Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Glossolalia: Singlish

Monday, 16 May, 2016

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things etymological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language and we’re kicking off with Singlish, a hodgepodge dialect of Singapore’s official state languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — as well as bits of Bengali, Cantonese and Hokkien.

To “talk cock” is Singlish for “to talk nonsense” and the definition can be found in The Coxford Singlish Dictionary by Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, which was published in 2002, and has sold more than 30,000 copies since. “Bo hee hae ma ho” is the Singlish equivalent of “Beggars can’t be choosers,” and means “When there’s no fish, prawns are good too.” The latter example is courtesy of Gwee Li Sui, the Singaporean poet, novelist and literary critic. “Do You Speak Singlish?” is the question he posed yesterday to readers of the New York Times. Singlish, he said, “is one of Singapore’s few unique cultural creations” and it seems to be thriving, despite official attempts to outlaw it:

“The government’s war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently. The compulsory national service, which brings together male Singaporeans from all walks of life, has only underlined that Singlish is the natural lingua franca of the grunts.”

To an outsider’s ear, Singlish sounds like verbalized text messaging: concise, energetic, abbreviated, playful, elastic. Here, Gwee Li Sui tok the tok.