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ISCApad #194

Monday, August 04, 2014 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-20 (2014-07) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter July 2014

Singlish: a living example of multilingualism blending the East and West


Singlish (colloquial Singapore English) is a vivid and colorful creole example of how languages and speakers interact and mingle: while Singlish is a language variety of English, it is interleaved with slangs from languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Malay and Tamil, and heavily influenced by Chinese grammar, phonology, and prosody. The complexity of Singlish exemplifies the challenges speech researchers face in developing spoken language technologies to automatically identify, transcribe, and parse colloquial and conversational speech.


Singlish is semi-tonal, as all words of Chinese origin retain their original words, while original English words as well as Malay and Tamil words are non-tonal. In addition, although most varieties of English are stressed-time, Singlish is syllable-timed, giving Singlish a rather staccato feel.


Singlish phonology is primarily British based, with influence of Chinese phonology. For example, the dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are sometimes merged with /t/ and /d/ in certain contexts, so that three sounds like tree and then sounds like den [16]. The voiceless stops /p/, /t/, /k/ are also sometimes unaspirated as in Chinese languages [18]. There is generally no distinction between the non-close front monophthongs, so pet and pat are pronounced the same /pɛt/ [17].


At the vocabulary level, there is often inter-mixing of multiple languages. For example, damn shiok is a slang blending English and Punjabi, used to express extreme pleasure or satisfaction, often in the context of food. Mixing of languages is also reflected from location names. For example, Toa Payoh (literal translation: big swamp), a central district in Singapore, mixes Hokkien and Malay (toa is big in Hokkien and payoh is swamp in Malay). Reduplication is also used in Singlish, which is influenced by Chinese and Malay. Adjectives of one or two syllables can also be repeated for intensification. For example, “You go take the small-small one ah.” (Retrieve the smaller item, please.) The frequent use of already (pronounced more like oreddy) in Singapore English is probably a direct influence of the Hokkien liao particle [18]. For example, “Aiyah, cannot wait any more, must go oreddy.” (Oh dear, I cannot wait any longer. I must leave immediately.)


Singlish is topic-prominent like Chinese and Japanese, meaning that Singlish sentences often begin with a topic followed by a comment of new information. For example, Dis country weather very hot one.” (In this country, the weather is very warm.) The topic can be omitted when the context is clear, resulting in constructions that appear to be missing a subject. For example, “No good lah” (This isn’t good.)


Singlish is also known for its colorful usage of interjections from Chinese and Malay influence (examples in previous sentences examples include ah, aiyah, lah). ”lah” is probably the most famous one and a stereotypical interjection which appears to be ubiquitous to non-native speakers of Singlish. It may originate from the Hokkien character (), though its usage in Singapore is also influenced by its occurrence in Malay [19]. “lah” has many different usages. It is often used to soften ones tone. For example, “Cannot lah”, “Just drink lah”. It can also be used to indicate impatience with a low tone; e.g., “Eh, hurry up lah!” It can also be used for reassurance: Okay lah. (It's all right. Don't worry about it.) Yet, it can also be used to curse people. For example, “Go and die lah”.


Although Singlish is typically not used in official settings (e.g. school lectures and mainstream media generally use Standard Singapore English), Singlish is quite prevalent in day-to-day interactions with peers, siblings, parents, and elders. It is an effective means to establish rapport (for example, during military service) or for humorous effects for TV and radio shows. From a linguistic perspective, Singlish is a living example of multilingualism in Singapore blending the East and the West.

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