also a dialect "without an army or a navy," and though said to be the basis for Standard Mandarin, is in fact different from it and possibly on its way out. Though, it still is quite influential in Beijing circles as a source of influence for the local way of speaking Standard Mandarin, showing perhaps the future direction of these tongues: a gradual merging with the more "prestigious" varieties into a new dialect that retains properties of both.

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