English in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Asia

Simon Horobin, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #522

Mixed Varieties: Singlish

The interaction between English and these Asian varieties has led to considerable language mixing; in Singapore, a new variety, known as Singlish, has emerged. While the Singaporean education system, its broadcasting corporation, and newspapers such as the Strait Times continue to recognize Standard British English and its RP accent, many Singaporeans employ a colloquial variety which mixes English with Malay and Chinese.

A characteristic instance of such mixing is the frequent use of the Chinese discourse particles lah and ah, tagged on to the ends of sentences to convey emphasis: ‘Ok-lah,’ or to indicate a question: ‘Should I go-ah?’ Singlish incorporates loanwords, such as the Malay makan ‘food,’ and Chinese ang pow ‘cash gift,’ while words of English origin have different meanings, such as send ‘take’ and stay ‘live.’ Further distinctive features of Singlish include its tendency to drop articles, ‘You have book?’, plural inflexions, ‘I have two car,’ verb endings, ‘Yesterday I walk home,’ ‘This taste good,’ and even the verb to be: ‘This man clever.’

Despite its widespread use, especially among the younger generation, the official status of Singlish continues to provoke controversy. The Singapore government remains firmly committed to the promotion of Standard English as the language of education, trade, commerce, and technology. In order to challenge the widespread use of Singlish, in 2000 the government launched the ‘Speak Good English’ campaign, which aimed to promote Standard English at the expense of Singlish, considered to be incomprehensible to outsiders.

Despite the appearance of Chinglish, Japlish, Denglish, Anglikaans, and other mixed varieties, or ‘interlanguages,’ their status continues to be hotly debated. Are they examples of ‘code-switching,’ pidgins, or dialects that have borrowed significantly from another language?

In former colonies, the appropriation and remodelling represented by mixed forms of English have political and ideological ramifications. Where the Standard English of Britain is linked with a nation’s colonial past, mixed forms of English come to stand for greater political and national independence. As the novelist Salman Rushdie has written: ‘Those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it. Assisted by the English language’s flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its front.’ The reappropriation and remodelling of English that is apparent in such mixed varieties, driven by communicative and ideological factors, is likely to play a major role in the language’s future development.


About the Author

Simon Horobin, Writing for Grammar Girl
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