First Encounters With Singlish

JULY 2009. That was the month our family packed up, left our home in Seoul, and headed south to Singapore. It was a month of sadness. I didn’t like the idea of leaving home, never mind that it promised adventures and new experiences, even new friends. My mother had landed an important job in Singapore, so it was rah-rah Mom! and hello Singapore! but a sad goodbye to Seoul and all my friends back home.

The day we arrived into the rest of the month, even the next, the weather was hot and humid, worse than the fierce midsummer heat back home. It felt lousy, as lousy as having to struggle with a whole new language. I had known so little English when I arrived.

Understanding what people were saying was tough, let alone stringing sentences together. What’s more, my ears were more accustomed to American and Korean-styled English, not the weird one people spoke out here. Sometimes I’d catch some real English, popping up as discernible lone words, sometimes bunched up together. Everything else would be a garble, a muddy blur. And it didn’t help that Singaporeans have a tendency to jabber away, as if they were in a rush.

All those words that came at me, day in, day out, sometimes grating, sometimes amusing, were, I soon learned, part of the local patois—the famous and infamous Singlish, filled with goofy little words that concluded a line, a remark, well, almost anything and everything. There was lah, lor, hor, ah, eh, mah, and meh. No, they don’t sound particularly elegant, but I didn’t disapprove of them either. In fact, I think Singlish sounds really cool, especially coming from David, my Singaporean friend. He has a way of saying xiao or wa lao that could make him look like a toughie and a comedian all at once.

For the longest time ever, I never knew what those two words meant until my Singaporean writing teacher explained them to me. Xiao means crazy, and wa lao is an exclamation expressing disbelief, disapproval, or injustice. You could add eh at the end to spice things up a little, just like how David does it: Wa lao eh! Its literal meaning is dirty, and terribly impolite, so I’d gently bow out and leave you in the good hands of Google.

Singlish isn’t exactly easy to comprehend, but I’ve grown rather fond of it. The world is filled with people of diverse cultures and languages, including accents. And Singlish is a wonderful part of this colorful mix. It speaks of a culture and an identity, and makes friends like David special.

I confess I wouldn’t ever be caught saying, lah or xiao or that dirty wa lao, even though I’ve been here for three years and nine months now. But who knows, maybe the more laksa I eat, or chicken rice, the words could come to me so naturally you might think I were a local, just like David, very Singaporean lah!

M.J. Chang, Grade Nine
April 2013

Author: viv

Singapore-based writer cooking and baking at home, and writing about her kitchen adventures

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