Languages of Singapore
With slightly less than 50 years of independent history, Singapore is considered a very young nation. Nonetheless, she is known as a rich melting pot of cultures, thanks to the people who settled there during her days as a thriving colonial seaport. One way in which this richness lives on is through the languages of everyday Singaporeans. I say languages because most, if not all, of Singapore’s population of over 5 million is multilingual. Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese (≈74%), Malay (≈13%), Indian (≈9%), or of mixed descent (≈3%). The result? A linguistic landscape likened to rojak (a local fruit salad doused in peanut sauce; Malay for ‘mixture’), known for its variety of ingredients and flavours. Singapore’s early settlers brought with them their mother tongues: Chinese dialects like Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, and Hainanese; and Indian languages like Tamil, Hindi, and Punjabi. These languages then came into contact with the dialects of Malay and other related languages spoken in the region. Singaporeans of today no longer have to face the communicative barrier of speaking to each other in different tongues, as English is now widely used in Singapore. In fact, while Malay is the national language of Singapore, English is the official language. This means that English is the medium of instruction in schools, and medium of communication in workplaces, government and the law.
The promotion of English, and other standard varieties of Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, has led to a decline in speakers of the dialects and contact languages that reflected the distinctive Singaporean culture in earlier times. The downside of this is perhaps the disconnect between its people and the languages of their predecessors. While it’s now pretty rare to hear younger people in Singapore speak the languages and dialects of their predecessors fluently, bits and pieces of them are very much alive in the local brand of English—Colloquial Singapore English, also known as Singlish.
Singlish is an example of a contact language, meaning that it is the result of interaction amongst a combination of languages. English serves as the lexifier for Singlish. Basically this means that it provides most of the vocabulary for a new language variety—for Singapore, this meant Singlish! The aforementioned languages and dialects including Hokkien, Cantonese, and Bazaar Malay are the substrates of Singlish, meaning that they contribute words and grammatical patterns.
What makes Singlish distinct is its blend of English with words, and even features, of Malay, Chinese dialects and Indian languages. Generally, the words in Singlish that tend to be borrowed from non-English languages are culture-specific—as opposed to more universal and basic stuff like numerals and colours. This is evident in a vital aspect of Singapore culture: food! Many local favourites have names that have been drawn from other languages, and anglicised. You would find in Singapore, for example, a fried brown noodle dish served with cockles, eggs, spring onions, and Chinese sausage slices, called Char Kway Teow. A direct translation from Hokkien renders ‘fried flat noodles’ (for the Chinese have very specific ways of naming different types of noodles, quite like how there are many different names for different types of pasta).
As in most other Asian countries, the staple foods of Singapore are rice and noodles. Unlike most other Asian countries, however, Singaporeans use more than one word to mean ‘rice’. Apart from knowledge of the word in English, many Singaporeans also have in their repertoire 饭 (pronounced ‘fahn’) in Mandarin, and 饭 (pronounced ‘bng’) in Hokkien; and nasi in Malay. Nasi Goreng (fried rice) or Nasi Briyani (a mixed rice dish with meat and vegetables) are easily identified by Singaporeans as rice-based meals. But borrowings are naturally subject to local adaptation, as is the case with Char Siew Rice—a barbecued pork meal served with rice (“Char Siew” is a Cantonese borrowing used to refer to ‘barbecued pork”); and Char Siew Bao, which is widely known even to non-Chinese speakers to be a steamed bun with barbecued pork filling.
If you’re a foreigner in Singapore, don’t bet on understanding what is on the menu just because it’s entirely written in English. “Carrot cake”, for example, is the name for two very different dishes. It could mean the common sponge cake made with bits of carrot served for tea or dessert, as it is in most other English-speaking cultures. But in Singapore, it also refers to a meal of fried rice-cakes with radish. “Carrot cake” entered Singapore English as a calque, or a direct translation, from Hokkien 菜头粿 (pronounced ‘cai tao kueh’) and Cantonese 萝卜糕 (pronounced ‘lo bak go’) which translates to ‘radish cake’ in both cases. Both forms are still used by locals to order this delicacy. It’s easy to see how carrots and radishes got mixed up here because in Chinese, 萝卜 can refer to both root vegetables, even though carrots are often told apart by the colour red in Chinese 红萝卜 (specifically ‘red radish’). Another example of a local favourite is Chicken Rice, which refers to rice steamed with chicken stock and topped with tasty broiled chicken slices, and not any other.
In a land of foodies, one word is sure to come to the mind of every Singaporean after a good meal: shiok! It’s very common to hear people say, for example, that “lunch very shiok”. This word likely entered Singlish as a Malay expression of delight. However, it has been suggested that the Punjabi equivalent shauk could have been the precursor of shiok as well. Similar mysteries surround common ways of ordering coffee or tea (or rather, Kopi and Teh) at the local coffee-shop. For example, the letter ‘C’ is used to order coffee or tea with milk (as in Kopi-C). A possible reason for this is that ‘C’ stands for the Carnation brand of milk usually used. However it has also been argued that it originated from the Hainanese pronunciation of the Chinese word for ‘fresh’ or 鲜 (pronounced ‘see’), used to refer to fresh evaporated milk. The letter ‘O’ is also used to order coffee or tea without milk or sugar—probably a reference to the Hainanese pronunciation of the Chinese character 乌 (which means ‘black’). Some also believe that the ‘O’ refers to the likeness of the number zero. So order a Kopi-O and you’d get a long black.
It’s easy to see why we would rather borrow a cultural term rather than describe it in full—would you prefer to order a rojak or a ‘local fruit salad doused in peanut sauce’ from a food stall? A Japanese lecturer of mine reminds me that this is quite similar to calling a sushi what it is, as opposed to describing it as a ‘slice of fish or other produce wrapped atop a small piece of rice with a strip of seaweed’. But while sushi has been borrowed into the vocabulary of International English speakers, rojak has yet to go beyond the Southeast Asian region.
With fewer Singaporeans taking up dialects or languages from their elders, few know the stories or the etymology (historical origin and development) of borrowed words. Nevertheless, some of these terms have become an integral part of Singlish, just as many French food terms (from beef to hors d’oeuvres) have become part of standard English over time. Shiok has certainly been codified in the Singlish lexicon.
If you’d like to find out a little more about word origins, check out Natalie’s column right over here for some etymological goodness.
Borrowing between substrate languages
With many opportunities for contact among the substrate languages in Singapore, it’s natural for inter-substrate borrowing to take place. Every foodie worth his/her salt enjoys a trip to the market, and so it follows that Singaporeans have a unique way of referring to it. The word for “market” in Malay pasar was borrowed into the Singapore Chinese lexicon through frequent contact. The borrowed homonym in Mandarin 巴刹 (pronounced ‘ba sha’) is not to be found in any Chinese language variety in China, but has been used in both the Cantonese and Hokkien dialects in Singapore.
Another example is the humble beansprout, which features in many Singapore foodthings like Rojak, Laksa, Char Kway Teow and Hokkien Mee. These sprouts are typically referred to as ‘tau gay’, which is the Hokkien pronunciation of the Chinese words for bean sprouts, 豆芽. Its use is mutually intelligible amongst Singaporeans, so it wouldn’t seem out of place if one were to order a “Mee Siam, add tow gay” at a Malay food stall, despite the use of words of non-Malay origin. Using more than one language in a sentence is commonplace in Singapore where languages and dialects often come into contact. This has led to a population with many speakers (I say speakers here because such use is mostly found in day-to-day speech and conversation) who have the ability to effectively borrow from each other’s languages, or code-mix, within the same sentence.
From Southeast Asia into Standard English
Singlish isn’t the only kind of English that has been shaped by other languages. Singapore’s case study shows that the English language roots itself to the local linguistic landscape of wherever it lands, and allows the local populace to nurture it. Similarly, as English-language speakers come into contact with other languages and cultures, a natural process of borrowing occurs. Indeed, the complex language contact of Southeast Asia that gave rise to Singlish has proved to be influential on a global scale: some of the most common food terms in English have their origins in early trade through this region.
A notable example is the word tea. The word originated from the Hokkien pronunciation of the Chinese character for tea 茶, pronounced ‘teh’—the most common realisation of ‘tea’ in Singapore. The linguist, Dan Jurafsky, in his recent book The Language of Food proposes that this word was picked up by Dutch merchants who came into contact with Hokkien-speakers of Southeast Asia, before spreading its use to other languages such as German (Tee), Spanish (Té), French (Thé), and eventually to English. Jurafsky also notes that countries that obtained tea via the sea trade adopted the teh variant of Hokkien, while those that imported tea via the Silk Road were more likely to adopt a version similar to the northern Chinese pronunciation ‘cha’. Thus, while some may misinterpret teh as a corrupted borrowing of tea, it is in fact the reverse: teh is the historical mother of tea words across Southeast Asia and Europe.
Ketchup is another term with roots in the Hokkien dialect. According to Jurafsky, the tomato-based condiment refers to a fermented sauce inspired by fish sauce that European sailors picked up in Southeast Asia from Hokkien and Indonesian traders in the late 17th century. Using evidence from missionary dictionaries, Jurafsky argues that fish sauce was called 鲑汁 (literally ‘salmon sauce’), which was pronounced ‘keh chiap’ in Hokkien. This was the precursor to what we know as ketchup today, even after tomatoes replaced fish as the main ingredient for the condiment in the 19th century. Still, these etymologies for food terms remind us that the trade and contact that defined Singapore had far-reaching cultural, linguistic, and economic consequences—especially since this region served as a crucial trade hub between the East and West.
Taken for granted by many today, Singaporean food terms are in fact a reflection of a complex and rich linguistic heritage. Borrowings tell us much about the history, people, and culture of a country or region. Such variety exists within a country as small as Singapore, yet few know the stories behind those borrowed words. The next time you notice something uniquely odd about the way you speak, chew on it—it’s food for thought.