Singlish is a Language in and of Itself

Sometimes I get really affected by things people say, and this is one of those times. It seems like this will be too heavy a topic for vday, but I spent it alone again for the 22nd time in my life, so just cut me some slack and let me rant.

I was quietly catching some shut-eye on the bus when someone behind me made the exclamation that why can't Singaporeans speak proper English? I find it so difficult to understand them. Why can't they just stop speaking Singlish? I would love to have had a conversation with him about this, but he had to say it in this haughty and superior tone, I decided to just leave it before I turn violent and smack him in the face for looking down on what he deems to be an inferior English dialect. What I want to say is, Singlish should not be seen as a dialect, but that it should be recognised as a language in and of itself. 

If Singlish were truly a language, then this person would be making the most ridiculous remark ever, cos asking Singaporeans to stop speaking Singlish would then be the equivalent of asking the Chinese to stop speaking Mandarin or Indians to stop speaking Hindi. And if Singlish were a language, then it would be his fault for not knowing the language, rather than putting the blame on Singaporeans for speaking Singlish, just like how he can't possibly blame a Korean for speaking Korean just cos he does not understand the Korean language.

A Colonial Legacy
A lot of ex-colonies have adopted the language of their colonisers. English is now the language of America and Australia, French is widely used in Africa and Quebec, and Spanish in Latin America. If language could remain exactly the same despite transposition of space, then why are there so many Englishes or Frenches or Spanishes? We would not have to differentiate between British English and American English if geographical space was not a condition for the evolution of language. So why then should Singapore Colloquial English be a worse off adaptation of British English than American English? If they both evolved from the same language family then are they not on par with each other? Is Japanese a better language than Korean, or the other way around? They both evolved from a certain strand of Chinese and have very similar grammar structures and words.

Emotional Meanings
The reason a lot of Singaporeans claim that they can "code-switch" between Singlish and English is because they understand that Singlish and English have different grammar rules and different vocabulary that take on different emotional meanings. Even though it is not officially recognised as a language, but it seems that all these people who think they can "code-switch" are subconsciously thinking of Singlish as a separate language from English.

Remember the problem of I in the Japanese anime movie Your Name?

Female protagonist Mitsuha’s soul has jumped into male lead Taki’s body, and she’s doing all she can to continue living his life without anyone catching on. But her cover is nearly blown when she’s talking to Taki’s friends and makes the shockingly huge mistake… of referring to herself as “I!”

Actually, the character’s dialogue is four distinctly different words in Japanese. However, as shown in a series of photos Japanese Twitter user @notactor surreptitiously snapped at during a screening that he says took place in Beverly Hills, the lines are translated as “I.” / “I.” / “I.” / “I.”

At first, Mitusha (in Taki’s body) calls herself watashi, which is indeed the Japanese word for “I.” However, Japanese has multiple pronoun options for the first-person singular, and as with many things in the Japanese language, the relationship between the speaker and listener is extremely important... In conversations with peers or close friends, Japanese males, just like their counterparts in other societies, tend to use more coarse language to show familiarity and a lack of pretentiousness, so when Taki’s friends hear watashi coming out of his mouth during a lunchtime conversation, it takes them completely by surprise, as it’s closer to the softer speech usually used by women in Japanese.

Flustered, Mitsuha takes another swing with watakushi, the “I” alternative that’s closest in pronunciation to watashi. However, watakushi is even more baroquely formal than watashi. She gets a little closer on her third try with boku, since that’s definitely a word males use for “I” when talking with their friends… provided they’re all pre-teens, that is. So while Taki’s friends no longer think he’s talking like a girl, he now sounds like a little boy.

Finally, Mitsuha gets it just right with ore. While it’s too rough for most conversations in the business or academic worlds, ore is indeed the go-to choice for teenaged and adult men when talking with their buddies, as it implies a certain masculine confidence that guys are generally expected to acquire as they mature.

Alas, all of this is more or less impossible to directly translate into English, which is why the subtitling team essentially threw their hands up and just added each Japanese pronoun after “I” in the subtitles. Unfortunately, that means that the only people in the audience who’d appreciate the humor are the ones who don’t need the subtitles in the first place.

This is not only a Japanese problem, but things said in Singlish also cannot be directly translated to English cos the whole idea of lost in translation also applies. If you don't believe me, try translating the Singlish phrase steady into English. Hint: it is not even close to the dictionary meaning of being in a state of stability.

There is so much emotional undertone in every word of Singlish that I read somewhere (I think Times Magazine or BBC?) that Singlish is the world's most efficient language in the world, but at the same time it is also the only language that can transmit emotion through text messaging. To convey happiness or anger with so few words, Singapore really is an efficient society. LKY must be so proud of us.

I know quite a few people who speak proper English but with a distinctly Singaporean accent. But that kind of still counts as speaking Singlish to many foreigners who cannot catch up with our different stresses and pauses and intonations in the words. If the Queen's English is the benchmark standard, then isn't an American accent or an Australian accent just as unacceptable as a Singaporean accent? But to answer the previous question, we first need to define what an American accent or an Australian accent even means. There isn't even a common accent throughout the whole of America. I have friends who can tell if someone is from California or from Boston just from the way they enunciate. So which is the representative of the American accent - the Californian one or the Boston one?

While there are a lot of words that come from the English language, there are also many words that come from a plethora of other languages that have been incorporated into Singlish and given new meanings. There are even words made up by Singaporeans that made it into the Oxford Dictionary of English.

Remember the previous example of how steady has been given a new meaning in Singlish? I do not actually see it as a contortion of a correct meaning. Which language does not have words adapted from other languages? And it is not possible that these adapted words have retained 100% of its original meanings. If words could retain their meanings after being incorporated, then the word chef should have the same meaning in both English and French. But they don't.

Another example of a loan word that lost its original meaning? China. It was actually the name of the Qin Dynasty that collapsed in 200 B.C. Why then do we still refer to the Middle Kingdom by some historical past?

Some people think adding a leh or a la behind every sentence makes it Singlish (I'm looking at all those celebrities whose promotional videos for their Singapore tours make bad attempts at trying to appeal to the Singaporean public.) Unfortunately for them, Singlish grammar is not English grammar + suffix la. And Singlish is not a language completely without rules either. It is just that we have not gone into the fine details. I am sure when we decide to take Singlish seriously as a language, there will be a close study of how sentences can or cannot be formed. Native speakers of a language hardly think of the grammar involved in their speech patterns anw.

FYI. I know the ethnically Chinese majority in Singapore likes to think that the suffix la comes from Mandarin just because they are in the position to do so, but its emotional meaning is really much closer to the la found in Bahasa Melayu. 

Comparison Across Countries
Finally, I just want to say that if Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia can be recognised as two different languages even though they are so similar in grammar and vocabulary that people speaking these two languages can actually hold a conversation with each other, then why is Singlish not a language when its grammar and vocab is so different from English? If the reason that Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia is different because they are two different nations, then all the more Singapore should be recognised as having a separate language system from Britain.


I am not a linguistics major, so I am not going to pretend that I understand the way languages work, and all comments and constructive disagreements are welcome. I really hope someone can enlighten me on why I always present myself to people as a trilingual who speaks English, Mandarin and French rather than a quadrilingual who speaks Singlish as my mother-tongue, and who just happens to be able to read three other languages as well.