The non-Anglo Englishes (NEs)



1. The three circles and other ways of theorising Englishes

2. General historical development

3. Characteristics of the New Englishes

4. The evolution of Singaporean English

5. Features of Singaporean English

6. Negative evaluations of NEs


1. The three circles and other ways of theorising Englishes

It is generally accepted that English spread during the time of empire building was through settlement colonies or through exploitation colonies (Mufwene 2001), the former involving relatively large scale population movement such as that of English speakers from the British Isles to North America or to Australia. Singaporean English or Singapore English (SgE) will obviously be a variety that developed in the context of an exploitation colony. Among the key points in the contrast with settlement colonies in North America and Australia and New Zealand, on the one hand, and the former colonies of Malaya, India, Ceylon (as well as those in Africa and Central America), on the other would be that:

                     the exploitation colonies were not repopulated with British settlers, although the colonial government might have encouraged migrant labour for the various industries and economic activities developed then;

                     although English was adopted for administrative purposes in the exploitation colonies, the population continued (at least initially) to employ the vernacular languages so that there was multilingualism (and multiculturalism); the settlement colonies were not necessarily, and often not, multilingual;

                     the exploitation colonies experienced the spread of English through it ‘leaching’ downwards as parts of the local population began to receive English-medium education and began to be employed as clerks in the colonial governments.


The character of the English language in the settlement colonies and the exploitation colonies therefore are different. Initially, the terms native (or mother-tongue or L1) varieties and non-native or L2 varieties were used to reflect the fact that in the case of the former, there was no break in natural transmission – in other words, each generation learnt the English language from the previous generation. (L1 stands for ‘first language’; L2 stands for ‘second language’.) The Indian-born linguist Braj Kachru  (1982) adopted another way of representing English varieties in the world in the form of three concentric circles (diagram on the right), and this model has been very influential. The inner circle contains the Anglo Englishes (‘Older Englishes’) and includes the UK, the USA, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand: English is the primary language in many situations for these nations.  The outer circle (or extended circle) contains the non-Anglo Englishes (NEs, ‘New Englishes’). The spread of English began through the colonial government when English became a part of the countries’ chief institutions, and exists in a complementary fashion with other languages. The expanding circle involves those nations that recognise the importance of English as an international language, although they have no history of colonisation by members of the inner circle and English is not given official status in these countries (and is therefore a ‘foreign’ language [FL], as opposed to a first or second language [L1 or L2]). English in these nations, unlike in the inner and outer circles, is almost never used for intra-national communication.


Notice that national labels are used to describe the English variety in this classification. This is sometimes a little unsatisfactory particularly in places where there are many regional, social or functional varieties. When we think of Singaporean English, therefore, we need to make a distinction between different varieties found there. We need to consider Standard Singapore(an) English (SSE) – the kind of English that would be used in more official contexts, such as in the broadsheet The Straits Times or in current affairs programmes on television in Singapore. We also need to consider Colloquial Singaporean English (CSE) – otherwise known as ‘Singlish’ (a portmanteau word: Singapore + English), this is the informal variety used among friends and the variety most influenced by the surrounding languages. Finally, we also need to recognise the existence of ‘learner English’ – the kind of English produced by people who do not feel comfortable with the language in Singapore. (Terminology can sometimes be difficult: the label ‘Singlish’ is sometimes used to cover learner English as well.)


These terms emphasise the distinctions often discussed in relation to diglossia, a term first introduced by Ferguson (1959).  This describes a situation where there is High and a Low version of the language for different social situations. SSE takes the ‘High’ position and CSE the ‘Low’ position in this way of considering English in Singapore.


There is another way of thinking of Singaporean English, more prevalent earlier, in terms of lectal levels: the variety of English employed is assumed to depend on the level of education, among other things. The lowest level is the basilect, the middle level the mesolect and the highest level the acrolect. This way of considering varieties is often associated with the study of creoles and creolisation. We will not focus on this here.


Pakir (1991) attempts to marry the lectal variation account to the diglossic account in her expanding triangle model. At the tip of the pyramid is the most formal variety of English, available only to those with advanced English proficiency.


Schneider (2007) tries to account for some of this internal variation in his account of postcolonial Englishes which are said to develop through a series of phases – some complete them, some do not. There are maximally five phrases.

(1)               Foundation This relates to the initial colonial occupation through which English is brought to the place

(2)               Exonormative stabilisation In this period, English is established through a period of colonial stability, but the norms are exonormative – in other words based on the metropolitan norms in the ‘mother country’ and outside of the place in question

(3)               Nativisation When the people begin to take some ownership of the language (to describe local realities) resulting in more innovative language use and diverging from the norms of the ‘mother country’

(4)               Endonormative stabilisation After a significant event, eg independence, the local version of the language begins to stabilise, perhaps to emphasise a new identity

(5)               Differentiation Differences begin to be noticeable between different social groups


In each of these, an indigenous strand (the kind of English spoken by the local population) might co-exist with a settler strand (the kind of English spoken by the population who were originally from English-speaking nations). Additionally, different nations might be at different phases; Schneider, for example, gives examples of nations in Phases 2 to 5:

                     Fiji: Phase 2

                     Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines: Phase 3

                     Singapore: Phase 4

                     Australia, New Zealand: Phase 5

There is no implication  that all countries will complete the five phases, and it is possible for the development to stop at any of the intermediate phases. In the case of Singapore, we could well discuss whether it is suitably placed in Phase 4 (see section 3 below).


In the earlier discussion about the kinds of English in Singapore, it is clear that there is not just one kind of Singaporean English. Perhaps one way of illustrating this is to mention one personality who occupied the attention of many Singaporeans in 2009, and the focus of attention was on the way she spoke. This forms a useful illustration of the polarisation that can be found within Singaporean English and points towards the differentiation there, hinting at the possibility of Singaporean English nudging towards Schneider’s phase 5.


Lui (2009), writing in the main English broadsheet in Singapore, the Straits Times provides a ‘transcription’ of the interview given by Ris Low, the original winner of the Miss World Singapore competition:


‘Hi I’m Ris Low, currently I’m majoring in my diploma in health science, and hospitaterlity and travel tourism. Right now I’m studying still.’

            ‘The most daring thing that I’ve worn is a piss of bigini and just gins and strut down Orchard Road.’

            ‘Yes I’m a huge fan of South Africa. I lerf safari, I lerf leopard preens, zibbra.’


The respelling exaggerates some aspects of Low’s accent and clearly signals it as being different from the accents of other Singaporeans. The video made its way to the video-sharing site YouTube, and links were put in Facebook, the social networking site as well as online forums. Some of the reaction is summarised in another news article.


What’s the big deal? Well, nasty comments on this local beauty queen’s diction – or lack of it – have been flying fast and furious. Netizens’ comments have been overwhelmingly negative.

            Take edr’s reaction. ‘Terrible diction! What’s wrong with her speech? She doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about or what the reporter is asking.’

            Espedine commented: ‘Oh my, is this real? What is going on, lol (laughing out loud), she sounds like she has something in her mouth when she’s talking and has to think 2-3s (two to three times) before giving a bimbo answer, lol.’

            While such comments have been harsh, they aren't bothering this beauty queen, a first-year diploma student at the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS), where she's pursuing courses in hospitality, travel and tourism. (Mathavan 2009)


Low’s English, undoubtedly, represents a kind of Singaporean English. Those who put her down want to distance themselves from her, and this this clearly illustrates the fact that there are not only internal variation, but that these can arouse strong feelings in Singaporeans.


2. General historical development

If we consider the former British colonies in South and South-east Asia, there is much that is common.  Schneider, in his recent book English Around the World (2011), for example, deals with them in the same section. On 31 December 1600, the British East India Company (EIC) received a Charter from Queen Elizabeth I, giving it a monopoly of trade with India and ‘the East’ in search of spices and other raw materials such as cotton (and later on rubber and tin) to be supplied to factories in Britain in the years of the Industrial Revolution. However, the company began to be involved in the local politics and exercised military power. The EIC however eventually lost its monopoly in 1813, and the British Crown asserted sovereignty over the territories and took over the military and administrative role.




The EIC established stations in India in Masulipatam (1611, modern name: Machilipatnam), Surat (1612), Madras (1639, Chennai), Calcutta (1650, Kolkata) and Bombay (1661, Mumbai) and by the beginning of the 20th century, Britain controlled India (which at that time included today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh). The EIC took over Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from the Dutch in 1795, so that by 1802 Ceylon was a Crown Colony.



In Malaya and Singapore, the British established a settlement in Penang in 1786 and took over Malacca (Melaka) from the Dutch in 1824. Singapore, in the meantime, was acquired in 1819. These three became the Straits Settlement. Trouble in the Malayan sultanates, among other things, also gave rise to the establishment of the Resident system and to the setting up of the Federated Malay States (FMS: Perak, Pahang, Negri Sembilan and Selangor) in 1896, and in 1914 British control was extended over all the Malay States.


We see therefore a varied number of what Kachru calls Outer Circle nations in the region: a common history and the fact that there was some people movement within the region means that there are some points of similarity between the English found in these Outer Circle countries.


It is known that Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), the British founder of Singapore, was fluent in Malay, but he was the exception. The governments in the colonies were led by the British administrators who in general did not learn the indigenous languages, so that there was a need for a lower level of administration that could bridge the gap between the high levels of government and the ordinary people in issuing directives or implementing decision and the like. In such a situation, the rise of English-medium education for the local population makes sense. This is the dominant way in which English was spread. A significant document on British policy on English-medium education in the region is Macaulay’s ‘Minutes on education’, 1835.


Lord T B Macaulay’s (1800–59) was President of the Committee of Public Instruction in Calcutta. In his minutes, he argued the case for introducing English-medium education, as opposed to Arabic- or Sanskrit-medium education) because it would produce ‘a class of interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect’ (paragraph 18).


Thus, English-medium education was established in the empire – including the Penang Free School (1816), the Singapore Institution (1834, eventually to become the Raffles Institution) and the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar (1909) in Malaya.


After independence, there was a move initially for English to be replaced by other languages as the official language. English was replaced by Hindi in 1950 when India became a republic. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala (Singhalese) was made the sole official language in 1956. And in Malaysia, Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) was made the official language in 1967, and in 1970 former English-medium schools began to be converted to national (Malay-medium) schools. In 2003, English was re-introduced as the medium through which Science and Maths are taught in national schools in Malaysia. (Since then however a switch back to the Malay medium has been announced.) However, English did not die out in these countries – the Official Language Bill in 1963 allowed for the continued use of English in India. In Sri Lanka, English was given official status together with Tamil. In Malaysia, English continues to play a significant role in the country. In Singapore, English never lost its official status.


The reasons for the retention of English are related to the following points, all of which are relevant specifically to Singapore too.

                     It continues to serve an important function as a ‘link language’ within nations and as a language to facilitate communication with other nations. In the context of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it is the sole official language (see Kirkpatrick 2010).

                     English has established its status as the primary language of science, technology, commerce, etc. and many nations are loth to give up on this advantage that English brings.

                     The retention of English also does away with the difficulty of replacing English with other languages in the law courts and other domains for which there is a well developed English style and vocabulary.


These factors eventually led to the establishment English as the ‘working language’ of Singapore, although Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil retain official status. English is also the sole medium of education in Singapore schools. It is generally accepted that English-medium education played a big role in the spread of the language in Singapore, much of it documented in Gupta (1994).


The 2010 Census gives the following breakdown of the most commonly spoken language at home for resident population aged 15 and above.


Most frequent home language                                               Percentage

English                                                                871,374      29.8

Mandarin                                                            1,064,157   36.3

Other Chinese (main variety: Hokkien)              482,550      16.5

Malay                                                                  349,121      11.9

Indian Languages (main language: Tamil)         128,781      4.4

Others                                                                 32,196        1.1

Total                                                                   2,928,178   100.0


About 30% of the population have English as the dominant home language. This is significant because for these, English arguably represents a first language rather than a second language. The figure is also significant because English is not a ‘heritage language’ for the vast majority of them and the figure represents the ‘indigenous strand’, and at some point there was a language shift towards English.


A breakdown based on age is available General Household Survey 2005, and here residents of age 5 and above are captured in the count.


Age (Years)         Total                    English as most frequent home language  Percentage

5 to 9                   249,159                106,539                                                     42.8%

10 to 14               264,608                101,729                                                     38.4%

15 to 19               238,966                79,119                                                       33.1%

20 to 24               205,910                52,896                                                       25.7%

25 to 29               231,759                58,014                                                       25.0%

30 to 34               277,469                81,104                                                       29.2%

35 to 39               288,981                91,245                                                       31.6%

40 to 44               302,687                91,728                                                       30.3%

45 to 49               283,907                81,879                                                       28.8%

50 to 54               242,795                58,894                                                       24.3%

55 to 59               189,533                39,564                                                       20.9%

60 to 64               112,296                17,257                                                       15.4%

65 to 69               95,384                  10,970                                                       11.5%

70 to 74               70,592                  6,227                                                         8.8%

75 and above       93,132                  7,253                                                         7.8%


The clear pattern emerging is that the younger generations are more likely to have English as their dominant home language, and the pattern looks likely to continue in future generations. This is corroborated by newspaper reports on the subject:


In 2004, the number of Primary 1 children [aged 6+] giving English as their home language became the majority for the first time. The Straits Times  of 18 March 2009 reported the latest figures which show that 60% of Singaporean Primary 1 children now speak English as their home language, with a mere 40% speaking Mandarin. (Kirkpatrick  2010: 31) 


3. Characteristics of the NEs

  • They are used in multilingual and multicultural communities which are culturally divergent from Britain.


  • The spread of NEs was through the classroom (at least initially), and the point of reference, as far as notions of correctness were concerned, was external (exonormative standards as opposed to endonormative standards)
  • NEs tend to play complementary, as distinct from, all-purpose roles in their contexts of use.

 They are the first language in certain significant social spheres (the ‘High variety’), complementing the indigenous languages, which assume a first language role in more domestic, everyday spheres in the larger context (‘Low varieties’).

 For some users, they have begun to assume wider roles, entering into their emotional or imaginative lives, everyday interaction, etc., often alongside other indigenous languages they know. For example, there now exists literary texts written in English in Singapore, Malaysia, India, etc.


  • NEs are the result of the transformation of English in interaction with the life of its new contexts, as it adapts itself to handle new objects, relationships, experiences, etc. and develops new resources to carry and express new meanings, cultures and viewpoints. Various terms can be used including transplantation (they are ‘transplanted varieties with their own distinct ecologies, contexts and functions’ (Kachru, The Alchemy of English)), indigenisation and nativisation.
  • NEs are systematic in their own way and allow their users to express meanings that are relevant to themselves. 



4. The evolution of SgE

One of the main problems when trying to discuss Singaporean English for Singaporean students is that so much of it seems familiar and can be taken for granted. Some of these taken-for-granted positions are, unfortunately, questionable in nature. It has been my experience that despite the ‘familiar’ content, students who choose to write essays on Singaporean English don’t fare as well as those who write on, say, Old English.


Some of the confusion is terminological. The labels ‘mother tongue’, ‘first language’ and ‘second language’ have been used in particular ways by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and therefore in relation to Singaporean schools. This creates a great deal of confusion because the MoE terms do not quite concur with how these terms are used by linguists. For the purpose of this module (and for the other modules in English Language), we will use the terms ‘mother tongue’ and ‘first language’ interchangeably to refer to the first language acquired by a child and therefore and need not bear a connection to the child’s ethnicity. If an ethnic Chinese child (in Singapore or elsewhere) learns Hokkien first, then Hokkien (not Mandarin) is his/her first language or mother tongue; if an ethnic Chinese child (in Singapore, the UK, Australia, or anywhere in the world) learns English first, then English is his/her first language or mother tongue.


Some of the difficulty is also to do with the assumption that CSE (‘Singlish’) is always the result of competing systems within a bilingual’s or multilingual’s head affecting each other, so that CSE structures are to do with a person’s English structures being strongly influenced by his/her Chinese or Malay structures. Within language circles, people often talk about interlanguage – in other words, the kind of language that you produce when you’re learning Language A which is strongly influenced by Language B which you already know. Not all CSE is interlanguage; not all CSE is a matter of your other internalised languages affecting your English. For example, it is possible for a child to learn CSE as a first language (and not speak other languages). The child uses CSE structures and lexis not because of the ‘influence’ of Chinese or Malay in his head but because this is what he/she hears.



The ‘internal system’ within a speaker is partly the result of the external input available to that speaker. This exposure might therefore lead to a ‘Mandarin’ system, a ‘Standard English’ system and a ‘Singlish’ system within that speaker. These systems can potentially influence each other, obviously; but when this speaker refers to, say, someone’s baluku (‘a bruise’), he/she does it because he/she has been exposed to other CSE speakers who use the lexical item – not because he/she knows Malay (baluku comes from Malay buah duku – the fruit).


Finally, there seems to be some unrealistic assumption about how English evolved and developed in Singapore. There are things that are still murky, but some facts are clear. SgE arose out of the education system established during the British colonial period. This was promoted by the colonial government as well as by various Christian missions; and this made sense given that this was the language of the colonial government.


English-medium schools began in the 19th century – Gupta (1994: 35) mentions the year 1816 as the one in which the first English-medium school began in the Straits Settlement (in this case, in Penang). In the beginning there were roughly equal numbers of Chinese and European/Eurasian pupils, and small numbers of Indians and Malays (Gupta 1994: 36), but the number of Chinese pupils mushroomed in the 20th century. Initially, most of the Chinese pupils were Straits Chinese, but subsequently more Cantonese children began to attend English-medium schools, followed by the Hokkiens/Teochews. Who then were the teachers? ‘Until the early 1920s, the largest single racial group among the teachers was Eurasians. There were roughly equal numbers of Europeans and Indians. The number of racially Chinese teachers rose dramatically in the 1920s: these were the same people who had filled the schools as pupils a decade earlier’ (Gupta 1994: 39).


During this period, Bazaar Malay was a language that almost everyone knew. We can therefore surmise that the input given to the pupils were therefore not ‘pure’ British English. In any case, the Europeans were not always southern English – there were many Scots, for example. There were therefore mixed inputs that went into the formation of CSE in those years: various varieties of English (some Standard, some less so), Bazaar Malay, various Chinese languages – particularly Cantonese and Hokkien/Teochew.


In subsequent generations, this new English variety was ready to be ‘passed down’ to the children. When the status of Malay eroded in the independent government and Bazaar Malay was no longer the language for inter-ethnic communication, it was CSE that took its place.


5. Features of Singaporean English

As mentioned above, we need to distinguish between SSE and CSE. In general, SSE is distinct from other standard varieties of English in lexical terms, whereas CSE is more distinct in grammatical terms. There are, of course, also lexical items associated with CSE.

(a) Lexis

  • borrowings (loan-words): ah beng, ah lian, ang pow, ang mo, bodoh*, feng shui, hantam*, kampong, kaypoh*, kiasu*,  kosong, lauyah*, makan*, malu*, rojak, roti-prata, *sian, siau*, tahan*, ulu* (the asterisked items are more closely associated with CSE)
  • loan translations or calques: red packet, spring roll, Hungry Ghost Festival
  • hybrids: ice kachang, mama shop, kaya toast, roti john, Samsui woman, sarong partygirl, blur like sotong
  • hybrids containing local words with English suffixation - kiasuism, chimology, kaypohness, buayaing
  • new collocations and coinages: cousin sister/brother, hawker centre, shophouse,
  • void deck, neighbourhood school, tuition teacher, branded goods, grassroots leader, walkathon, handphone
  • new meanings: alphabets ( = letters), zap, chop, steamboat, love letters, cooling, heaty, bring, take, send, fetch,  open, close (switch off/on), on (vb), off (vb), cut (stroke of the cane; discount), last time (= previously)



It must be noted that it is sometimes difficult to between whether an item is a loan-word or an item is a result of code-mixing or code-switching – a common feature in multilingual communities. Here are some definitions, first of all:

  • code-switching: the case of multilingual speakers making switches between different languages or varieties depending on audience, setting and purpose; or the ‘juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems or sub-systems’ (Gumperz 1982: 59)
  • code-mixing: the transfer of linguistic elements from one language into another in multilingual speech. A ‘mix’ is more limited than a ‘switch’, where there is a base language (the superstrate) for the sentence, with terms from another language or variety (the substrate) interposed in it
  • borrowing: items from another language or variety might begin to be used with increased frequency and undergo some kind of assimilation to the new language in terms of structure, pronunciation and perhaps orthography, so that these items might be considered to belong to the new language. (We will think about this in relation to the notion of fulguration below.)


Clearly, there is a fuzzy division between code-mixing and borrowing. How do you see the italicised items below?

  • She fell down and had a terrible oh-chhni. (Note: oh-chhni = ‘black green’ in Hokkien, hence ‘bruise’)
  • I ate and ate the durian until I was jelak. (Note: jelak = ‘satiated’ in Malay) Here are more data from the web:
    • “No more’ (of Macs),” he says, sticking out his tongue and rubbing his tummy as if to say jelak (too much).
    • Nothing of the cheesy, jelak (a slang referring to the feeling of fullness especially after consuming oily or ‘heavy food) feeling of pastas, this ultra light pasta meal goes down really well with its wonderful-tasting black mussels from Scotland and red mullet (a warm-water fish) from France.
    • Is the Baba theatre going to risk audiences saying “Jelak” (stale) eventually or is it to take a cue from English Language theatre which is in the midst of experimentation and transformation?
  • Finished the exam – really sap sap sui you know. (Note sap sap sui = ‘no problems’ in Cantonese) Here are more data from the web:
    • So I was asked to write an article to contribute to this website. Besides thinking it to be an honour, no problem I thought. Sap Sap sui lah! You read all sorts of articles in the paper everyday.
    • From your perspective, RM96 is sap sap sui (wet, wet, the water - translation correct?) ;-) [Note: the gloss is from the original; reader John Lai has written to say ‘sap’ means wet and ‘sui’ means fragmented, ie trivial]
  • Can I have two char kway teows please?


(b) Idiomatic expressions

No head, no tail

Wait list some more

Don’t shake legs

Catch no ball

Don’t play, play

Vomit blood



(c) Discourse features including pragmatic particles

So how?


Why you so like that?

Don’t be like that lah.

Accident ah? or Accident hah? (with low tone)

Sorry, ah or Sorry hah (with rising tone)

Yesterday’s show (h)ah, got so many mistakes.(with rising tone)

Por por ah, can ask you question or not? (with low tone)

You not married yet meh? (with high tone)

It’s here, lor! (with high tone)

You know, hor? (with rising tone)

You coming hor  (with low tone)

I don’t understand your question, what.


(d) Phonology 



There is clearly a range of accents that can be heard in Singapore.


In many varieties of SgE accent, the fricatives [T] and [D] used in RP in the beginning of thin and though are represented by [t] and [d] respectively (but with the tip of the tongue touching the upper teeth as well). Sometimes RP /T/ might also be realised as /f/, as in bath (RP [bA;T], SgE [baf]).


Lack of final plosives, often substituted with a glottal stop /?/: great, mad, chop, crab, pork, big




In some accents of SgE, the long v. short vowel distinction is not made, and in general there are mergers, as seen in the diagram below. (The inverted ‘a’ indicates an open [= low], central vowel.)




The coloured boxes emphasise the mergers:

  • most Singaporeans don’t make a distinction between pull and pool; sot and sought; bat and bet – the same vowel sound is also used for bear
  • some also don’t distinguish between calm and come; and sit and seat.


Some diphthongs in RP are often realised as monophthongs in SgE, eg in boat and bait.


Rhythm and Intonation

SCE has a syllable-timed rhythm, i.e. all syllables recur at equal intervals of time, whether stressed or unstressed – ‘a machine-gun rhythm’ (Lloyd James)



Note: RP has a stress-timed rhythm , ie, the stressed syllables recur at equal intervals of time but unstressed syllables are unequally spaced in time – ‘Morse code rhythm’.


(e) Grammar

As mentioned earlier, SSE is not greatly divergent from other standard varieties, so what follows are some features of CSE.


  • Subjectless verb groups ( 

Still got fever.)


  • Conditional clauses without binding conjunctions (subordinating conjunctions) ( 

Disturb him again, I call Daddy to come down.)


  • Verbless complements (Where pain?)
  • Lack of auxiliary verbs and reliance on simple verb phrases (Robot coming); reliance on already to signal completion as opposed to the have auxiliary (I wait here two hours already, not I have waited here for two hours)
  • Optional number marking for nouns (I saw two cat sleeping)
  • Optional past-tense and number inflexions for verbs (Yesterday I call him. She come late then die.)
  • Distinct question tags (William go home after class, can?)
  • Reduplication (You go go go go go until you reach the traffic light. Why you put on these Cheena Cheena things? He like to act siau siau one.)
  • The one construction (That teacher, red red lipstick one, always scold one, you know.)


Some features of SgE has received more attention than others. Wong Jock Onn and others have tried to use the framework of National Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) to explicate cultural terms. (Click here for his article in the Journal of Pragmatics.) The use of NSM means that mainly basic words (known as ‘semantic primitives’) will be used in the explication. Here are some examples.



X is a kiasu person =

(1) Sometimes a person does something, not because this person wants to do it, not because something good can happen..

(2) This person does this something because this person thinks: ‘If I do not do it, something no good can happen. I do not want this to happen.’

(3) If this person does not do this, this person will feel something bad. If this person does this, this person will feel something good after this.

(4) A person can be like this many times.

(5) When this person is like this, people think: ‘This person does not have to do this. Something no good will not happen because this person does not do this.’

(6) Because this person is like this many times, people think something bad about this person. X is like this person.

(Wong, J O (2000), The Semantics of Singapore English, p. 16)



The syntactic pattern is: {Declarative} + meh?

A semantic description: When I say to you ‘P meh’, where P is a proposition, I mean:

Something has happened to cause me to think now: P.

Before this I thought: Not P.

I want to know if P is true.

I want you to say ‘yes’ if P is true, and ‘no’ if P is not true.

(Wong, J O (2000), The ‘mE’ particle in Singlish, pp. 14, 16)



(Note that this description is actually of lah in Colloquial Malay (not Standard Malay), whose use is said to be almost identical to the use in CSE.)

lah  =       a. I say this now

                 b. after what (just) happened

                 c. because I think you might think something else.

                 d. That would not be good.

(Cliff Goddard (1994), ‘The meaning of lah’, Oceanic Linguistics 33/1, p. 154)


Jock Wong (2004) suggest there are three separate lahs depending on tone:

·         lăh (imposition): B grooms himself meticulously before the mirror for quite some time. A teases him: ‘Nice already lăh.’

·         làh (propositional): Teacher suggests to pupils how a game should be played: ‘You stand in the middle làh.’

·         láh (persuasive) : A urges B to take more clothes with her: ‘Cold .’

Therefore, if B asks A out for lunch but A cannot make it and B asks for the reason, A could reply:

Busy lăh (impatience)

Busy làh (think reason is obvious)

Busy láh (to convince)

(Jock Wong (2004), ‘The particles of Singapore English: a semantic and cultural interpretation’, Journal of Pragmatics 36: 739–793. You can get the article online through the library website.)


lah = I think that you can know what I want to say

(Mary Besemeres & Anna Wierzbicka (2003), ‘Pragmatics and cognition:

the meaning of the particle “lah” in Singapore English’, Pragmatics and Cognition, 11 (1): 1-36)


Test these against your own use of kiasu, meh and lah.


6. Negative evaluations of NEs

Negative evaluations are pervasive in the description of NEs, including the article ‘The British heresy in TESL’ (1968) by Clifford Prator (which ‘provides a good example of linguistic purism and linguistic intolerance’ [Kachru 1968: 100]):

  • NEs are ‘L2’ varieties, cannot legitimately be equated with ‘mother tongue’ varieties
  • They are mastered only by a minority who ‘have a very imperfect command of only a limited portion of the language’.
  • They are ‘reserved for use with specific individuals in a narrowly restricted range of situations’. They are not coherent, homogeneous, stable linguistic systems, which may be described in the ways that the speech of an identifiable social group may be described.
  • They show ‘widely shared “aberrancies” ’
  • ‘[E]ach individual typically adds in his own speech a large and idiosyncratic collection of features reflecting his particular native language, educational background and personal temperament.’
  • They represent chains of imperfect imitations of imperfect imitations of the original model. The end-product is a ‘pidgin’ or ‘jargon’ which is ‘nobody’s language’.
  • Intelligibility can be reduced ‘to a point at which no reliable communication can take place’
  • Phonological changes which take place in them can, in each case, change other parts of the language sweepingly.
  • They are fossilised ‘interlanguages’ (and therefore show ‘attempted’ rather than ‘successful’ learning) (J.B.Pride)
  • They display lower standards. (The refusal of the French to accept local varieties) (R.B. Le Page)
  • They are used for only a narrow range of purposes. (Quirk, also Prator)
  • They are ‘L2s’ which do not have ‘a status equal to those varieties of English which are used as primary or first languages’ (Kachru, Indian English: A Study in Contextualisation)



(Kachru in The Alchemy of English (1986) responds to Prator’s article, and Robert de Beaugrande has an article which deals with this in World Englishes, which is available from – the last section.)


NEs are therefore said to differ from the Old Varieties, but the label deviation might be used alongside others like interference, aberrancies, transfer, simplification, some with highly negative connotations, which suggests that NEs are the result of imperfect learning and that speakers of NEs are perpetual non-native speakers.


Thiru Kandiah also responds to some of the charges made in his chapter ‘The emergence of New Englishes’ (1998), where he argues that the NEs are organic, rule-governed and symbiotic systems with reference to the notion of fulguration. In the medical context, it refers to ‘The use of diathermy to burn away abnormal tissues such as protruding cancerous growths on the Bladder lining or the rectum’. Or in a vasectomy, the vasa deferentia are isolated and cut; their ends are closed by ligation or fulguration, then replaced in the scrotal sac, and the incision is closed. And in assaying (trial of metals), it is ‘The sudden brightening of a fused globule of gold or silver, when the last film of the oxide of lead or copper leaves its surface’. The relevant point for us is that the application of heat transforms the original substance to a new substance. The new substance is ultimately derived from the old substance, but now as a life of its own. Applied to language, therefore, what Kandiah is trying to say is that Older Varieties and other languages interact with new contexts (speakers, cultures, world views) resulting in NEs that are relevant to these new contexts and are systematic in their own way.


(a) ‘Uncle’

Kandiah uses the example of the word uncle (also auntie) (in Lankan English [LkE], as we as in SgE). In BrE and other Older Varieties, the term refers to the brother of one’s parents or in certain situations to ‘honorary’ older males that one is familiar with.  In LkE and SgE, the term is used in those ways as well as to older male adults that one is not familiar with (from point of view of children) of equal social status, or an adult male in position of higher authority whom the speaker views with affectionate identification even while recognising distance (respect).



In other words, uncle and auntie were not adopted directly from BrE but were transformed through interaction with the new cultural contexts, so that the terms now have a different range of meanings


(b) Chim

We can also think of words borrowed from substrate languages having undergone fulguration. For example, chim is from Hokkien Description: Description: chhim, meaning ‘deep’. In Hokkien, the following sentences are possible:

·         chit-e kang go chhioh chhim (‘This river is five feet deep’)

·         i thak chin chhim e chheh (‘He’s reading a very abstruse book’)

·         e-mng e hok-kian oe chin chhim (‘The Hokkien in Amoy (Xiamen) is very sophisticated’)

It is possible to use chhim as ‘deep’ in a more literal fashion, but also as ‘abstruse’ or ‘sophisticated’ in a more abstract fashion. In SgE, the word is spelt chim or cheem. However, note the following:

·         *The river is five feet chim.

·         He read a very chim book ah!

·         Amoy Hokkien ah, very chim, you know.

It is not possible to use SgE chim to mean literal depth as in Hokkien, so that whilst chim is derived from Hokkien chhim, the semantic range is different. Thus chim is a loan-word rather than an instance of code-mixing.


Furthermore, we can point out that chim is typically pronounced [tSim] in SgE, and not like Hokkien chhim [tshim]: the initial sounds (known as affricates) are different and [tS] is available in English but not Hokkien and [tsh] or [ts] are available in Hokkien but not in English. Therefore, the English affricate has been substituted for the original Hokkien affricate. In addition, the Hokkien tone in chhim is also absent from SgE chim. The ‘rules’ for pronouncing SgE chim has therefore also diverged from the ‘rules’ for pronouncing Hokkien chhim.


Finally, SgE chim can also be used by speakers with no knowledge of Hokkien. We can, in the same vein, say that dance is an English word rather than a French word because English speakers with no knowledge of French still know it.


(c) ‘Can?’

Here is another example from syntax. In CSE, can or can or not is used as a tag for permission, but not for ability (the asterisk preceding the sentence indicates an impossible construction):

1. I come a bit late, can? (permission)

2. I come a bit late, can ah? (permission)

3. I come a bit late, can or not? (permission)


*She dance ballet very well, can? (ability)


It must be stated that, of course, sentences 1 to 3 are not possible in Standard English, where the is Can I come a bit late? or possibly Come a bit late, can I? and strict prescriptivists might insist of may instead of can (May I come a bit late?), and restrict can only to ability. (In StdE, a tag construction (for permission) is still possible, eg ‘I’m coming a bit late, all right?’, as well as for permission, eg ‘She dances ballet very well, can she?’) CSE speakers will also aware that although 1, 2 and 3 are ‘allowed’, they are not interchangeable. Sentence 3 sounds a little more petulant, perhaps; sentence 2 with a particle resembles a personal appeal more; and perhaps sentence 1 is a more neutral request for permission.


There seems to be some resemblance to Chinese and Malay tags for permission. It is also necessary to point out that not all the Chinese languages have identical constructions, although they influence each other, so let’s consider what is possible and what is not.


In Mandarin, the equivalent tag is Description: Description: Description: Description: keyi ma; the keyi + negative tag is disputable and not standard. The particle has to be ma and not ah. The construction with a bare keyi tag is not possible.


5. Wo chi  yidian   lai,   keyi  ma?

     I    late little   come, can PART.?


6. *Wo chi  yidian   lai,   keyi  a?

     I    late little   come, can PART.?


7. ?Wo chi   yidian  lai,   ke(yi) bu keyi?

     I    late little   come,  can    not  can?


8. *Wo jiu yidian lai, keyi?


In (Singaporean) Hokkien, the equivalent tag isDescription: Description: image012Description: Description: image013Description: Description: image014 oe-sai boe (can + negative), but not oe-sai on its own or with a particle. Hokkien, unlike Mandarin or Cantonese, lacks the equivalent of the question particle ma, and relies on negative elements like Description: Description: boe or Description: Description: (Description: Description: bo. (I use the Missionary Romanisation System for Hokkien. Click here for more. The Hokkien spoken in Taiwan is often known as Taiwanese, where there is the Taiwanese Modern Spelling System; click here for a website devoted to Taiwanese.)


9. Goa khah  oan   lai,   oe-sai boe?   or   oe-sai bo?

     I     more late come, can     not?


10. *Goa khah oan  lai, oe-sai a?


11. *Goa khah oan  lai, oe-sai?


In (Singaporean) Cantonese, the equivalent tag is Description: Description: Description: Description: hoh-i ma (can + ma particle) or Description: Description: Description: Description: (tso-)tak ma (can + ma particle). The construction Description: Description: Description: Description: m tak (can + negative) is also possible, but (tso-)tak or hoh-i on its own is not possible. (I use the old Meyer-Wempe romanisation for Cantonese. Another well-known romanisation system for Cantonese is the Yale system (in italics below) and Jyutping: in that system hoh-i becomes ho-yi; tso tak becomes jou dak.)


12. Ngoh ch‘i yat-ti lai,     hoh-i ma?        or …, (tso-)tak ma?

      Ngo  chi  yat-di    loi,  ho-yi   ma?    or …, (jou-)dak ma?

       I       late  little  come, can   PART.             can         PART.


13. *Ngoh ch‘i yat-ti lai, tak a?

      *Ngo chi yat-di loi, dak a?


14. Ngoh ch‘i yat-ti lai, tak m tak?

      Ngo chi yat-di loi, dak m dak?


15. *Ngoh ch‘i yat-ti lai, hoh-i?    or *…, (tso-)tak?

      *Ngo chi yat-di loi, ho-yi?      or  *…, (jou-)dak?


Finally, in the case of (colloquial) Malay, the boleh tak (can + negative) construction is normal, as in Hokkien, the bare boleh seems possible, and the bolehkah (can + question particle) seems unusual. All the constructions are colloquial in nature, though and the non-tag version is preferred in Standard Malay (‘Bolehkah saya datang sedikit lewat?’), rather like in Standard English.


16. Saya datang sedikit lewat, boleh tak?

      I        come   little    late,    can   not?


17. ?Saya datang sedikit lewat, bolehkah?


18. Saya datang sedikit lewat, boleh?


The patterns for SgE, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay are different. Only in SgE is the bare can as a tag a possible construction. SgE allows a particle, but this is different from the particles allowed in Mandarin and Cantonese. SgE also allows a can + negative construction, as is also the case in Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay.


The SgE can or not structure seems close to the Hokkien and Cantonese structures. This illustrates the point that we should not think of the Chinese languages as being uniform grammatically; when we think about linguistic influences, we should not only consider the standard varieties of the language.


We cannot always be sure of the direction of influence as well. The tag constructions that seem to parallel the CSE ones most closely are the colloquial Malay constructions in that there are the most number of parallels. However, it is not clear to me whether the direction of influence is from colloquial Malay to CSE or indeed the other way round.


We need to think of this as a complex system of influence and that there is not only one forebear to each construction.


Each system, including the SgE, therefore has its own grammatical norms, by which it needs to be judged by users of SgE natively. They control these norms and apply them with a competence that users of other varieties of English lack. They are, in other words, native users of SgE.  (Have a look at Ansaldo (2010), ‘Contact and Asian Varieties of English’, in Workbin.)


The SgE speech community

What we have done earlier is to consider the acceptability of various constructions in various languages. If you do not speak the language yourself, you can still test out the sentences by asking speakers who do to make acceptability judgements about the sentences in question. In other words, these speakers have internalised the language and have a sense of which constructions are possible which are only marginal or impossible. The American linguist Chomsky talks about a speaker’s competence to refer to the internalised language (and he refers to the externalised language as performance).


These rules are not idiosyncratic because the constructions can be tested out with many individuals who would share the same sense of acceptability. We can therefore talk about a speech community whose members share linguistic norms of use and interpretation. These are learnt through interaction in community. This is true of SgE as of any other first language.


We can therefore refute some of the earlier generalisations made about NEs that they are merely L2s, that they are unsystematic or idiosyncratic (they can’t be if there are shared rules), that they are unintelligible (if there are shared rules, there are also shared meanings) or that they are nobody’s language (if they are sustained by a speech community). In fact, one might argue that NEs are necessary to express meanings that are relevant to NE speakers. Prabhu, for example, therefore argues that norms should be internal rather than external.


Speakers of the different subsystems are not just conformers (or aspirants) to the norm; they are also stake-holders in what comes to be (or continues to be) regarded as the norm, and have the power to change it. Now if the norm for Singapore is a subsystem in Singapore, speakers of different subsystems in Singapore will indeed have a stake in the choice of that norm, and the power to change it. If instead, the norm for Singapore is the norm in Britain, it is difficult to see what stake or power any speaker of any Singapore subsystem will have in the matter. All speakers in Singapore will only be (more or less successful) conformers with no participation in the choice or change of the norm. This would be a very prescriptive approach to the questions of a norm. (N.S. Prabhu, Descriptive and Prescriptive Approaches to the norms of English in Singapore)



When you’re ready to take the quiz based on this topic, go to the IVLE page and click on ‘Assessment’ on the left, and then on ‘Non-Anglo Englishes’.

Back to home page