What is this language you hear in Singapore?
If you’ve ever been to Singapore, I’m sure you were surprised to hear the people in Singapore speaking in a language that sounds like English, yet it isn’t quite exactly the English that you’re used to hearing. That’s “Singlish”, which stands for Singaporean English.
Singlish, a colloquial language that had originated from the various languages spoken in Singapore, such as the country’s four official languages – English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil – and several dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, etc.) is widely used by all people in Singapore.
Example of how different languages are used to make up a Singlish sentence
The singaporean identity
Even though it is unlikely that you’ll hear Singlish in formal settings, you would definitely not miss it when you are eating at a hawker center, walking down Orchard Road, or purchasing your souvenir at that quaint little shop just around the corner on Bugis Street.
Singlish is an integral part of the Singaporean identity. It acts as a common denominator for Singapore’s multiracial society, building easy rapport and bringing people from different backgrounds close. This English-based creole language is also an efficient language.
Example of how Singlish is used to replace a long sentence and convey the same message with just two words.
Everyday Singlish you can use
Here are a few Singlish words that you can use to interact like a local when visiting Singapore.
The famous Singlish word “lah” indicates emphasis. Like some other words (such as “leh”, “lor”, “meh”, etc.) in Singlish, it is a filler word that has no meaning on its own but is often used at the end of sentences to assert the speaker’s feelings or point of view about something.
“The weather in Singapore is so hot lah!” – The weather here is REALLY hot.
“This tastes so good lah!” – This food tastes REALLY good.
Instead of asking “Can I…” or “Could I…”, or answering “Sure, no problem.” or “Yes, of course”, we can shorten our questions and answers by using the word “can”.
“Pay by credit card, can?” – Can I pay by credit card?
“Can.” – Sure, no problem.
“Uncle*, from here can take the bus to Jurong Bird Park?” – Excuse me sir, is there a bus I can take to get to Jurong Bird Park from here?
“Can” – Yes, there is.
*In Singapore, we regard older strangers as uncles or aunties.
“Sian” is a Hokkien word used to express boredom, frustration or weariness.
“Sian, this place is so crowded.” – Oh jeez, there are so many people here.
“I left my wallet in the room. Sian!” – I forgot my wallet in the room. Great!
“Makan” is a Malay word that means to eat.
“Let’s go makan! I want to try Chilli Crab” – Let’s grab a bite! I want to try the Singapore dish Chilli Crab”
“Please recommend me a nice makan place” – Please recommend me a nice restaurant.
Wah or Wah Lao
“Wah” or “Wah Lao” is used to express surprise or wonder.
“Wah! So expensive. Cannot cheaper?” – Oh wow! This is so expensive. Can’t you sell it cheaper?
“Wah Lao! The view from Marina Bay Sands is so nice.” – Oh wow! The view is so nice.”
“Paiseh” is commonly used Hokkien word to describe a feeling of embarrassment or having a sense of shame.
“Walao! Why you always so late!” – Oh my god! You’re late, as usual!
“Paiseh lah, traffic jam!” – I’m sorry. I was stuck in a traffic jam.
“Don’t be paiseh. Eat more!” – Don’t be shy. Please help yourself.
Singlish is also studied in Linguistics
Picture from The Straits Times article explaining Singlish is used in universities around the world as a case study in linguistics courses
Try Singlish when visiting Singapore!
There are many more Singlish words and phrases that you will encounter when you are in Singapore.
While it may take a foreigner years to learn and master the art of speaking this fascinating language, attempting to communicate in Singlish will definitely put a smile on a local’s face and help in initiating conversations.