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Modern Singapore is traditionally dated from 1819, which was when Sir Stamford Raffles claimed the island of Singapore
for the East India Company, with the intention of creating a trading post for Britain in a strategis place. This 'founding'
of modern Singapore took place against a background of multiethnic trade going back many centuries. The Malay peninsula was
an important crossroads in trade from East Asia to India and points westward, as the pattern of winds and the lay of the land
created a natural meeting point.
The region had a history of Indian and Thai influence and rule, but by the time of European involvement
(from this sixteenth century) the area consisted of a series of rather cosmopolitan Malay sultanates, which were Muslim, but
with distinctive cultural practices that reflected the centuries of contact with other nations, especially with India. Many
Chinese had also settled in the region, to foster their trading interests, and there were links of all sorts around the whole
Singapore, a trading post at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, was multicultural from the start.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to seek a share in the riches of the Malay peninsula, and after their defeat in Malacca
in 1641 the Dutch dominated. After the British came on the scene in the eighteenth century, there was a jostling of power
between British and the Dutch which continued until the middle of the twentieth century. Negotiations took place involving
the colonial powers and the local rulers of the various Malay sultanates.
Over the nineteenth century the East India Company extended its influence, and gradually the British
colonial government took over the areas which had been controlled by the East India Company, including Singapore. Singapore
(with Penang and Malacca) was one of the Straits Settlements. For many years ruled from Calcutta, the capital of British India,
it later was directly ruled from London.
During the years of British rule, Singapore grew massively in size. In pre-colonial times, Malays
were the largest ethnic group. But the British encouraged immigration. While many people came to Singapore from other British
colonies, especially from India and Ceylon, and others came into Singapore from neighbouring areas, the largest group of immigrants
were from Southern parts of China. The population of Singapore is now approximately 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 8% Indian
(Singapore Census 2000, see Statistics Singapore). There has also been a small scattering of other ethnic groups including Europeans of various sorts,
Japanese, Arabs, and Jews.
Even during the colonial period the numbers of British people in Singapore were very small compared
to the three major ethnicities. Singapore has always had many ethnic groups, and a dazzling range of languages. It is extremely
rare for a person to be monolingual -- most people are bilingual from infancy and it is common for people to know and use
four or five languages in their daily life. All these languages have influenced each other.
Singapore English has its origins in the schools of colonial Singapore. In the nineteenth century
very few children went to school at all, and even fewer were educated in English. The local lingua franca was a pidginised
variety of Malay, called Pasar Melayu, or Bazaar Malay. This can still be heard in the region, especially from older people.
The people who spoke English and sent their children to English medium schools were mainly the Europeans, the Eurasians (people
of mixed racial ancestry), some of the small minorities, such as the Jews, some of the Indians and Ceylonese, and also a group
of Chinese people usually called the Straits Chinese, who had ancestors of long residence in the region, and who spoke a variety
of Malay usually called Baba Malay which was influenced by Hokkien Chinese and by Bazaar Malay. The fact that all these children
would have known Malay probably explains why most of the loan words in Singapore Colloquial English are from Malay. The largest
group of teachers were Eurasians, and there were also many teachers from Ceylon and India. European teachers were never more
than a quarter of the total teaching staff in a school, and they usually taught the senior classes. These Europeans may have
been from Britain (which at that time included Ireland) but were also from the USA, Belgium and France. The children in these
schools would have been exposed to many varieties of English.
In the first twenty years of the twentieth century, English medium education became popular for all
groups. Girls started going to school in larger numbers too. By the 1950s nearly all children went to school, and the majority
were educated in English. By the 1980s. all education was in the medium of English (with children learning another language
alongside English). Singapore English probably grew out of the English of the playground of these children of various linguistic
backgrounds who were learning English at school. As more and more of its people experienced learning English at school, English
became widely spoken, alongside Singapore's many other languages. Since Singapore became an independent Republic in 1965,
the use of English has increased still further. For many Singaporeans, English is the main language. Many families speak English
at home and it is one of the the first languages learnt by about half of the current pre-school children. Well over half of
the population born since 1965 are native speakers of English, and the proportion of native speakers of English is still rising.
Nearly everyone in Singapore speaks more than one language, with many people speaking three or four.
Most children grow up bilingual from infancy and learn more languages as they grow up. Naturally the presence of other languages
(especially various varieties of Malay and of Chinese) has influenced the English of Singapore. The influence is especially
apparent in the kind of English that is used informally, which is popularly called Singlish, but which is called Singapore
Colloquial English or Colloquial Singapore English in most academic writing.
Singlish is a badge of identity for many Singaporeans, and, as you can see from the satirical website,
Talkingcock, there are some websites that are written in it. Many Singaporeans move smoothly between Singapore Colloquial
English and Standard English. As most Singaporeans use a lot of Singapore Colloquial English to their children, children tend
to speak Singapore Colloquial English before they speak Standard English. It is still the case in Singapore that the younger
you are and the richer your family is, the more likely you are to have English (and that usually means Singapore Colloquial
English) as your native language. But Standard English is used in formal contexts, as it is all over the English-using world.
Take a look at Singapore's leading English newspaper, The Straits Times.
Since the 1960s linguists and sociologists have studied the features and the functions of English
in Singapore from a number of perspectives. Those who would like to know about studies of Singapore English should look at
my annotated list of the major works on Singapore English. You might also like to look at the articles which I wrote on Singapore English for Speech Therapists. David Deterding maintains a full scholarly bibliography of academic work on Singapore English.
There is also plenty of creative work in English by Singaporeans and you can find lots of information
about Singapore literature at the Contemporary and Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature in English site maintained by George Landow.
You can read more about the history of Singapore English in:
Gupta, Anthea Fraser. 1994. The Step-tongue: Children's English in Singapore. Clevedon:
BACK TO TOP GRAMMAR
As you will see from the examples in the sections below, the vocabulary of Singlish is mostly
shared with other varieties of English. Like all varieties of English, the standard English of Singapore needs special words
to deal with local institutions for example:
- Singapore's light rail system, partly above ground and partly below, is called the MRT;
- Singapore's major system of government managed housing, in which over 80% of the population live,
is called the HDB;
- The HDB run flats. Wealthy people may live in condominiums (made up of apartments),
or even in luxurious bungalows (detached properties of one or two storeys);
- Children start nursery school at age 3, kindergarten at 4, primary school at
6. They attend secondary schools from age 12 up to 16 (when they take O-Levels) then go to junior college
(where they take A-levels), or perhaps a VITB before moving on to university or polytechnic;
- in Singapore people normally go barefoot in the house. They wear slippers at the beach; the
same footwear which in other places is called "thongs" or "flip flops".
Naturally Singlish uses all these words too. In addition there are some words especially associated
with Singlish, and you can find many dictionaries and glossaries of these in book form and on the web (start at Talkingcock. Some of these words come from English e.g.
- blur (adjective, meaning 'confused, ignorant')
Others come from other languages spoken in Singapore, especially Malay and Hokkien. We have already
seen the pragmatic particles like lah, ah, and hor, which are frequently used. Speakers of Singlish are
not necessarily aware of which language they are from however. These include:
- habis 'finished'
- makan 'to eat, meal'
- chope 'to lay a claim to, as when putting bags at a table to indicate reservation'
- cheem 'difficult, obscure'
- ang mo 'a white person'
- rojak 'mixed, something mixed'
Even these words may (after a struggle) start being used as part of Singapore Standard English. The
word kiasu, from Hokkien, started being used in the Singapore press in the 1990s, with italics: in October 2000 I first
saw it in Singapore's leading newspaper without the italics. It's a vital word. It means 'always wanting the best for oneself
and willing to try hard to get it': the kiasu student is always the first to get the book out of the library (they
may even hide the book in the wrong shelf so that no-one else can read it), and always the first to get they assignments in
to the teacher. At a buffet the kiasu person may be so concerned that the restaurant will run out of oysters that they take
all the oysters onto their plate, to make sure there are enough. Kiasuism is a keenness that might be (mildly) exploitative.
This has been taken on board in Singapore, in a spirit of self-mockery, as a national characteristic, and I think the word
can be said to have now passed into the local standard!
BACK TO TOP SOUNDS GRAMMAR
All speakers of English have an accent which gives information about where they come from (or, in
some cases, where they want people to think they come from!). It is often important to a speaker to try to convey an impression
to hearers. In their 1985 book, Acts of Identity (CUP), R B Le Page and André Tabouret-Keller discuss some of the ways
in which people mark their identity through language. The Singaporean English accent is quite recognisable. Here I will talk
about the main features. I cannot use the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet here -- if you read some of the references
in my bibliography you will get much more information.
In some accents of English, RICE and RISE sound different. In Singapore English they usually sound
the same. Singapore English does not distinguish between voiced and voiceless fricatives in final position. This also affects
the (f) and (v) sounds and the (th) and (dh) sounds. Sometimes, especially in informal speech, people do not distinguish between
voiced and voiceless plosives in final postion, so that sometimes in Singapore HOP=HOB, BIT=BID, BACK=BAG. In final position
(t) is often a glottal stop, and (d) is sometimes too. In words like THINK and BATH a /t/ sound is often used. In words like
THEN and LEATHER a /d/ is often used. In careful speech a dental fricative is used for (th). Some speakers end words like
BREATH with a /f/ sound, but this is more unusual.
Traditionally in Singapore English (as in most kinds of English from England, Australian English,
etc) /r/ is pronounced only when it is followed by a vowel. In recent years, however, under the influence of American media,
some younger Singaporeans have started to use an /r/ in words like HEART and PORT, when they are speaking very carefully.
You can sometimes hear an /r/ in other places ('farther and mother', 'Veronicer')! In words like ACT, CAST, STOPPED etc which
end with a consonant cluster, the cluster is often reduced (e.g. 'ac', 'cas', 'stop'). This can make it hard to tell whether
a person is using a past tense form or not.
Singapore English does not have a distinction between short and long vowels. In this way it is rather
like Hawai'i Creole English. Below I use the IPA symbols where I can. I have also underlined the word which is pronounced
similarly to the sound in the British accent, RP, and in reference varieties of US English, but remember that in Singapore
English they are all short. Below are listed the words which are pronounced with the same vowel (using the list in Wells's
book Accents of English).
KIT, FLEECE (/i/)
TRAP DRESS SQUARE
GOAT (/o/) (pronounced as in most varieties of US English)
CLOTH, THOUGHT, NORTH, FORCE
NURSE, commA, lettER
STRUT BATH PALM START
There are diphthongs similar to those used in many varieties of English in England in the following:
Stress and intonation
Singapore English has a distinctive rhythm, which has been described as 'machine gun' style. There
is less distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables than in reference varieties of English. It also has its own
tunes of speech -- as in many varieties of English, this is often very noticeable in identifying the variety. The whole basis
of intonation is different from that in more studied varieties -- the references to work by Deterding and by Low in my bibliography will give you more information.
BACK TO TOP VOCABULARY BACKGROUND
Note: All examples are given in normal English orthography.
A lot of grammatical endings that are required in Standard English are optional in Singapore Colloquial
English. Marking plurals and past tenses is a matter of choice, so may be omitted, e.g.
What happen yesterday?
You go where?
Got so many car!
Then bicycle go first ah. (='So the bicycle went first')
I just sit and everything do for me. (='it does everything')
You know what happen lah. Fine. (='you know what happened? I got fined.')
There are very few complex verb groups in Singapore Colloquial English. Grammatical relationships
are shown mostly by position, e.g.
The house sell already. (='I have sold the house' OR 'the house
has been sold')
Big bicycle taken away.
I got big one for you.
The verb TO BE
The verb TO BE is used in Singapore Colloquial English, and when it is used, it changes (AM, ARE etc)
as in standard English. But it is often optional, e.g.
She so pretty.
That one like us.
The first one downstairs.
This new revision ah, REALLY new!
Singapore English uses about 11 particles, mostly borrowed from Hokkien or Cantonese, to indicate
attitude to what is being said. They work rather like you know and you see. The three most common are ah (usually expects
agreement), lah (strong assertion) and what (usually corrects something). You can read more about them in various
references in my bibliography.
Here are some examples:
There's something here for everyone lah.
Otherwise, how can be considered Singaporean ah?
No parking lots here, what.
OK lah, bye bye.
And then how many rooms ah?
You see my husband's not at home lah. That's the problem, ah.
Her price is too high for me lah.
Questions with a part of the verb TOBE are much as in Standard English, e.g:
Are you sick?
But questions with other verbs do not usually change the order of the subject and the verb. Here are
Why you so stupid?
Why she never come here?
How to fix?
Other grammatical features
There are many other features of Singapore Colloquial English which have been discussed in anlayses.
For example, you can miss out the subject much more freely in Singapore Colloquial English than you can in standard English,
Finish already. (someone has finished -- could be 'I', 'he' etc. -- the context will tell
You can also find many conditional sentences without subordinating conjunctions, e.g.
You do that, I hit you.
You want to swim, then swim here.
Finally, here is a short conversation I recorded between CK, a boy of nearly 6, and his next door
neighbour, who he calls 'Uncle'.
- [N is at the door of the CK's' house]
CK: Uncle! Uncle get me my ball,
I got big one for you.
- N: Why?
- CK: Inside the house.
- N: Where's that big bicycle?
- SK: Gone. [SK is CK's mother]
- CK: Big bicycle taken away.
- N: Taken away already.
- CK: No. Because going Toa Payoh.
- N: Going Toa Payoh. Oh oh. Then bicycle go first ah. OK you go with them.
- CK: Don't mind hah. Know where also.
- N: Ah.
- CK: There my gra- my grandmoth- my my- My uncle also went.
- N: Next time you grow up you take over the big one.
- CK: Yeah. [N laughs]
- CK: Then my mo- brother take over my one. [CK & N laugh] Yeah ah.
- N: As soon as he take yours ah,you take your father's one. [N laughs]