When my niece’s British boyfriend met the family for lunch for the first time, he wore a strange look throughout and we thought he was just nervous, naturally.

As it turned out, he was having a hard time following our conversation even though we were speaking English, well sort of.

Foreign friends who hear Singaporeans for the first time will be puzzled by our concoction of words and expressions in an English soup of speech.

It’s not that we can’t speak proper English but when we’re together, we somehow break into this unique blend of colloquialism known as Singlish.

The origin of our Singlish is similar to the other former British colonies. It’s defined as English-based creole which is an adaptation with the native language, in our case a host of native languages.

The main ingredients of Singlish are from southern China dialects, native Malay, Straits Malay and Indian English. Besides using borrowed words and phrases, Singlish favours shortening and orphaning of words that will make an English purist squirm. Some examples of Singlish –

Chope  < to reserve >

Tompang  < to get a ride or favour >

Kopi-O  < coffee without milk >

Tah Pow  < takeaway >

Lah  < this has no particular meaning and is used at the end of a sentence or to emphasize another word >

When used in daily conversations, it goes like this – Please chope this table. Can tompang you to buy kopi-o? I go tah pow some deserts. Want to eat what? Quick-lah.

It’s confusing and may sound totally gibberish. But it’s alright. We get by in this world.

In fact there was an interesting incident when our Air Force pilots on a combat exercise in USA completely baffled their counterparts by switching from Standard English to Singlish after realizing that the USAF pilots were eavesdropping on their conversations.

So if you are in the company of Singaporeans and can’t understand what we’re saying, we’re most happy to switch to English for you. Any time-lah!

Joan Yap


2 thoughts on “Singlish

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