English use in Singapore/Malaysia: Types of words

Ooi's Concentric Circles Model


            We can postulate at least 5 main groups of words typifying the range of language use in a nativised situation (as Singapore and Malaysia typify in the use of English). These groups can be represented using concentric circles, beginning with Group A: Core English words in the centre. [The notations used for the groups of words below include the following: Singapore/Malaysian English -- SME; Linguistic Processes: abbreviation -- ab; blending -- bl; borrowing -- bo; calque -- cq; compound -- cp; hybrid -- hy; idiom -- id; reduplication -- rdup. Other notations: proscription for the language learner-- ngr; particle -- part; interjection -- interj.]


Group A: Core English.  This group includes English of most general utility worldwide, and is associated with the notion of ‘standard English.’ Traditionally, the notion of Standard English conforms to either standard British English or American English.  ‘Core English’ has traditionally included Germanic/Latin/French words, but there are many foreign words that are now known on a global scale, and so can be deemed to enter the core.  In comparing four recent learner dictionaries -- the CIDE (Procter 1995), COBUILD (Sinclair 1995), LDOCE (Summers 1995), OALD (Crowther 1995), and TCEED (Higgleton & Seaton 1995) – the picture that emerges is that non-English words such as (run) amuck/amok, kowtow, typhoon, and yin-yang are now incorporated into a number of them; kungfu, longan, lychee, and sari are found in others.


Group B: SME/words of English origin/formal. This group includes words or expressions of English origin that are accepted and understood by SME speakers in both formal and informal situations.  Some of these words, like amok/amuck, get incorporated into Group A over time. Examples include airflown [cp] [=airfreighted/airtransported, freshly imported and exclusive goods/produce: e.g. airflown New Zealand apples, airflown Australian beef]; cooling [cq] [=too much "yin", see Group A], heaty [cq] [=too much "yang", see Group A], love letters [cp] [=a type of wafer, triangle shaped], MRT [ab] [=Mass Rapid Transit system], neighbourhood school [cp] [=a school not only in the vicinity of where one lives but also one which is average in standing], red packet [cp,cq] [=money put in an envelope which is red/pink], Singapore Girl [cp] [=Singapore Airlines' stewardess],  steamboat (dinner) [cp] [=a meal where pieces of uncooked food are put into a pot of boiling water or stock], tuition teacher [cp] [=private tutor].


Group C: SME/words or hybrids of non-English origin/formal.  Words of non-English origin accepted and understood by SME speakers in both formal and informal situations.  No English equivalents (without missing local associations).  Examples include ice kachang [hy] [cp] [=a dessert of shaved ice with various flavours and toppings], rambutan [bo] [=a succulent fruit with a hairy skin] and songkok [bo] [=Malay hat].


Group D: SME/words of English origin/informal. Words of English origin acceptable in local informal situations (usually speech) only.  Many of the items found in this group are regarded by highly educated SME speakers as 'Singlish', 'Manglish', or 'errors'.  Examples include: cut (verb) [ngr] [=overtake: e.g. His car cut mine], keep (verb) [ngr] [=put away: e.g. Don't keep your pencil box ... you'll need your pencils], half-past-six idea [id, cq,ngr] [=a half-baked idea], no head no tail [id, cq,ngr] [=incomplete], (to be a) lamp post [id, cq, ngr] [=to play gooseberry/ two's company, three's a crowd], playplay [rdup, cq, ngr] [=joke/tease], send (verb) [ngr] [=take: e.g. I have a car.  Let me send you to the airport], take (verb) [ngr] [=eat, e.g.: What food do we take to keep our teeth healthy?], zap (verb) [=photocopy].


Group E: SME/words or hybrids of non-English origin/informal. Borrowings from the substrate languages and dialects such as Hokkien and Bazaar Malay found mainly in informal speech.  Many items are regarded as 'Singlish', 'Manglish', or 'errors'.  Examples include ah [part] [="query" marker], chim [cq] [=profound], kiasu [cq] [=overly competitive], lah [part] [="solidarity/familiarity/emphasis" marker], leh [part] [="protest/wonder" marker], mat salleh [bo] [=Caucasian], malu [bo] [=shameful], meh [part] [="questioning/protest" marker] ,shiok [cq, interj] [=marvellous], and siong [cq] [=hurts].