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YOUR GUIDE TO SINGLISH

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If you haven’t yet heard of Singlish, consider this a lesson in one of the most unique parts of Singapore’s culture; a uniting language that locals share. Singlish is an informal, colloquial version of Singaporean English and – although its use is discouraged in schools and formal settings – has become ingrained in local culture. Picking up a phrase or two before your trip to Singapore might not help you blend with the locals, but it might earn you some points for trying!

 

Singlish sign

Early Origins 

An English-based creole language, Singlish was birthed over time under the British colonial rule of 1824 to 1963 (excepting 1942 to 1945, when the country fell to the Japanese Occupation). With the introduction of British English, a pidgin-like language known as Singlish soon developed, borne of influences from Singapore’s four main languages and dialects – primarily English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Hokkien. 

 

Taxi Singapore

Putting Singlish to practice

The ubiquitous Singaporean ‘lah’ is something you’ll hear wherever you go, and is typically used to punctuate a remark or sentence. ‘Cannot lah’; ‘Can lah’; ‘Okay lah’ and ‘Too hot to walk lah!’ are some ways to use the word. When a taxi driver asks which route you’d prefer to get to your destination, responding with “The fastest way lah!” could be a good way to practise your Singlish. 

Another example is ‘boh liao’, a Hokkien phrase that means ‘with nothing better to do’. A colleague of yours who seems to have excess time on his hands – enough to annoy his teammates – could also be described as ‘so boh liao’.

 

Nasi lemak

'Boleh' or not? 

Two Malay words you might often hear in Singlish are ‘boleh’ and ‘alamak’. The latter is used as an utterance of despair, as in “Alamak! I lost my wallet!”, while the former translates to ‘okay’ or ‘can’. When ordering ‘nasi lemak’ (a Malay fragrant rice dish), you might say, “Nasi lemak, less chilli boleh?” to mean, “Could I have my nasi lemak with less chilli on the side?” Get acquainted with the best of Singapore’s local foods here. Don’t forget to pack in some colourful desserts.

In a city rife with food-lovers (and affordable local nosh), be sure to use the term ‘makan’ – Malay for ‘food’ but, in a Singlish context, also ‘eat’. Someone might ask, “Makan already?” which means “Have you eaten yet?” or, “What kind of makan do you like?” which means, “What kind of food do you like?”

 

 

Maxwell Food Centre

‘Chope’ culture 

Now that you’ve schooled yourself on the basics, be sure to never break this unspoken rule: whether you’re in a food court, coffee shop or hawker centre, don’t sit at tables with name cards or packets of tissue on them. That’s a local’s way of letting others know the table’s been reserved, or ‘choped’. Looking to impress your Singaporean friends? Try saying “I already choped us a table!” for instant cred – or at least laughs of approval. For more on ‘chope’ culture, check out this guide to hawker centre etiquette. Hoping to master more Singlish? Try using The Coxford Singlish Dictionary–  it's packed with terms, phrases and yet more useful examples. 

 

Marina Bay Sands sits in the heart of the civic district, with easy access to local food and celebrity restaurants, the ArtScience Museum –  plus some of Singapore's best hawker centres close by. Book direct on our site for the lowest rates, guaranteed. 
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