Singlish and Standard Singaporean English (SSE), is there a difference?

As the title asks, I want to cover this topic in this latest and third blogpost. On the surface-level, Singlish and SSE might seem incredibly similar, if not identical to the unknowing listener, but today I will not only delve into the differences but also point out important social, cultural and historical points on these two English-based East-Asian creoles. I will talk about the technical/structural composition of Singlish and SSE, the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), but most importantly answer the question: Singlish and Standard Singaporean English (SSE), is there a difference?

Before we can go into two of the languages of Singapore, we should go into its history. First off, Singapore was bought by the British in 1824, not for its natural resources, nor so it could be a place to start up plantations, rather it was due to Singapore’s great location for naval trade that it attracted the eyes of the British. Singapore is a very small country in the middle of East-Asia, but thanks to this it had an amazing harbor when it came to trading with other nations. This, along with migrants coming to Singapore to work would allow Singapore to grow culturally, physically and economically. Eventually, Singapore would gain its independence with Lee Kuan Yew as its first prime minister in 1965 and is today one of the wealthiest nations in Asia. If you want to look more into the history of Singapore, check out the sources I used for this post: [5], [9], [13], [14] and [22] down below.

Now that we have a good understanding of Singapore’s history, we can delve into the history of Singlish and SSE. Both Singlish and SSE has been around since the British first arrived, and with its East-Asian influences like Mandarin, Chinese, Japanese and Malay it has evolved alongside the country into what we know as Singlish and SSE today. At the very beginning, Singlish was a difficult mixture of many East-Asian languages and British-English, and SSE was an attempt at a formal creole between British-English and many East-Asian languages, therefore they were both filled with errors, misunderstandings, and complications. Today, however, Singlish and SSE have grown and evolved alongside Singapore and gotten their intricate and organized structure, which we will go into next. If you want to look more into the history of Singlish and SSE, check out the sources I used for this post: [17], [18], [20] and [23] down below.

Now we shall go into the technical/structural composition of Singlish and SSE. As we probably understand by now, Singlish and SSE have a very strong British influence on their vocabulary, grammar, and structure, but there is nonetheless a very strong influence from East-Asian languages mixed into these creoles. One can see the East-Asian influence in Singlish and SSE in how it’s semi-rhotic, meaning the “r” is not always pronounced, rather rarely actually. The pluralization might also be different from time to time, meaning the way plural words are pronounced will vary. The “s” can have a weaker, if not silent pronunciation in some plural words. There is also a different word order and words adapted from East-Asian languages within Singlish sentences. For example; “The chicken here sibei tok kong.”. Here we have the absence of is, along with the Hokkien words tok kong, meaning very good. There is also the word sibei, being another strengthening word like really, the sentence could, therefore, be translated to: “The chicken here really very good.”. There is also an example of a different word order in the SSE sentence: “May I ask where is the toilet?”. Here it would be correct to say: “May I ask where the toilet is?”. Finally, we also have expressionistic words in Singlish like lah, aiyoh and ah. The word lah would be used to add emphasis to a sentence, like the English word yo, aiyoh is a word to express shock, like the English wow, and ah is a word to express uncertainty, like the way English people would say eh and uhm. If you want to look more into the grammar and technical/structural composition of Singlish and SSE, check out the sources I used for this post: [10], [12], [17] and [24] down below.

Further on we have the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM). SGEM is a controversial movement that started in the year 2000 by the government, with goals to promote the use of the formal SSE, and remove Singlish. The reason some want this is that they think of Singlish as neither grammatically correct, formal, appropriate nor important. Some people, like some of the Singaporeans that I have personally asked and interviewed, view Singlish as “silly”, “funny” and “informal”. Others hate this movement and feel it divides people, tries to erase culture and change people in a way that they do not want to change. This movement, foreign opinions and the different environments these languages are used have caused tension between Singlish, SSE and its speakers. If you want to look more into the SGEM, check out the sources I used for this post: [2], [7], [11], [15] and [16] down below.

To continue with the social side of Singlish and SSE, we will look at more aspects of this tension and subtle conflict between speakers. Stigmatism and prejudice will follow in the wake of using one of these languages at the wrong time, for example: using Singlish to talk to your boss, or SSE to talk with classmates or using SSE at a local store can lead to you being judged and treated as informal, pretentious, wrong and out-of-place. Although one can face such judgments and opinions, it’s important to keep in mind that there is not only the conflict in using these languages but also harmony. The mindset of “one or the other” is wrong here, one has to keep in mind that everyone in Singapore uses both languages and can live in perfect harmony if they are used at collectively chosen appropriate times, but conflict arises when one deems it wrong to use it in a way you deem it correct. Never violent nor serious conflict keep in mind, rather subtle and silent conflict. If you want to look more into the sources I used for my writing on the social side of Singlish and SSE, see [1], [4], [6] and [21] down below.

To conclude this post on Singlish and SSE, one can see how Singapore’s history and culture have evolved and affected Singlish and SSE, not only grammatically and structurally, but also socially and culturally. And to answer the question asked at the beginning: Singlish and Standard Singaporean English (SSE), is there a difference? The answer is yes. There is a huge difference, not only grammatically and structurally, with Singlish being more spoken, colorful and has a heavier influence from East-Asian languages and SSE with a stronger formal and written role to play, with heavier British roots and more focus on formality, but there is also the cultural and social difference. Singlish is more relaxed and often used among friends and family, but SSE is often more formal and rather used in a professional setting. On the surface, they might sound and look similar, but now we can see how there is a paramount of difference between the two.

Finally, I want to thank my teacher Barbara Anna Zielonka for helping me along the way to create this, Emma Masheder and Arjun Singh for answering my questions and sharing them around, and of course you, the readers for reading all of this. Make sure to check out my sources at the bottom, and have a wonderful day ahead. Stay educated.

Published by Simen Andersen

I am a Norwegian 16-year-old aspiring to become an English professor. Please send me any and all criticism so I may improve myself!

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