The official language of Singapore is English but several other languages can be overheard Malay, Mandarin, Tamil among others. Hidden within the English is a colloquial version known as Singlish, a slang ridden melting pot of languages that mirrors the food of Singapore – a lot of Malay, some Chinese dialects and some Tamil (from India) just to spice things up. The Singaporean government constantly wages the grammar war with its “Speak Good English” campaign but it remains ingrained into the local culture. To the untrained ear it often sounds like bad English but it pays a nod of respect to the multi-cultural lifestyle of Singapore.
- Lah is often the first thing perceived by visitors as it is commonly used to end sentences, as “eh” is to Canadians. Although lah is most common ah, leh, meh, and ma are often used with meh and ma at the end of questions. An example would be ‘Not good one lah’ This is not good. or ‘Can like that meh?’ “Can you do it like this?” Those two examples used mostly English words but in a different language format. Can is a common word and may even be a whole sentence. For instance If I wanted to know if you could do something the entire sentence could be “Can anot?” to which the response could be “can” or a slightly more formal ‘Can mah see!’ “it can be done!” Other options are can hor? Can it be done correctly. Can is quite versatile to emphasis you could even throw in a ‘can-can’…lah.
In part one of Surviving Singapore we discussed ‘chopping” or reserving seats. Chop in a Singlish sentence could be ‘Chop already’ “The seats have already been reserved” or ‘Got chop seat meh?’ “Have you reserved seats yet?”
Got is also a common word as in ‘got question?’ “Do you have a question?” or ‘Got cold Tiger?’ “Do you have any cold Tiger (local beer)?”
Ang moh literally means red hair but is used to describe any caucasian.
Auntie refers to any middle aged or elderly woman or a young woman that dresses like one. Uncle is the male equivalent to Auntie. Auntie and uncle are usually signs of respect but could be offensive to someone not mentally prepared to being considered middle-aged.
Kiasu means a fear of losing, it is also interchangeable with being rude. I am a fast walker and most Singaporeans tend to amble, but in their defense, the island is only so big, walk too fast and you run out of island. My normal non-rushed pace would have me slaloming between shuffling locals. My speed was seldom challenged with the exception of two situations, when getting on a MRT (subway train) and elevators. I have often wondered if it was a extension of national pride to be the first one in a train or elevator. Seemingly kind and gentle ‘Aunties’ turn into hockey players, hip-checking other commuters out of their way to be first on the train or elevator. It made no difference the number of people wanting to disembark. Once inside they return to their mild mannered selves, seemingly oblivious to the trail of carnage. This is the most common use of kiasu found on the island both the fear of losing the race and rudeness.
When ordering coffee or kopi remember the kopitams or coffee shops don’t necessarily sell coffee here are some words for ordering coffee or kopi in a kopitam that does in fact sell coffee.
Kopi is coffee with condensed milk
Kopi O is coffee with sugar
Kopi C is coffee with evaporated milk (think of Carnation brand evaporated milk)
Kopi Kosong is black with no sugar or cream
Add Peng to the end and you will get your coffee iced as in Kopi C Peng coffee with evaporated milk over ice.
I will leave you with my favorite Singapore-ism – Merlion. The Merlion, a mermaid/fish/lion combination is the guardian of Singapore, “The Lion City.” Legend has it that a Malay king first sailed to the island and saw a lion, he dubbed the island Singapore. In the 70’s a marketing company invented the mythical Merlion and a statue was erected in it’s honor. Now a common icon of the island nation, the merlion has taken on a less glamorous meaning, it is now slang for being drunk to the point of puking. It certainly does not take a lot of imagination to interchange the water fountain merlion with projectile vomiting. Think about that as you are posing with the statue.
Speak Singlish, can anot meh? Can also lah. Learning Singlish is not a necessity for traveling to Singapore. There are far more words than the brief list I have provided but these few will help you in your travels lah.
This is part four of a four part series Surviving Singapore, read the others here: