Singapore’s government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak English – it’s the language used in schools, at work, and in government. But in practice many people speak a hybrid language that can leave visitors completely baffled – Singlish. Singapore is known for its efficiency and Singlish is no different – it’s colourful and snappy. You don’t have a coffee – you “lim kopi”. And if someone asks you to join them for a meal but you’ve already had dinner, you simply say: “Eat already.”
Singlish first emerged when Singapore gained independence 50 years ago, and decided that English should be the common language for all its different races. That was the plan. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street. Repeated Speak Good English campaigns, drummed into Singaporeans in schools and in the media, have had only limited success. Singlish has not only shrugged off these attacks, it has thrived.
It’s been documented in a dictionary and studied by linguists. And it has been immortalised in popular culture. Take for example the 1991 comedy rap song Why U So Like Dat? by musician Siva Choy, which dramatises an argument between two schoolchildren. “I always give you chocolate, I give you my Tic Tac, but now you got a Kit Kat, you never give me back!” sings Choy. “Oh why you so like dat ah? Eh why you so like dat?”