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Singlish & the Local Lingo

Singlish is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore and is a portmanteau of Singapore’s multiple spoken languages and English. As many people of different backgrounds conversed with a rudimentary understanding of a common language, they formed a coalition of common terms across languages including Hokkien, Malay, Hakka, Cantonese and Tamil.

Despite being spoken by Singaporeans (majority of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent), the origins of Singlish can be traced back to the establishment of an English-centric education system in Singapore, when the British first arrived on this sunny island back in 1819. Soon after, the English language quickly escaped the classroom walls, and started being used in the streets. However, learning a new language is not easy, especially for those who were already living in Singapore before English education was introduced. After some time, Singlish grew in popularity as the people began mixing in words that are familiar to themselves and their diverse neighbours.

Soon, Singlish became a major part of Singaporean identity, and today, foreigners may struggle to understand the many common words localised to a Singaporean context. If you intend to live in Singapore, it is a good idea to learn some cornerstones of the language. It will come in useful when you order kopi at a hawker centre or when you hang out with your Singaporean friends.

Here are some common expressions used in Singlish and their meanings:

1. Aiyoh, an expression of surprise and/or annoyance

2. Alamak, translates to “oh my gosh” or “oh no”

3. Bo Chap, literally “don’t care”, commonly used to refer to someone who is indifferent about things

4. Bo Jio, literally “didn’t invite”, commonly used as a complaint about being left out of a group activity

5. Bo Liao, feeling bored or idle

6. Chiong, to rush, to hurry or to give your all to complete something

7. Diam, literally “quiet”, used to tell someone to be quiet, typically in an angry tone

8. Eh, a way to address people or get their attention in an informal setting, though it may sometimes be considered rude

9. Lah, a suffix used to place emphasis on the sentence or word before

10. Leh, a suffix used when one is unsure and in need of confirmation

11. Lor, a suffix used to express a sense of resignation and finality

12. Tolong, meaning “please”, to ask for help

13. Tapao, literally “take bag”, the Singlish equivalent of takeaway

14. Shiok, used to convey feelings of satisfaction and pleasure

15. Siao, literally “crazy”

Which Singlish word would you use most often? Learning some of them will definitely help you be seamlessly integrated into the local society in no time; don’t say we never jio.

- Written by Patricia Shareleen and edited by Asahi Yip, Cayman Management Consultants


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