Monday, April 30, 2012

Same Same But Different... Lah

The first thing you notice. It's not the stifling heat--I mean, yeah, it's bad, and sure, it's the worst humidity I've ever experienced in my life. It's not the smells--whether it's jasmine in Little India, or that distinct Chinatown aroma of roasted pig parts and duck fat. It's not even the cleanliness, which is, by all means, kinda creepy in a Disneyland sort of way.

Clarke Quay... confused.

Nope, it's the English.

Actually, to call it English is sort of a misnomer. It's 'Singlish.'

What exactly is Singlish? Short for 'Singapore English,' it's technically still considered an accent of English. I'd argue it's more of a dialect. The first conversations I had with my friend were... interesting to say the least. Interesting in that I could understand about 80% of what she said. When we met of up with friends and they started speaking at their normal speed, that number dropped to about 40.

But what exactly makes it different? I'm not sure. There is a clear set of rules that proper English uses. Verb tenses, pluralizations, and enunciations that must be uttered to be considered "proper." Take a lot of those and remove them. Drop S's, swallow consonants, add inflections and intonations, and skip verb tenses--and that's a start. Word order? Matters only if you feel like it. Then throw in words borrowed from Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and you get Singlish.

That is not to say it's "bad" or "improper" English. This, I want to be clear. You can't just go and make a stereotypical "bad Asian" accent and call it "Singlish" because it's not that. There are defined rules to breaking the rules of proper grammar. There is a distinct way of pronouncing words differently.

But as a native speaker of English from California listening in to a group conversation, I can't help but wonder if it's me who's broken. I considered myself a fluent speaker of English. And yet, I can't understand someone else's daily speech.

Take this conversation as an example.

"Eh, you wan' oh nah'?"

"I dunwan. No good lah. But dis one, is good, izit?"

"Yah, I oso like dat one."

("Hey, do you want it?"
"No I don't. It's not any good. But this one's good, right?"
"Yeah, I also like that one.")

And this is an easy example. It's English... but not. I mean, what the heck is, "lah?" And there are more of these phrases like "leh" and "meh." What do they mean? And when do you use them? I was told and I looked it up and I still don't really know.

I guess this is one of those times when you can't beat them, you might as well join them. And I do like learning about languages, especially when it comes to slang. It's still English.

Even if, as they say in Singapore, same same but different... lah.


  1. Hang around them long enough and you start getting used to it. The same end sounds are also found in HK. Oh, and they are big on "same same but different" in Vietnam too - I have it on a t-shirt.

  2. Yes a lot of the ending 'lah' and 'ah' etc. sounds come from the Chinese part of the language, so you'll find similar endings in HK (though its in Chinese there, so it's odd to hear it mixed with English in Singapore!)

    another funny phrase I remember is "cananot" attached to the end of yes/no questions to see if it can be done. My friend asked for honey and the lady at the store was like "honey cananot?" haha...