Singlish VS English: what do we mean when we talk about Singlish? Let’s ask the experts!


Before focusing our attention on the analytical study concerning the current evolutionary status of English Language within what I personally define “Singaporean Sociolinguistic Ecosystem”, it would be a good idea to tackle the issue of the correct definition of the term Singlish itself, trying to lay bare the subtle semantic nuances among the respective concepts of:

  1. Singapore Standard English,
  2. Singapore Colloquial English,
  3. Singlish.

In this regard, we could make reference to a first definition proposed by the English sociolinguist, and former lecturer of the National University of Singapore1, Anthea Fraser Gupta, who, precisely in her work entitled The Step-Tongue: Children’s English in Singapore (1994), for introducing the concept of Singlish, used the following words:

“The kind of English which the English-speaking parents of Singapore have supplied to their children is a variety which is syntactically very different from Standard English. I call it Singapore Colloquial English (SCE). In Singapore the popular term is Singlish. ‘Singlish’ is also commonly used for the English used by people who have poor proficiency in English, a variety which is similar to SCE.” (2).

Singlish and Singapore Standard English: the comparison between the definitions offered by Anthea Fraser Gupta and Carissa Young

For better understanding instead the meaning of the expression Singapore Standard English (SSE), it would be advisable to focus our attention on the explanation offered by Carissa Young, professor of English language at the Centre for English Language Communication of the National University of Singapore3 as well as co-author of the book Teaching English to Students from China.

Just Carissa Young, in fact, with reference to the statements expressed by the British sociolinguist Anthea Fraser Gupta, asserts that:

“According to Gupta, Standard Singapore English, or the “high variety”, is used in formal circumstances such as public speeches, lectures and international communications. The written form of Standard Singapore English can usually be understood by other speakers of English, as Gupta asserts that Standard Singapore English and other Standard Englishes are different only in terms of the phonological features and some culture specific lexical terms.” (4).

Singlish phenomenon: the diastratic approach proposed by Christopher Stroud and Lionel Wee and the diaphasic semplification offered by Vincent B. Y. Ooi and Chua Beng Huat

If, at a first diastratic approach, as stated by the scolars Christopher Stroud, professor of linguistics at the University of the Western Cape (South Africa)5 and Lionel Wee, associate professor in the department of English language and literature at the National University of Singapore6:

“Singlish is popularly conceived as the language of the less educated Singaporeans, who are therefore not able to speak a more standard form of English. By implication, such Singaporeans are less knowledgeable, and certainly less aware of dictionary definitions of word meanings. Additionally, a Singlish speaker is also presented as being less sophisticated or less pretentious.” (7).

Facing the issue related to the conceptualization of the term Singlish by a merely diaphasic perspective, we would be able to standardize the respective concepts of Singapore Colloquial English and Singlish through the the less specific but more functional expression Singapore Informal English.

In fact, through this expression we can come to identify that widespread variety of written and spoken English within Singapore borders, which is used in informal communication contexts, while remaining however faithful to what stated by the Singaporean linguist and associate professor of the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore8, Vincent B. Y. Ooi.

In his partecipation to the work Singapore Studies II: Critical Surveys of the Humanities and Social Sciences, edited by the sociologist Chua Beng Huat9, in fact, Vincent B. Y. Ooi himself points out that:

“While this variety of English is popularly known as Singlish, it would perhaps be more appropriate to use the term Informal Singapore English, which is both productive and systematic.” (10).


A glance to the past: the definistion proposed by Tania Kuteva and her considerations about substrate and superstrate languages

Although the birth of Singlish phenomenon is dated back to the end of Seventies of the last century in the mouths of a second generation of English-speakers born after Singapore independence11, its roots are unmistakably sink in the heart of colonial period. So much so that, while remaining faithful to what is reported by historians, it was towards the end of the Nineteenth century, as a result of the frequent and substantial migratory waves occurred during the first economic boom, the island of Singapore was literally invaded by a moltutude of emigrants coming from every corner of Southeast Asia and Southern Asia.

Just these emigrants, together with their customs and traditions, brought into the island of Singapore also their own languages and dialects.

As stated by Tania Kuteva, professor of English Linguistics at the Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf:

“Singlish results from a high-contact situation involving Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Hokkien Chinese and Malay as the main substratal languages and English as the superstrate language.” (12).

Further readings and most recommended books


2Gupta Fraser Anthea, The Step-Tongue: Children’s English in Singapore, Multilingual Matters Ltd, Clevedon, Avon, 1994, United Kingdom, p. 5, trad.: «Il tipo d’inglese che i genitori di lingua inglese di Singapore hanno offerto ai loro bambini è una varietà sintatticamente molto differente dall’inglese standard. Io lo definisco inglese colloquiale di Singapore (SCE). A Singapore il termine popolare è Singlish. La parola Singlish è anche comunemente utilizzata per indicare l’inglese parlato dalle persone che hanno una scarsa competenza in inglese, una varietà simile all’inglese colloquiale di Singapore.».

4Young Carissa in Ling Gek Lee, Ho Laina, Meyer J.E. Lisa, Varaprasad Chitra, Young Carissa, Teaching English to Students from China, Singapore University Press, Singapore, 2003, Republic of Singapore, p. 95, trad.: «Secondo Gupta, l’inglese standard di Singapore, o “la varietà elevata”, è usato nelle circostanze formali come i discorsi pubblici, le conferenze e le comunicazioni internazionali. La forma scritta dell’inglese standard di Singapore può ordinariamente essere compresa dagli altri parlanti della lingua inglese, in quanto Gupta asserisce che l’inglese standard di Singapore e le altre varietà d’inglese standard differiscono solo nelle caratteristiche fonologiche ed in alcuni termini lessicali specifici della cultura.».

7Stroud Christhopher, Wee Lionel in Singh Rajendra: The Yearbook of South Asian Languages and Linguistics 2003, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin, 2004, Germany, p. 250-251, trad.: «Il singlish è generalmente concepito come la lingua dei singaporiani meno istruiti, i quali sono quindi incapaci di parlare una forma d’inglese più normalizzata. Implicitamente, tali singaporiani sono meno colti e sicuramente meno consapevoli dei significati delle parole forniti dai dizionari. Inoltre, una persona che parla il singlish è vista anche come un individuo meno sofisticato o meno pretenzioso.».


10Ooi B. Y. Vincent in Huat Beng Chua, Singapore Studies II Critical Surveys of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Singapore University Press, The National University of Singapore, Singapore, 1999, Republic of Singapore, p. 77 trad.: «Mentre questa varietà d’inglese è diffusamente nota come Singlish, sarebbe forse più appropriato utilizzare il termine Informal Singapore English, il quale è sia più efficiente che sistematico.».

11Low Ee Ling and Brown Adam cit. in. Schneider Edgar Werner, Postcolonial English: Varieties Around the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, United Kingdom.

12Kuteva Tania in López-Couso Maria José, Seoane Elena, Rethinking grammaticalization: new perspectives, Typological Studies in Language, John Benjamins Publishing B.V., Amsterdam, 2008, The Netherlands, p. 198 trad.: «Il Singlish deriva da una situazione di elevato contatto che coinvolge il cinese mandarino, il cinese cantonese, il cinese hokkien ed il malese come le principali lingue di substrato e l’inglese come lingua di superstrato.».

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

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