Saturday, October 3, 2009
Most Singaporeans can speak pretty good English when they have to. When they don’t have to they are likely to use Singlish. Singlish is a creole language that mixes words from English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), Tamil and an assortment of other dialects. The grammar shows a strong Chinese influence. Sometimes it sounds like slightly mangled English, sometimes it is almost impossible to understand if you just know English. Check out the Coxford Singlish dictionary for some examples of Singlish. Singlish is most well known for the use of the particle “lah” which seems to function like verbal punctuation. Some Singlish words have even made their way into international dictionaries.
Singlish has become quite a controversial topic here. Fans of Singlish argue that it is an important part of what it means to be Singaporean. Singlish can be heard from people of all ages, races and social classes here. Furthermore, through the inclusion of words from different languages it reflects the cultural diversity of Singapore. Having unique things that everyone can rally around are really important in developing a national identity and patriotism. As a very young and very diverse country, such things are not particularly easy to come by.
Despite their strong desire to develop a national identity and instil patriotism, the Singapore government is decidedly unimpressed by Singlish. They worry that if people use Singlish, they will not properly learn to speak Standard English, resulting in them being an embarrassment to the country. To counter this they launched a campaign called the Speak Good English Movement. This campaign includes language classes, books, websites, social events where Standard English must be used and forcing soap operas to have their characters speak better English. I’m not sure what to make of their current slogan, “impress, inspire, intoxicate.” Maybe Standard English is sometimes impressive but intoxicating? It would seem that despite the government’s efforts Singlish is not going anywhere in a hurry. It still gets used a lot, and not just in informal social settings ether. It even gets used in public manners campaigns! (see included picture)