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A Brief Introduction to Singlish

Picture of Prianka Ghosh
Updated: 9 February 2017
While English is the main language used in Singapore, what many people first arriving in the city-state don’t realize is that alongside Singapore’s four official languages, there is a fifth unofficial local lingo – Singlish. Here’s a brief explanation of where it originated from and how to speak it when you visit.

Singlish is influenced by a combination of the official languages; English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil and has evolved over time to even include American and Australian influences as a result of media broadcasted from those regions.

The first experience most visitors will have is the use of adding ‘can’ or lah’ to the end of sentences. ‘Lah’, serves a similar role as ‘eh’ in Canada. ‘Can’ is most often used as a question tag, as well as in response to that question. For example, one person will say ‘Get some milk on your way, Can?’ and the other speaker will reply ‘Can’ in the affirmative, or alternatively ‘Cannot’.

© Prianka Ghosh

Singlish Sign on Pulua Ubin | © Prianka Ghosh

The differences between Singlish and English extend beyond its vocabulary and grammar. The construction of sentences reflects the Chinese influence. An example of this is sentences based on topic-prominence so as opposed to saying ‘The weather is hot in this country’, a Singlish speaker will say, ‘Dis country weather very hot, lah.’

Another marked difference between Standard English and Singlish is reflected in how the past-tense is addressed. In Singlish, the verb is only conjugated if it is an irregular verb, ‘I went to Orchard yesterday’ but in other cases, you are likely to hear, ‘He talk so long, never stop, I ask him also never.’ Instead it is common to hear Singlish speakers use the word ‘already’ to indicate that something is in the past such as, ‘Yesterday, they go there already’ or ‘I call her already’, meaning ‘Yesterday, they went there’ and ‘I called her’.


A #Singlish warranty

A photo posted by Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee (@miyagisan) on

Singlish, although affectionately embraced by the majority of the local population as well as local media, now even has several terms included in the Oxford dictionary. It has not always been seen in a favorable light however, and is often viewed as a sign of a lack of education.

The government went as far as introducing an initiative entitled the Speak Good English Movement, which ran for more than a decade. It was designed to teach people the importance of speaking Standard English – not just to be better understood but because they felt that by speaking in the dialect, Singaporeans were seen as less intelligent.

© Monsonnet/WikiCommons

© Monsonnet/WikiCommons

Ultimately, Singaporeans have fought back over the years, insisting that it is a part of Singaporean identity. With the recent inclusion in the Oxford dictionary, as well as a popular piece written by Gwee Li Sui (a Singaporean poet, graphic novelist and literary critic for the New York Times), the government has come to embrace this unique language.