Gwee Li Sui, Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporeans Communicate, Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2017. 200 pgs.
As it says on the back cover, “This is a book about Singlish in Singlish.” A short, succinct and accurate blurb if there ever was one. The entire book, from the dedication page (“Ah Kong, we miss you!”) to About the Author cum Cartoonist (“This Gwee Li Sui sibeh notti!”), is written in the local lingua franca that is Singlish, with only the exception of the Publisher’s Note at the beginning, which is in English (or “England” as it is called in Singlish). The book appears to throw the unwary reader—such as this non-Singaporean reviewer, who only visited the fine city-state for the first time a year ago—into the deep end from page one. Thankfully, almost every Singlish word is explained at one point or another in the book—just not necessarily when they are first used. There is a helpful index of Singlish terms and expressions at the end of the book, but not a glossary, which means that some jumping forwards and backwards through the book chapters is required to try to make sense of certain Singlish words (with a lot of help from context). This made reading the book a particularly interesting learning experience.
Each of the forty-five short chapters (of around three to four pages each) is titled with a Singlish word or expression and begins with a four-panel comic strip (also in Singlish) illustrated by the author. Apart from the fact that all words and expressions have a distinct Singaporean flavour, they do not appear to have been curated with an overall theme or progression in mind like the words in David Crystal’s The History of English in 100 Words, in which the author “draws on words that best illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences and events that have helped to shape our vernacular.” Indeed, this “chapalang” selection is not intended to be comprehensive or representative of all (or even most) Singlish words generally in use: in the author’s words, “It’s not about showcasing the stuff Singaporeans or foreigners know well or the most solid Singlish expressions or the most important or enduring or notti, whatever lah.” Still, the author has produced an admirable selection of words and phrases covering various aspects of Singaporean life (food, politics, cultural diversity, the MRT, national service…). There is also a chapter covering various Singlish end particles (“lah,” “meh,” “lor”), another specifically on various Singlish abbreviations, and there are many interesting Singlish proverbs thrown into the mix as well (“last time is last time, now is now”).
This reviewer found Chapter 10, “Chapalang and Hampalang,” particularly interesting. As any Hongkonger can tell you, these two expressions are used by some Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong, a point which the author acknowledges. Throughout most of the book, the Singlish words and expressions mentioned, most frequently, have Melayu, Mandarin Chinese and/or Tamil influences—three of the four official languages of Singapore, along with English. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to see expressions with Cantonese origins included in a book on contemporary Singlish. Although the major Chinese dialect spoken in Singapore is Hokkien, there are still some (especially those in older generations) who speak Cantonese, and a few expressions here and there may have survived into contemporary Singlish. It was almost endearing to see the words “chapalang” and “hampalang” printed on paper since it has been this reviewer’s impression (admittedly without having had the benefit of consulting a corpus) that neither word is frequently used in contemporary Hong Kong English. Learning that it is alive and well in another Asian variety of English 2,500 kilometres to the south was a pleasant surprise.
The author further notes in his “Cheem Introduction” to the book that, as Singlish constantly develops and evolves, certain expressions may fall out of use, and therefore the book is a snapshot of Singlish as it currently is, with some historical background thrown in. It is entirely normal that certain sayings or particular words in one generation may not survive into the next. This however may be especially prevalent in the case of Singlish. Since the Singapore government initiated the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” back in 1979, fewer and fewer young Singaporeans now speak a Chinese dialect in daily life—according to a 2017 article in The New York Times, quoting the results of a recent Singapore government survey, only twelve percent of Singaporeans speak a Chinese dialect at home, while a generation ago almost half of the population did. In this reviewer’s mind, this may not only affect the continued use of Chinese dialects, but also the colourfulness of Singlish: we do not know whether certain Singlish terms, and especially expressions or proverbs (such as “bo hee hae ma ho”—”if there is no fish, prawns are also good,” meaning beggars can’t be choosers), which derive from one of the many dialects spoken in Singapore, will gradually die out, as more and more ethnic Chinese Singaporeans speak only English and Mandarin.
That the author uses Singlish grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary throughout his 200-page love letter to Singlish is admirable. And it would not feel wholly authentic if the author did not also feature Singlish spelling, which he does. This is apparent from the very first word in the title of the book: “Spiaking.” Spellings such as “dun” (don’t), “anot” (or not) and “oreddy” (already) are used throughout. However, while no fault of the author, the very nature of the medium of a book limits the ways in which he can describe in detail the pronunciation (especially the accent and intonation) of such words. An example is found in Chapter 14 (“Ha”), where the author lists out six varieties of the Singlish end-particle “ha”—abrasive, intrusive, suspicious, deaf, unbelievable and retreating. It is, however, difficult to describe exactly how these variations of the same end-particle differ in the shades of intonation through words alone, such as “curls to end on a flat, lower note” (which is used to describe the “suspicious” variety), without actually hearing it being spoken in the distinct Singlish accent. It is claimed that this book is the first book about Singlish that is written in Singlish. It would be interesting to see whether, with more widespread interest in Singlish, we may see in future audiobooks written and narrated in Singlish.
Postscript: Having finished reading the book, this reviewer immediately proceeded to take up the multiple-choice “Singlish Air-Level Test” at the end of the book. The verdict for my 40/50 score (quite a number of answers having been selected “anyhowly”) turned out to be: “Your Singlish is so-so nia.” Clearly, not good enough to be able to write this review in Singlish, but perhaps Dr. Gwee would consider it a pass.