Arabic, Japanese, Indonesian and Javanese loanwords in Singapore Colloqual English lexicon

Among the various linguistic realities that over time have contributed to the enrichment of Singapore Colloqual English or Singlish vocabulary, we can also find Japanese, whose teaching was strongly supported during the three year of occupation of the former British colony by Japanese military forces and of course Javanese Language probably due to the geographical position in which the Island of Java is located.


Words of Japanese origins in Singlish vocabulary

Japanese, Singapore Singlish, Singlish Lexicon, Japanese loanwords, anoneh, bakero

The two most relevant examples of Japanese lexical borrowings in everyday Singapore Colloqual English appear to be:

  • Anoneh (a Japanese expression commonly used instead of the English adverb well [bene] or, in certain circumstances, for replacing the common English expression “If that’s the case…” [Se è il caso…] which, sometimes, in Singapore Colloquial English, is even used in a broad sense for indicating Japanese girls) and
  • Bakero (an alteration of the Japanese expression baka yarou, which, in a not strictly literal sense, might be rendered with the expression “stupid neanderthal” [stupido neanderthal], which, in turn, is often mistakenly considered an alternative to the common English insult bastard [bastardo])1.

Lexical borrowings coming from Javanese Language

Javanese in Singapore, Javanese Singlish, Javanese words, Javanese loanword, lexical borrowings, gado gado, bedek

When we think to the contribution of Javanese Language to the development and enrichment of Singlish lexicon, we cannot avoid mentioning the following words:

  • bedek (derived from the typical Javanese expression bedèk-bedèkan, into English Language it means to ask riddles [chiedere, fare indovinelli], where the word bedèk considered in isolation means just riddle, whose meaning in Singapore Colloquial English becomes “to bluff” or ” to pretend”) and
  • gado gado (a typical Indonesian salad made with tofu, bean sprouts and other various vegetables, usually seasoned with peanut sauce)2.

What about undirect lexical borrowings from Arabic and Indonesian in Singlish?

Indonesian, Arabic, Singlish lexicon, singlish vocabulary, loanwords, lexical borrowings, alamak, serani, gorblock, soto ayam

In concluding this review of foreign loanwords, real lifeblood of Singlish lexicon, we cannot skip reporting the presence of further additional terms derived, both directly and indirectly, from Arabic Language and Indonesian Language such as:

  • alamak (Malay expression of dismay and consternation probably imported from Arabic Allah Ma’ak [may God be with you] or Allah maaf Kar [may God forgive you], which is rather common in some ordinary Singlish expressions such as: «Alamak! Why you go and do this sort of stupid thing?» [into Italian Language: «Santo cielo! Perché ti ostini a fare questo genere di cose stupide?»]);
  • serani (Malay derogatory term sometimes used with reference to Eurasians, it probably finds its origins in the Arabic word nasrani, but in Singapore Colloquial English it often replaces both English adjectives “nazarene” and “christian”)3;
  • gorblock (probably derived from the Indonesian geblek [stupid] or the Jawanese gebleg [stupid, ignorant], now it is a term fallen into disuse) and
  • Soto Ayam (a typical dish belonging to Indonesian culinary tradition widely appreciated  even in Singapore,  whose nomenclature is clearly derived from a literal translation of the original Indonesian name Soto Ajam, which means “chicken soup”, where the term soto indicates soups or meat stewes in a broad sense and ajam means “chicken”). This charming and interesting wording is probably the result of a curious lexical hybridization (Indonesian + malay) since the Malay substantive ayam (chicken), in Singapore Colloquial English or Singlish, replaces the original Indonesian word ajam4.

Further Readings and Recommended Books




Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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Dr. Biagio Faraci

Technical translator, consecutive business interpreter, personal web - teacher of English, German and Italian for foreigners, expert in sociolinguistics, internationalization of business communication, strategic localization of business communication, intercultural mediation and corporate language training, I help individuals, professionals and companies to internationalize and / or efficiently localize their communication in the world of Web 2.0, establish a strong presence and find new customers in foreign markets through customized strategies.
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