Singlish "lah", with a possible deep connection to colloquial Arabic

A prominent feature of Colloquial Singaporean English (Singlish) is sentence-final "la", in which it has more nuances and innuendoes than you can shake a stick at.  Anyone who has heard Singaporeans talking freely cannot fail to be struck by the frequency and variety of sentence-final "lah". This ubiquitous particle "lah" (/lá/ or /lâ/), sometimes spelled as "la" and rarely spelled as "larh", "luh", or "lurh", may possibly have been absorbed into Singlish from a similar word in Malay.  See David Deterding, Singapore English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 71.

Imagine my surprise upon learning that, when Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/1369), the Berber-Moroccan scholar and explorer, visited the ancient port city of Qalhat, around 175 km southeast of Muscat near the entrance to the Gulf of Oman, he noticed a different Arabic dialect spoken by the local people:  “Their speech is incorrect although they are Arabs, and every sentence that they speak they follow up with la [no]”.* The ports of the Persian Gulf witnessed booming pearling activities, and markets such as Bahrain, Baghdad, Qatif, Qays, Julfar, and Siraf flourished in Arabia between the tenth and fourteenth century.** There was a connection between Arabs and the Chinese through the Gulf pearling industry during that time, where a twelfth-century report of the Gulf fisheries had been cited by Zhao Rugua, a thirteenth-century customs inspector of Guangzhou (Canton).***

*H.A.R. Gibb, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354 (Farnham, UK:  Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010), p. 396.

**Robert Carter, “Pearl Fishing and Globalisation: From the Neolithic to the Twentieth Century CE”, in The Gulf in World History:  Arabian, Persian and Global Connections, edited by Allen James Fromherz , Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), p. 243 of pp. 239-61.

***Ibid.

Although Singlish "lah" doesn't directly mean "no", it does remind one somewhat of the French expression n'est-ce pas, what grammarians call a tag question that affords a light, rhetorical or suggestive flourish to the end of the sentence, like English "right?" and "no?".  What Ibn Battuta heard among speakers of colloquial Arabic in 14th-century Qalhat may have functioned in a similar fashion to such tag questions.  If sailors and traders who had been to the entrepôts around the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, or if local merchants and dock workers of Qalhat heard merchants and shipmen from that area constantly appending "la" to the end of their utterances and began to imitate them, they could have given all manner of meaning to that tag.  This, in fact, is what Singlish speakers do with "lah".  By drawing it out or pronouncing it with different modulations, they can use it to convey an almost infinite variety of emotions and intentions.

Cantonese

Of course, Cantonese speakers are also extremely fond of sentence final "la".  Indeed they have at least two main ones, written in sinograms as 喇 (la3), for emphatic purposes, and 啦 (la1), for suggestiveness.  As you can see, they have different tones, and the latter one also appears in Mandarin.  I have no idea where these two "la" came from, whether from within Sinitic or from some substrate language(s).  We do know that certain particles in Cantonese do derive from non-Sinitic sources.  See, for example, "Cantonese 'here'" (10/15/15).  For the sophisticated distinctions among different final particles in Cantonese, see this Tumblr post.

Utterance-final particles play a very important role in spoken Cantonese, but much less so in written Cantonese, to the extent that Cantonese is written at all.  Some spoken language oriented text-based chatrooms do type out — often in romanization — Cantonese particles, in an effort to provide the full flavor of what the speakers are trying to convey.

Mūtātīs mūtandīs, the same holds for other Sinitic topolects such as Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and Sichuanese.

Robert S. Bauer, ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 2021), pp. 548b-549b, lists 15 different laa in 5 different tones, all written with their distinctive sinograms (many of them quite rare and arcane).  Three of these laa are modal particles indicating a variety of suggestiveness, annoyance, uncertainty, etc., whose range of subtleties Bauer describes with great flair and finesse, including providing sample sentence to illustrate the gradations of meaning.

See also Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip, Cantonese:  A Comprehensive Grammar (London and New York:  Routledge, 1994, 2002), 17.1.4, 18.2.1, 18.3.3, 18.4.1, 19.1.

South Arabian

From an anonymous Semiticist:

There are non-Arabic Semitic languages spoken in the area of the Oman–Yemen border, collectively called Modern South Arabian, of which the largest are Mehri and Jibbali (“largest” meaning only some tens of thousands of speakers; they are losing out rapidly to Arabic); in those languages, the negative is usually bipartite, ǝl … lā, and the first element can be omitted, so that the neg. can just be a postpositive  (like ne … pas and just pas in French). But (a) those are negatives, whereas Ibn B. seems to be talking about something like n’est-ce pas? as you suggest; (b) I don’t know whether those languages were spoken in the region of Qalhat in his day. So I doubt very much that this is relevant.

Conclusion

All Sinitic topolects are rich in utterance-final particles, but Singlish (which is neither Sinitic nor English) — because of its geolinguistic location and historical role as a crossroads of Asian, Eurasian, and now global trade — is uniquely blessed with an abundance of features drawn from a plethora of languages spoken by the polyglot community of those who passed through or settled in that key piece of real estate on the Singapore Strait at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula:  Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan.  Still today, more than twenty different languages are regularly spoken in Singapore — tiny place that it is (281.2 sq. mi.) — and all of them have had an impact on Singlish.

[update (4/9/21), from a Kuwaiti:  I had a conversation with a friend from Bahrain the other day, and she told me that la is used in their dialect. They use it at the end of the sentence in a form of affirmation.]

[Thanks to Robert Bauer, Chris Fraser, Pui Ling Tang, Heather Sharkey, Toni Tan, and Leander Seah, with special gratitude to Sarah Alajmi for the information about Ibn Battuta and pearling in the Persian Gulf.]

1. E. N. Anderson said,

March 9, 2021 @ 5:11 pm

It's straight from a Malay intensifier. Malay /Bahasa uses it all the time. But the Cantonese influence was also certainly involved. I think Hokkien too has a "la" ending, but maybe just borrowed from Bahasa.

2. ohwilleke said,

March 9, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

Slightly off topic.

Are sinograms generally printed in Chinese online sources in print as fine as the ones cited in this post?

I've entered to era of bifocals and just can't make them out and they seem to require visual acuity comparable to reading English in 7-8 point print. I can't make them out as more than a blob (it is easier to make out sinograms with fewer strokes when they're small) without multiple rounds of magnification.

Or, it this just a product of lack of familiarity, and would otherwise be more readable with pattern recognition?

3. Victor Mair said,

March 9, 2021 @ 7:22 pm

@E. N. Anderson

Thank you very much for the information about the Malay intensifier.

@ohwilleke

Yes, the point size of the characters in this post is typical for online usage. In fact, sophisticated software automatically increases the height of characters in relation to the surrounding alphabetical text to help make them more legible.

In normal typography, characters having more than twelve strokes, which is actually the average number for the most common eight thousand or so characters, it becomes difficult for the naked eye to make out the individual strokes. With normal type size, characters having twenty or more strokes start to look like black blobs, even for people with good vision.

Tip: keep a powerful, good quality magnifying glass near your computer.

4. KMH said,

March 9, 2021 @ 9:07 pm

Maybe a connection to Thai, too?
See: http://www.thai-language.com/id/131405#def3

5. john burke said,

March 9, 2021 @ 10:05 pm

Compare sentence final "oder?"

6. Victor Mair said,

March 9, 2021 @ 10:11 pm

@KMH

Excellent suggestion!

It's looking more and more like an areal usage of wide extent.

7. R. Fenwick said,

March 9, 2021 @ 10:54 pm

@E. N. Anderson:
It's straight from a Malay intensifier. Malay /Bahasa uses it all the time.

But it's worth remembering that Arabic was spoken from a very early point in Malaysia and the influence of that language on Malay began well before the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century. Arabic traders were there a millennium or more ago, notably for the tin trade: Avicenna already refers to in his Kitāb al-Šifā’ (c. 1027) as al-raṣāṣ u’l-Qal(ā)‘ī, "the Qalā‘ī lead"—Brian Colless proposed in 1969 that the name Qalā‘ probably referred to the Malay port of Klang, about 40 km west of Kuala Lumpur.

8. Chris Button said,

March 9, 2021 @ 11:24 pm

The connection could in theory go as deep as Arabic, but some caution might be needed. For example, there is an overlap in the usage of sentence-final "yo" in colloquial Japanese and in varieties of colloquial American English, but the similarity is entirely coincidental of course.

9. BillR said,

March 10, 2021 @ 11:14 am

Not that there’s any etymological connection but this makes me think of the Canadian English “eh”, eh.

10. Alison said,

March 10, 2021 @ 11:45 am

I found myself saying "la" a lot after living with a Malaysian guy. He was never able to quite explain what it meant, but it was definitely catchy. I like the etymological explanation of people just hearing other people saying it and picking it up themselves for no particular reason other than that it's a useful way to add more expression to what you were already saying.

After I lived in China for a while I noticed myself saying "ma" (嗎) after questions in English too. Very useful word. But even meaningless things like "ah" and "ya" (啊/呀) popped into my spoken English too.

Cosign on the other commenters who referenced "oder" and "eh". I'd add "you know" and "innit" too.

11. Pamela said,

March 10, 2021 @ 2:11 pm

nice citation of ibn Battuta. could he have got the wrong end of the stick? "they are Arabs," he says, but he seems to perceive them speaking in a non-Arab way –perhaps inserting a clearly non-Arabic particle into their sentences. this is the way people speak in Singapore, but it is also the way Malaysians speak English (not surprisingly). is it s feature of Hokkien? could it have gone from Arabic to Malay and then into both Chinese and English as used in Southeast Asia?

12. Pamela said,

March 10, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

and looking at Alison's comment, I would add that it was common in Manchu to end with wakao, "is it not?" my only question is about the rhetoric: is it a way of expressing assertion –like, "if it isn't, make me believe it," or qualification, reserve –like Japanese -yo at the end of every sentence in an academic article (exaggerating): "is it not? dare I assert this? if I am wrong please tell me."

13. AntC said,

March 10, 2021 @ 5:43 pm

@ohwilleke you're presumably reading LLog on screen, rather than on paper, then increase the Zoom. (Possibly invest in a larger screen.)

I guess Victor needs the magnifying glass for characters printed on actual dead trees.

14. David Marjanović said,

March 11, 2021 @ 11:47 am

The really complex characters really do become uninterrupted black monoliths here, because they're only like 12 pixels high. Looking at them through a magnifying glass can't make the pixels smaller. Copy & paste the characters elsewhere so you can enlarge them, or enlarge the font size here (with Ctrl and the + key).

15. ~flow said,

March 12, 2021 @ 6:36 am

The pro tip for those who find most things on the web too small (and also using to skinny fonts that are colored dark grey on light grey backgrounds, very much the thing in today's web design, sadly): go to your browser's settings and increase the default font size to 110% or 125% or whatever looks good. On individual websites, you can still use ctrl-minus and ctrl-plus or similar to adjust the overall page zoom (this will scale fonts and all the other elements). All modern browsers remember your settings per-site so once set on a web address (domain) you don't have to re-set each time you come back.

I have yet to find a tool that allows me to conveniently set the color and family of fonts on web pages (there are some, but none does exactly what I want), but one simple thing one can do is installing an app that allows to set contrast, brightness and gamma for your display (I do it with redshift -O 5500 >> /dev/null and xrandr –output eDP-1 –gamma 0.75:0.75:0.75 but that's on the Linux command line so probably not for everyone). Gooder monitors also have presets for watching video vs reading text so you might try those.

16. Victor Mair said,

March 15, 2021 @ 5:16 am

From Sarah Alajmi:

So, the lā part is not a question but rather a sentence closer of some sort. Apparently, it's still being used to this day in parts of Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

This is the passage from Ibn Battuta's travelogue where he describes the 'la' and gives examples:

"Their speech is incorrect although they are Arabs, and every sentence that the speak they follow up with lā ['no']. So, for example, they say 'You eat, no; you walk, no; you do so-and-so, no.' The majority of them are Kharijites, but they cannot make an open profession of their tenets because they are subject to the sultan Qutb al-Din Tamahtan, king of Hurmuz, who is a Sunni." (Gibb, The Travels of Ibn Battuta AD 1325-1354 Volume II, 396-7)

I'm curious to find the source of the la and why it was used. If I come across more information, I'll share it with you.