| sɪŋɡʌpɔ læŋ | [sing-ka-poh-leng]
● noun. Singapore language in shortform. From English.
sɪŋɡʌpɔ laŋ | [sing-ka-poh-lang]
● noun. Singaporeans. From Hokkien.
Welcome to a case of unraveling a curious case of a Visual Singlish Dictionary! Whether or not you are Sing-ka-por-lang (‘Singaporean’ in dialect), enjoy my remix on this Singapore-slang, the Singaporeans’ language.
Before I started the project, I wondered: Could there be a way to transpose Singlish into visual art? There have been many facets of Singlish presented in different art forms such as comic caricatures and theatre, but this project seeks to take it further and present Singlish in a visual yet engaging form.
Singlish is an amalgamation of the main languages spoken in Singapore, including English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil and a myriad of dialects. Over time, Singlish has taken on a lifeform of its own, and adds distinct flavour to the Singaporean culture. As angmohdan says on his website www.amd.sg, “Singaporeans are efficient people, and prefer to take less time and words to express themselves.”
This body of work is centred on a game I call ‘Guess the Singlish’. It works like a game of Charades, incorporating body language and facial expressions of the man on the street to depict various scenarios where Singlish could be used. Of course, the ‘answers’ are not definite, and there are no right or wrong answers in this game.
Although centred on Singlish, this hyper-local project is suitable for both Singaporeans and foreigners to participate in.
On a global level, one can extrapolate the Singlish culture as a way of communication, or speech, that is particular to our community. Nonetheless, tourists often have fun trying to crack the code of our unique dialect.
Because actions speak louder than words, this project seeks to allow the subjects’ actions to speak louder than their ‘Singlish’.
Suka-suka (freestyle) Singlish
Indeed, the brevity of Singlish is what makes it tick. Some say it is disorderly or illogical, but Singlish evolved to convey specific feelings that can’t quite be described in standard English language. No one really ‘owns’ Singlish, and that is perhaps why free-style experimentation has led to creative spins on the language that we speak. To me, language is about the people on the streets who use it. As language historian Anne Curzan puts it, “there is no objective dictionary out there that is the final arbiter of what words mean… if a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it’s real.”
In piecing together this visual dictionary, my aim is not to put parameters on the spelling and usage of Singlish, but to provide a reference and to celebrate it. After all, language is ever-evolving, like art. Singlish is what you and those around you make it out to be.
Share with me your thoughts on which Singlish terms go well with my photos!
Forever a Work in Progress — a Growing and Living Dictionary
It is my hope that photographs will be used to build an ever-growing visual Singlish dictionary for Singaporeans and the world. The phrases illustrated in this series are classic phrases that locals would understand despite their background.
As I delved into exploring the usage of Singlish, I decided to include newer phrases used by the younger generation. This dictionary has evolved to become a living and forever on-going project for me.
While I set out to create a visual dictionary, I became fascinated by how having words listed in a dictionary gave legitimacy to them. But is that really true? Who gives a dictionary the authority to determine what is legitimate, and what is not?
Over time, through this photography project, I have also seen how classic vs. new, or even, remixed Singlish terms reflect an evolution of society, its times and its people. Singlish has given status to certain terms such as shiok, song song (gao Jurong), or hosay, all of which were derived from what could have been deemed crude in the past.
This ongoing series has also allowed me to appreciate how I am able to teach my Mum the latest Singlish phrases spoken to younger generation Singaporeans.
We might not know when exactly certain Singlish phrases originated, but Singlish is definitely here to stay and evolve, creating many other exciting phrases in the future.
For instance, the word saman comes from the word ‘summon’ in English, and both pertain to a scenario when someone is being blacklisted. Who cares what the correct spelling is — when one person in a community speaks it and the listener responds with understanding, that is a done deal.
Another example is buay tahan. Buay originates from Hokkien meaning ‘cannot’; and tahan is control’, or ‘bear’ in Malay. Today, most Singaporeans know what buay tahan means, even though it comes from a dialect and a language, just like the phrase kena stunned, which is made up of both Malay and English words.
The boundaries between spoken languages are constantly negotiated and blurred across different generations. And that is the beauty of Singlish.
I am also intrigued by the pairing of certain Singlish phrases to match local identifiers. For instance in usage patterns like alamak nasi lemak, chop chop kali pok, and yaya papaya: the Singlish component in these local slang phrases have no relation whatsoever, with the latter part of the phrases, other than the rhyme association!
Singlish: Split Personalities?
Perhaps, I am one of the modern, middle-generation specimens who uses Singlish without really knowing how some of these words came about. My lack of historical knowledge of this lingo has makes me the perfect candidate for a project like this.
Sometimes I am confused with my Singlish identity because when I speak to different people, they understand the application, or form, of Singlish phrases I use in different ways, depending on their own cultural background and generation. Even the way Singlish phrases are pronounced may vary between individuals.
After speaking to Singaporeans who were willing to share their take on Singlish pronunciations with me, I realised that oral recordings are essential to documenting languages like Singlish, and found even greater motivation to continue the audio aspect of this project.
The audio aspect of this project is a long term one. It features voice recordings of an anchor voice talent juxtaposed against voice recordings of just anyone. It is my hope that readers come forward to contribute their own voice recordings of their favourite Singlish phrases so that we can continue to discover the pronunciation variations in this complex language. Audio contributions can be made at www.singaporelang.rocks/contribute/
Content, Form and Function: Guess the Singlish in Stickers!
Presented as environmental portraits, these photographs will hence be eventually presented alongside stickers for the viewer to interpret and caption each scene, based on what meaning he or she gives to the photo.
Other than having a cheat-sheet of readily available sticker prints, there will be blank stickers or ‘speechies’ that I term, for viewers to put meaning to each scene. The connotations would be dependent on his or her own life or cultural experiences.
It is my hope readers can interpret, respond, discuss, and interact with the photographs with a spirit of an open mind. After all, the usage of language is multi-faceted. It is the us, people who use it daily, who can ascribe meaning to each scenario. ‘Every language is just a group of people, trying to understand each other,’ lexicographer Erin Mckean said.
Just as life is.
Please share this project with your family, friends and overseas pals.
You may also read the fun, remixed version of this writeup for twentyfifteen.sg here :)
Collaborations & Mentions
- [Book Launch] Under the twentyfifteen.sg initiative, founded by PLATFORM. Thank you!
Check out the day’s happenings here. Thanks for those who came and smiled along :)
You may buy a copy of the book here. You may also get a Print sold here.
- [Promo] Canon EOS World Event Promo
My photographs would not have been made and ideas untold if not for family, friends, and plenty of strangers who agreed to be photographed as Singlishnistas. Thank you very much for the fun and good faith. Special thanks to Mummy.
Those Singlish Chats
Alvin, Ber Wong, Chee Kien, Canon Imaging Academy folks, Daniel D, Deborah, Desmond TKSLZ, Edwin, Emma, Ernest, Jess, Jessica, Jinny, Kelvin L, Ah Ken, Kerry, Leena, Lydia, Meredith, Michelle, Mummy!, Ox, Serene, Shann, Shihui, Sis, Thai Mafia Team!, Stanley, Vig, Wee, Yvonne C, Yvonne, Winson and family.
Photo Shoots and Audio Production
Adrian, Alfred, Anthony, An Ren, Azhar, Bryan, Cherlynn, Chiao Ling, CK, Daffodil, Daniel C, David, Edja, Elyn, Estelle, Fash, Francis, Gabriel, Juvina and family, Gloria Tan, Hanisah, Hantian, Hazira and Family, Hester, Hui Min, Hui Min C, Hui Zhen, Hugh, Janwelle, Jen Yaw, Jennifer and family, Jenny & Richard, Jeremy, Jimmy, Joju and family, JK, Juliana, Justin, Cindy & Theodore, Khristine, Lai Kuan, Lance, Lawrence L, Leena, Linda and family, Ling & family, Lionel, Mahmod, Marcellina, Maris Stella High School, Mark, Marvin, Melvin, Nicolette, Nisa, Nugene, Noor, Peijie, Platform Founders: Tay Kay Chin, Darren Soh, Ernest Goh and Leonard Goh, Sarah, Sazali, Shaqil, Sharon, Shawn, Shawn and family, Sherene, Simon and friends, Suren, Syafik, Syafiq, Sharon, Sylvia, Tan, Terence, Theo, Twentyfifteen.sg initiative: Platform, Poh, Jonathan Yuen, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Flee Circus, Uncle Yin, Vamsi, Wilson, Yen Lin, Yennie, Yinxiu, Lindsey and Robin, YK, Yongtian, Z ainah, Zarifah, Zhang, Zhijing.
Ben, Bryan, David, Debbie, Emmeline, Han Joo, Lucia, Lucas, Sabrina, Sharon, Stan, Yasmine.
Linguists, Essays and Translations
Dan Kerson, Esther, Gloria Tan LJ, Kevin W, Kimberly, Meera, Nadz, Nazreen, Sangeetha P, Sijie, Ramesh V, Timothy David, Yap.
(Plus all voices that preferred to be Anonymous :))
Thank you for all the conversations and help, in making me learn that I am not alone in being Singaporelang.
These are some resources found that might be useful for you, but their opinion do not reflect the opinion of Singaporelang.rocks site:
- Singaporeinfopedia: Singlish
- Singlish: Say more with less
- E-Ching Ng
- A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English
- Yale-NUS profs speak Singlish? Steady lah!
- Singlish – Nay? Yay?
- Singlish-speaking Siri rival seen in Singapore
- Opinion: There’s such a thing as too much Singlish
- Theatre: BOOM
- PCK soon speak Best English
- Comparing the differences between Standard English and Singlish
- A tribute to our good old Singlish
- My English Grammar Blog
- 20 Singlish phrases we wish would make a comeback
- The rise of Singlish
“It’s been documented in a dictionary and studied by linguists. And it has been immortalised in popular culture.”“The language has even come to be seen as part of Singaporean identity and heritage – it appears in advertising campaigns for SG50, the big celebration of Singapore’s Jubilee Year, and will feature on floats in Saturday’s National Day Parade.”
- How Singaporeans short-code English
“The hashtag #5WordSingaporeStories”