English or Chinese?
If you are leaving to Singapore and you are convinced that your knowledge of Standard English will allow you to understand and make yourself understand by local population without particular problems, you can even skip this article, but if you don’t want to be the “protagonist” of unfortunate misunderstandings or fall into really embarassing situations, I strongly recommend you to read it carefully!
If you are instead in Singapore since some days, I am 99,9% sure you’ve already understood what I am talking about. 😀
Getting around among all those colourful markets and the countless local stores and stalls widespread in “Lion City”, you’ll have certainly noticed that your english has really nothing to do with the local variety of English spoken by Singaporeans.
Nevertheless you’ve been told that in Singapore Island English Language was one of the 4 official languages.
There is something strange, there is something incredibly exotic in the sounds and in the most common daily words that make it vaguely similar to Chinese!
Don’t worry, you have just listened to a little bit of Singlish! 😉
In a multiethnic and multicultural society such as that of Singapore, it definitely should not surprise at all the widespread phenomenon of the continuous lexical borrowings interchange between all different languages and dialects all over the insular territory.
Although English Language is prooven to be both the main tool of interaction among local people belonging to different lingustic communities (in intranational communication contexts) and the Language through which the local Government holds the vaste majority of all diplomatic relationships with foreign countries, as well as the main Language through which the most prestigious local Companies interact with their commercial partners and collaborators from abroad, we should take note of the fact that, especially in the context of daily informal communication, Singapore Colloqual English is continuously enriched with new colorful expressions and a moltitude of new words coming from all those contextual Languages and dialects.
The unbridled and continuous irruption of all these lexical borrowings seems to have become so overwhelming as to arose not a few misunderstandings and difficulties in ordinary communication for foreign people.
As a consequence, once landed in “Lion City”, probably after a little tour among the historical streets and the crowded markets of Singapore, whoever tourist or businessman realizes that, especially in certain areas far away from those traditional tourist destinations, his knowledge of Standard English can help him very little during his interaction with local population and far less during his argumentation of local topics and ordinary conversations1.
With the purpose to encurage and promote all tourist activities in Singapore, also the Singapore Tourism Board, which is the main government institution that regulates and coordinates all those activities and initiatives aimed to the development of tourist actraction in the all over the country, shows a considerable interest and commitment in the resolution of such issues by providing all visitors and tourists with useful leaflets and mini glossaries containing both the most widespread words and all those colourfull typical expressions belonging to the unpredictable Singapore Colloquial English2.
Top Singlish words and typical expressions coming from Hokkien Chinese Dialect
A remarkable contribution, especially for what concerns the entry of new words of frequent use in Singapore Colloquial English, risults to have been provided by all those charming and diversified Chinese dialects present in Singapore isular territory, in particular by the three most widespread Chinese dialects in “Lion City” such as: Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.
Among these three dialecs a position of indisputable prestige, for what concerns the degree of influence exercised on the formation of Singlish Lexicon, should be duly recognized to the Hokien Chinese Dialect, whose origins are related to some areas in the South-end of the current Chinese Province of Fujian (Southern China)3.
Among the countles loans coming from the Chinese Dialect hokkien, belonging in turn to the branch of Sinitic Languages, we can find a moltitude of words and expressions of daily use just like Ah Beng, which is a transliteration of the Chinese Alphabet Characters 阿明, through which is written one of the most frequent male personal name within Singaporean Chinese Community.
This expression within Singapore Colloquial Singlish takes on a totally different meaning; in fact, it is aften used with a derogatory connotation with reference to a person who shows a poor interest his look and appearance in a broader sense.
In a typical sentence of Singapore Colloquial English as for instance:
«Why you go and make friend with those Ah Beng Ah Seng?»,
which could be translated into Singapore Standard English as follows:
«Why are you associating with those Ah Bengs?»
and into Italian Language with the following words:
«Perchè frequenti (vai in giro con) quei miserabili?» (5),
The expression Ah Beng Ah Seng, transliteration of Chinese Characters 阿明阿成 indicates a scruffy and shady group of people, rendering both the idea of a cluster of individuals who share some distinctive features that make them similar one another and the plural of the expression Ah Beng.
However, it must be remenbered that the word Ah Seng, considered separately, emphasizes the derogatory character of whatever term to which it is postponed.
A further loan of Hokkien Chinese origin is the word Suaku, which is in turn the result of the transliteration of Chinese Characters 山龜, frequently used for pointing out a backward person or, in an even more derogatory way, a poorly educated individual.
Among all the most widespread Singlish words of Hokkien Chinese origins we can also include:
Ah Pek, transliteration of Chinese Ideograms阿伯, which, in Singapore Colloquial English indicates an old person of male gender;
the word Ah Soh, transliteration of Chinese Characters阿嫂 through which Singaporean teenagers usually call middle-aged women and
the adjective Sian frequently used for replacing the English adjectives bored or tired.
Even in the way of expressing their pleasure for something or their appreciation toward someone, Singapore inhabitants are accustomed to use many other words of clear Hokkien Chinese origins.
It might be an obvious example the word Song, transliteration of the Chinese grapheme 爽, which most often replaces the English adjective and adverb good in some exclamations as:
SINGLISH: «After the bath, I feel very song!»;
ENGLISH: «After the bath, I feel very good!»
ITALIAN: «Dopo il bagno, mi sento benissimo!».
Then, when it comes to express admiration or appreciation for a really charming and attractive woman, the typical American English expression hot chick, is often replaced by the word Chiobu, also borrowed from the Chinese dialect Hokkien6.
A glance to some Teochew Chinese loans in Singlish
Within the circle of lexical borrowings coming from Chinese Teochew Dialect (the epicenter of which propagation would seem to be detectable on the east coast of today’s Guangdong province, more precisely in the ancient city port of Swatow or Shantou in Mandarin Chinese)7 we can find a moltitude of words as well as a lot of different sayings capable of igniting any kind of informal conversation.
A funny example is the famous saying:
«Ai Pee, Ai Chee, Ai Tua Liap Nee!»
which literally translated into Standard English would be:
«Want cheap, want pretty, want big breast!»,
and into Italian Language would become:
«La vuoi semplice, carina e con un grande animo!»,
often referred to some very pretentious individuals whose expectations are patently unachievaqble.
In order to better understand the the metaphorical sense of this expression, one might analyze the following Singlish sentence:
«Singaporeans are very hard to please, one. They all Ai Pee, Ai Chee, Ai Tua Liap Nee!»
which translated into Italian Language according to a non strictly literal procedure may become:
«I singaporiani sono difficilissimi da soddisfare. Sono tutti incontentabili!»8.
Among the most important Teochew Chinese linguistic loans in Singapore Colloquial English we can find:
- the popular term Ah Nia, which, in substitution of the two traditional English adjectives pretty and beautiful (respectively carina and bella in Italian), is widely used for describing a young attractive girl in an alternative way9
- The culirary word orni (more precisely o-nee) through which Singaporeans usually indicate a typical Teochew sweet snack prepared with pumpkins and sweet American potatoes.
The phonetic transcription of the this word, according to the graphic symbols of International Phonetic Alphabet, risults to be /ɒ’ni:/, which, in turn, is nothing but the result of a combination of two Chinese Characters: 芋 (/ɒ/), which represents the sweet American potatoes, and 泥 (/ni:/), widely used among Teochew cooks with reference to certain particularly homogeneous food compounds whose essential ingredients, once finished their preparation process, become similar to a mash10.
Staying within the culinary terminology sphere, we cannot avoid to talk about some further Chinese lexical loans, whose use, with the passing of decades, has become more and more frequent, especially for what concerns the informal communication context.
Among these words we find: Char Kwai Teow (trasliteration of Chinese Graphemes 炒粿条, which is the name of a typical Hokkien delicacy made of fried rice noodles, bean sprouts, eggs and shellfish flavoured with a sweet black soy sauce)11, Popiah (the traditional name with which the vast majority of Singapore residents of Hokkien origins are used to call the famous Chinese Spring Rolls), transliteration of the Chinese ideograms 薄饼12 having, in turn, the literal meaning of thin biscuit, probably with reference to their very thin flour batter external shell)13 and Chze Char (whose literal translation from Hokkien Chinese Dialect into English Language is cook and fry (in Italian “cuoci e friggi”), used in a broad sense for indicating some typical courses of the traditional Chinese Cuisine sold in the countless food stalls of the legendary “Lion City”)14.
All this heat made you thirsty, right? 😉 A nice iced drink is just what we need!
What do would you like to drink: a Teh-Peng, a Bandung or an Ice Kosong?
Even in the names of many typical Singaporean drinks, we can notice a frequent use of loanwords of various origins.
In Summer, during the hottest days, for example, a lot of Singaporeans are used to ask the barman for a Teh-Peng (from Hokkien Chinese dialect tea with ice), a Bandung (Malaysian beverage of indian origin made of goat’s milk and rose syrup) or simply an Ice Kosong (a very particular lexical hybridization formed by the union of the English substantive ice and the Malay adjective kosong [empty])15.
Cantonese Chinese words and expressions in today’s Singapore Colloquial English
A considerable amount of lexical borrowings of significant relevance and widespread use among the youth population in Singapore, especially within the sphere of informal communication, finds his roots in the lexicon of Cantonese Chinese dialect, whose origins are located in certain coastal areas of Southern China such as the current province of Guangdong and the outlying area of today’s eastern province of Guangxi16.
Among all Cantonese Chinese loan words that over the centuries progressively entered into Singapore Colloquial English lexicon, the two most popular are:
Pak Toh, transliteration of the Chinese characters 拍拖, which, especially in youth language, more and more frequently replaces the English verb to flirt;
Pok Kai most often used as an alternative to the English expression to go bankrupt (fallire)17.
There are also several words belonging to the restoration jargon such as for example:
Har Gau (a typical dish of traditional Cantonese cuisine very much appreciated by tourists and accasional travellers that consists in a sort of large ravioli and stuffed with shrimps, wrapped in a particular translucent film whose etimology appears to derive from the transliteration of the Chinese graphemes 虾 [prawn, shrimp] and 饺 [meat dumpling]);
Char Siew (literally “broiled”, this expression is widely used for indicating another traditional Cantonese dish made of boneless lean pork, cooked on a spit and seasoned with honey, soy sauce and spices and derived by transliteration of the Chinese graphemes 叉 [noun fork or verb to pierce] and 烧 [roast, ignite or burn])
Chee Cheong Fun that is the name by which many Singaporeans belonging to Cantonese Chinese community usually indicate the typical Cantonese ravioli prepared with unleavened rice flour dough cooked with steam, often stuffed with chopped pork, beef or shrimps flavoured with a sweet black soy souce and sprinkled with sesame seeds18.
Hakka Chinese loan words in Singlish: the contribution of the guest people
Though definitely less then the most widespread Chinese dialects Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese, even another dialect of Chinese origins such as Hakka, present on the Island since the early years of the great economic boom of the late nineteenth century, gave its own contribution to the lexical enrichment of Singapore Colloquial English.
Traditionally great emigrants and particularly proud of their linguistic origins19, Hakkas, better known in the largest part of China (but especially in Singapore) with the nickname “Guest People”20, carried into the lexicon of Singlish the expression Boh Bah Ti (Hakka version of the Hokkien Mm Tzai Si) through which are usually warned those people with a remarkable boldness and particularly reckless of danger.
In certain highly populated areas of Singapore, where hakka presence is stronger, not at all appear to be rare cases in which the above mentioned expression in replacement of the Hokkien version Mm Tzai Si, whose literal translation into Standard Ebglish is unconscious of death.
From a far broader perspective, it could also mean “reckless of danger”, as it is shown in the following Singlish sentence:
«Why you go and make fun of Ah Beng’s tatoo? Mm Tzai Si!»,
which into Italian becomes:
«Perché ti prendi gioco dei tatuaggi di quegli scapestrati? Incosciente!»21.
Among the various linguistic realities belonging to the branch of Sinitic Languages that are nowadays an essential part of the complex Singaporean linguistic system, we must aknowledge a prestige position to Mandarin Chinese.
Mandarin Chinese words and expression in Singapore Colloquial English?
In a broad sense, il term Mandarin Chinese indicates those Chinese dialects whose roots are located in Northern China, which, in turn, share certain morphological structures and/or lexical characteristics.
In its standard form, however, Mandarin Chinese, could be considered as an almost artificial language to the creation of which have contributed, with different levels of intensity, almost all dialects of Northern China, but of which the dialect of Beijing remains the regulatory core22, in particular for what concerns the resolution to all pronunciation issues, which over the centuries has gradually become the only one officially recognized by: People’s Republic of China (where it is better known as Putonghua, whose literal meaning is “Modern Standard Chinese”), Taiwan (where it is called Guoyu, literally “national language”) and Singapore23.
Energetically supported in the contest of public education policies by People’s Action Party, more and more aimed towards bilingualism, but especially promoted by the Speaking Mandarin Campaign launched by the Ministry of Culture in 1979 in order to stop the rampant spread of the other Chinese dialects, towards the end of Eighties Mandarin Chinese was already considered by Singapore Government leadership an essential tool through which the whole economic system of the former British Colony would have obtained the extraordinary opportunity to successfully reach those huge and ever more diversified economic and financial resources of the People’s Republic of China24.
As a direct consequence of this, also Mandarin Chinese, especially during the last decades, has had a remarkable impact on the composition of Singlish lexicon with a several ordinary words and expressions as:
- mah fan that most often replaces both the Standard English adjective bothersome and the verb to bother in daily sentences as:
SINGLISH: «Why you always come and mah fan me one?»
ENGLISH: «Why do you always come and bother me?»
SINGLISH: «Why they want to ask so many questions? So mah fan one!»
ENGLISH: «Why do they want to ask so many questions? They are so bothersome!»;
- gua gua jiao (Mandarin Chinese version of Hokkien Chinese kiu kiu kio) which more and more frequently replaces the Standard English expression to make a lot of noise / a big deal out of nothing in some sentences as:
SINGLISH: «Aiyah25, you told me how many times oreddy! I’ll do it! Just don’t kiu kiu kio anymore, can or not?»
ENGLISH: «Phew, how many times have you told me that already! I’ll do it! Don’t make a big deal out of nothing, can you do that?»26;
- lei cha fan, which, derived through transliteration from the Chinese Characters 擂 (grinded) 茶 (tea) and 饭 (boiled rice), is the name of a typical Chinese dish of hakka origins made with a blend of grinded tea leaves, peanuts, sesame seeds and boiled rice;
- nian gao, transliteration of 年糕, which is the name of a typical sweet belonging to the ancient traditional Chinese Pastry characterized by a viscous consistency and prepared with glutinous rice flour and traditionally eaten during the Chinese New Year celebrations;
- mah (interjection used for emphasizing something obvious)
- oei (another interjection often used instead of hey in order to retrieve or revive the attention of interlocutors in informal contexts)27.
Further Readings and Recommended Books
7Lee Khoon Choi, Pioneers of modern China: Understanding the inscrutable Chinese, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., Singapore, 2005, Republic of Singapore.
16Snow B. Donald, Cantonese as written language: the growth of a written Chinese vernacular, Hong Kong University Press, Aberdeen, Hong Kong, 2004, (PRC).
19Hattaway Paul, Peoples of the Buddhist World: a Christian prayer diary, Piquant Editions Ltd., Carlisle ·Waynesboro, 2004, United Kingdom, United States of America.
20Hashimoto J. Mantaro, The Hakka Dialect: A Linguistic Study of its Phonology, Syntax and Lexicon, Princeton-Cambridge Studies in Chinese Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, first published 1973, first paperback printing 2010, United Kingdom.
22Grasso John-Francis, The Everything Speaking Mandarin Chinese Book: Simple Techniques to Improve your Speaking and Writing Skills, Everything, F+W Publications, published by Adams Media, Avon, MA, 2007, United States of America.
24Wan Guofang, The Education of Diverse Student Populations: A Global Perspective, Exploration of Educational Purpose 2, Springer Science + Business Media B.V., Ohio University, Athens, OH, 2008, United States of America.
25Hussain Zakir, How to Use ‘aiah’? Look it up online, lah,The Straits Times Interactive, Singapore, february, 10th, 2006, Republic of Singapore, aiyah int. Exclamation used at the beginning of a sentence to express consternation, despair, dismay, exasperation and so on., trad :«aiyah int. Esclamazione usata all’inizio di una frase per esprimere costernazione, disperazione, sgomento, esasperazione e così via.».
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