Singlish Pronunciation: here you are revealed the working of vowels and consonants


Singlish Pronunciation, Singapore English Pronunciation

Singlish pronunciation according to Mark Lewis

Once in contact with the local population, it is impossible not to notice how and especially to which extent Singlish (Singapore Colloquial English), as wel as under the lexical aspect, has extraordinarely diverged from all traditional reference models of British English and American English even for what concerns the pronunciation, both with reference to the ways in which the various sounds are articulated and the rhythm whith which they are placed in a given sequence. In order to get an initial idea about the way in which any English Speaker (being not a native of Singapore) might react to whatever Singlish phrase or expression, one might draw on the experience and expertise of the british scholar Mark Lewis who, having had the opportunity to teach English Language in Singapore and work for the Singapore Straits Times as reviewer1, in his work titled The Rough Guide to Singapore tried to express his dismay towards Singlish pronunciation with the following words:

“Upon first hearing the machine-gun rattle of Singaporean English, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to a language other than English. Pronunciation is so staccato that many words are rendered almost unrecognizable – especially monosyllabic words such as “cheque” and “book”, which together would be spoken “che-boo”. In contrast, in two-syllable words, the second syllable is lengthened, and stressed by a rise in tone: ask a Singaporean what they’ve been doing, and you’ll variously be told “wor-king”, “shop-ping”, and “slep-ping”. But it’s the unorthodox rhythms of phrasing that make Singlish so memorable.

“[…]Responses are almost invariably reduced to their bare bones, with single-word replies often repeated for stress. Request something in a shop and you’ll hear “have, have” or “got, got”. Suffixes and exclamations drawn from Malay, Hokkien and English complete this patois, the most distinctive being “lah” as in “okay lah” and “so cheap one lah” (which translates as “this is really inexpensive, isn’t it?”).

“If Singlish still has you totally baffled, you might try rising your eyes to the heavens, and crying either ” ay yor” (with a drop of tone on “yor”) or “Allama” – both expressions of annoyance or exasperation.” (2).

The influence of sinitic languages and dialects on Singlish pronunciation

As Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish) has mainly developed in a geographical context where the presence of various Chinese dialects has historically played a significant role, it is not at all surprising that Singlish has not been able to escape the influence of these sinitic dialects as well as in its lexicon, even on its pronunciation.

In order to better understand the extent of sinitic influence on Singlish pronunciation, especially in the most common sentences and ordinary colloquial expressions, we might take a look to some English adjectives such as “red” and “sorry”, whose respective pronunciations, in Singapore Colloquial English, become “led” and “solly”.

Note how, in both cases, the voiced alveolar approximant [ɹ]3, typical of British English4, has left its place to the woiced alveolar lateral [l].

In order to outline a rather instinctive framework about the incidence and origins of this phenomenon, ti may be sufficient a firts consideration on the countless contact situations between English Language and the above mentioned within Singapore borders. Of course it is equally important to take into consideration the fact that for what concers Chinese Language there are no relevant phonlological distinctions between the respective pronunciations of [l] and [r]5.

The peculiarity of Singlish pronunciation according to the Japanese Maho Yamada:

With the purpose to highlighting the way in which Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish) moved away from the canonical pronunciations of both British English and American English getting closer and closer toward a more typically Chinese sound, we might pay attention to some considerations espressed by the Japanese Maho Yamada who, thanks to her direct experience accumulated during her childhood in Singapore, in an article entitled Singlish is Common in Singapore, posted on Topics Online Magazine, asserted that:

“When I was a child and lived in Singapore with my family, I heard a lot of Singlish. It’s the way of speaking English in Singapore – a Chinese way. I don’t remember all of the words and expressions I heard because I was little at that time, but I remember that I liked hearing how the Singaporeans talked. English is the official language there – their first language is English, but many of the people who came to Singapore were Chinese merchants from abroad. That’s why they speak a kind of Chinese-English. They create their own kind of English in Singapore. Their English has a lot of Chinese words and sounds. For example they put the sound “ra” at the end of words or stretch the words out. So, when they say “okay”, it sounds like “okayra”. Fifty cents sounds like “fiftyra”. “Oh my gosh!” sounds like “Ai Yeah”. As a result their pronunciation doesn’t sound British or American; it’s more like Chinese.” (6).

It is really impressive the way in which, over the centuries, has gradually emerged a sort of “grey area” within which both Chinese Language (considered in its standard form) and sinitic dialects  transmitted to Singlish some of their intrinsic characteristics.


The reduction of final consonant clusters in Singlish pronunciation

A further charatteristic phenomenon regarding our Singapore Colloquial English and of which, having the opportunity to visit some popular quarters of the so called “Lion City”, one could easily find a remarkable confirmation, would seem to be the one regarding the reduction of some final consonant clusters due to the decay of the voiceless alveolar plosive [t]7 (specifically when the position of the latter is localized at the end of the word in question). It is precisely because of this phenomenon that, maybe while attempting to establish a first verbal approach with local people one might feel surprised to hear that; “next” is actually pronounced [nɛks], “just” is systematically transformed into [jʌs] and “recent” (recente) quite often becomes [risən]8.

The behavior of alveolar and labiodental fricatives in Singlish pronunciation

To this curious phenomenon we can add another important one because of which there is no absolute distinction between the voiced and voiceless alveolar fricatives, especially when the latter are at the end of the word in question. An example of this phenomenon might be observed by placing in comparison the standard pronunciations of two English words like “rice” and “rise”, which respectively result to be [raɪs] and [raɪz], with the typical Singapore Colloquial English or Singlish pronunciation where one can easily observe an assimilation of the two sounds9.

In addition to the alveolar fricatives, appear to be subject to this phenomenon also the labiodental fricatives [f (voiceless) e v (voiced)] and the dental fricatives [θ (voiceless) and ð (voiced)].

Especially in the context of informal communication, the cases in which there is an absolute lack of capability in making a distinction between voiceless and voiced consonants are not at all rare and most times they are the root cause of countless misunderstandings which sometimes make some conversations really embarassing.

The pronunciation of bilabial, alveolar and velar occlusives in Singlish according to the British sociolinguist Anthea Fraser Gupta

According to what stated by the British sociolinguist Anthea Fraser Gupta, also bilabial [p (voiceless) and b (voiced)], alveolar [t (voiceless) and d (voiced)] and velar [k (voiceless) and g (voiced)] occlusives are interested by this phenomenon, especially when the position of these consonants is at the end of the word in question. Therefore, because of this assimilation of sounds, the cases in which foreign English Speakers in Singapore are unable to make a clear distinction between some phonetically similar (because of th typical Singlish pronunciation) but semantically different terms are anything but sporadic.

In order to highlight the frequency of this phenomenon and provide some practical examples about the misunderstandings attributable to the phenomenon itself, we might focus our attention on some pairs of daily words which (because od Singlish pronunciation) in Singapore are pronounced in a quite similar way, which in most cases are really indistinguishable as for instance: “hop” and “hob”, “bit” and “bid” or even “back” e “bag”10.

It is very important to notice how this issue does not exist in the respective standard pronunciations of both American English and British English where it is possible to find a clear distinction between the words: hop [hɑp/hɒp] and hob [hɑb/hɒb], bit [bɪt] and bid [bɪd] and also between the respective sounds of back [bӕk] and bag [bӕg], even if you don’t know the topic of the conversation, while in Singapore Colloquial English or Singlish that’s almost impossible11.

The influence of sinitic languages and the “syllable final glottal stops” phenomenon in Singlish

The Chinese influence seems to become extremely palpable in the so called “syllable-final glottal stops” phenomenon, because of which in Singlish some final syllable consonants are replaced by glottal stops.  In order to better understand this phenomenon we may focus our attention on the Singlish pronunciation of the monosyllabic Past Participle “stuck” and the bisyllabic term “woodlands”, which would respectively be [stəʔ] and [wʊʔ.lɛn]12.

Among the various articulatory peculiarities concerning the as picturesque as charming pronunciation of Singlish consonants, we may also include:

  • the frequent use of the voiceless alveolar occlusive [t] instead of the voiceless dental fricative [θ] (as it occurs during the articulation of the verb “to think” and the substantive “bath”);


  • the recurrent use of the voiced alveolar occlusive [d] as an alternative to the traditional voiced dental fricative [ð] (in a lot of ordinary words like “then” and “leather”);


  • and last but not least , the sporadic tendency of some Singlish Speakers to replace the voiceless dental fricative [θ] (exclusively when it is located ad the end of a given word) with the voiceless labiodental fricative [f], as it often happens for the substantive “breath”13.

The pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs in Singlish

For what concerns the working of Singlish vowels, it is impossible not to notice two main characteristics thanks to which it is  possible to make a distiction between the Standard English and Singlish Pronunciation.

These two characteristics are:

  • the considerable extension of some interconsonantic vowels (as it occurs in the Singlish pronunciation of “cot” /kɒt/, “stuff” /stʌf/ and “pull” /pʊl/)
  • and the somewhat unique articulation of Singlish diphthongs because of which the duration of them is considerably shortened because the sound of the first vocoid seems to prevail over the sound of the second vocoid (as it often happens in the pronunciation of “bait” /beɪt/, “boat” /bəʊt/ and bear /beə/)14.

If we want to study in deep the phonetic phenomena related to the articulation of Singlish diphthongs, we cannot avoid to focus our attention on the curious case of /æɪ/ diphthong. In order to better understand the way in which Singlish Pronunciation has totally distorted the natureof this diphthongue, we may take into consideration the proper noun “Kate” and make a comparison between the Singlish Pronunciation /kɛʔ/ and the characteristic Australian English Pronunciation /kʰæɪtʰ/15.

Notice how the near-close near-front unrounded vowel/ɪ/ has actually completely fallen while the near- open front unrounded vowel /æ/ has both closed and moved forward, even changhing its nature and becoming similar to the open-mid front unrounded vowel /ɛ/16.

Before concluding our analysis regarding the most frequent phonetic phenomena in the pronunciation of Singlish vowels, it would be a good practice to inform the Readers that the fundamental distinction between short vowels and long vowels(detectable in both British English and American English) in Singapore Colloquial English has gradually disappeared.  In fact in Singlish all vowels are short.

It is precisely bacause of this persistent “lack” that you may experience a clear uniformity in the ordinary articulation of long and short vowels. You can easily get a practical proof of this phenomenon by making a comparison between Standard English and Singlish pronunciation of the following couples of  words: “kit” /kɪt/ and “fleece” /flɪ:s/ or “foot” /fʊt/ (piede) and “goose” /gu:s/ (oca)17.

Further Readings and Recommended Books

1Dodd Jan, Lewis Mark, Emmons Ron, The Rough Guide to Vietnam, fourth edition, published by Rough Guides Ltd., London, 2003, United Kingdom.

2Lewis Mark, The Rough Guide to Singapore, fourth edition, published by Rough Guides Ltd, London, 2003, United Kingdom, p. V, trad.: «Subito dopo aver udito per la prima volta il fragore della mitragliatrice dell’inglese di Singapore, o singlish, potreste essere facilmente perdonati per aver pensato di stare ascoltando una lingua diversa dall’inglese. La pronuncia è così intermittente che molte parole sono rese quasi irriconoscibili – specialmente le parole monosillabiche come “cheque” (assegno bancario) e “book” (libro), le quali assiemme verrebbero ponunciate “che-boo” (“checkbook”, ovvero in lingua italiana “libretto degli assegni”). In contrasto, nelle parole bisillabe la seconda sillaba viene prolungata ed accentata da un aumento di tono: chiedete ad un singaporiano cosa abbiano fatto e vi sarà variamente detto “wor-king”, “shop-ping” e “slee-ping”. Ma è il ritmo non ortodosso delle frasi a rendere il singlish così memorabile. […] Le risposte sono quasi immancabilmente ridotte al minimo, con repliche costituite da singole parole spesso ripetute per enfatizzarne il valore. Chiedete qualcosa in un negozio e sentirete “have, have” o “got, got”. Suffissi ed esclamazioni tratte da malese, hokkien ed inglese completano questo vernacolo, la più caratteristica essendo “lah” come in “okay lah” e “so cheap one lah” (che si traduce in “this is really inexpensive, isn’t it?” [in italiano: «È proprio a buon mercato, vero?»]). Se il singlish vi ha confuso totalmente, potreste provare ad alzare gli occhi al cielo e strillare o “ay yor” (con una diminuzione di tono su “yor” oppure “Allama” – entrambe espressioni di irritazione o esasperazione.».

3Prada Massimo, Breve introduzione alla fonetica: la fonetica acustica e la fonetica articolatoria, http://wiki.dsy.it/images/4/40/Fonetica.pdf, «Approssimante alveolare sonora – è la forma normale della vibrante antevocalica dell’inglese britannico red [ɹɛd] (ingl.). È articolata con la lamina della lingua e con un leggero arrotondamento della labbra.».


4Yavaş Mehmet, Applied English Phonology, second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2011, United Kingdom.

5Fasold W. Ralph, Connor-Linton Jeff, An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, United Kingdom.

6http://www.topics-mag.com/globalization/lang-singlish.htm, trad.: «Quando ero una bambina e vivevo a Singapore con la mia famiglia, ho sentito un sacco di Singlish. È il modo in cui si parla l’inglese a Singapore – un modo cinese. Io non ricordo tutte le parole e le espressioni che ho sentito perchè a quel tempo ero piccola, ma ricordo che mi piaceva ascoltare come parlavano i singaporiani. L’inglese lì è la lingua ufficiale – la loro prima lingua è l’inglese, ma molte delle persone giunte a Singapore dall’estero erano mercanti cinesi. Ecco perchè essi parlano una sorta di Chinese-English. Essi creano il proprio tipo d’inglese a Singapore. Il loro inglese possiede una moltitudine di parole e suoni cinesi. Per esempio essi mettono il suono “ra” alla fine delle parole o le prolungano. Così, quando dicono “okay”, esso suona come “okayra”. Fifty cents (cinquanta centesimi) suona come “fiftyra”. “Oh my gosh!” (perbacco!) suona come “Ay Yeah”. Ne risulta che la loro pronuncia non sembra British o American; è più come il cinese.».

7International Phonetic Association, Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: a Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabeth, published by the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1999, United Kingdom.

8Stockwell Peter, Sociolinguistics: a resource book for students, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2002, United Kingdom.

11Sia le traduzioni dei termini sia le relative trascrizioni fonetiche sono state effettuate con l’ausilio del software dizionario Lingoes (fatta eccezione per le trascrizioni fonetiche delle pronunce Singlish le cui fonti di provenienza vengono via via specificate nelle relative note bibliografiche).


14The Chambers Dictionary, Allied Chambers (India) Ltd., Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., New Delhi · Edinburgh, 2000, India, United Kingdom.


16Lingoes, The International Phonetic Alphabet (2005).

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

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