'La' / 'lah' - help me understand Singlish
July 18, 2013 7:47 AM   Subscribe

So I've just come across the interesting world of Singlish and the concept of 'la'. As I've understood the concept from the internet, it's used as an intensifier, a verbal exclamation mark, and so on. There's more I'm hoping a Singaporean can clue me in on. More inside.

A few directed questions:

1: Can you stick 'la' at the end of most sentence or word?
2: Are there some words that should ALWAYS end with 'la', or NEVER end with 'la'?
3: I get that Singlish is officially discouraged by the powers that be - was or is there a backlash to that?
4: As slang or informal language, is Singlish still popularly used today?

Thanks :)
posted by chrisinseoul to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
God help us if this is a real thing, but here you go
singlish tutorial

1 & 2 are answered midway through the same video here
posted by MarvinJ at 8:11 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Using 'la' is also prevalent in English spoken by Malaysians, just FYI. It's used lots of places, but the word I most associate it with is sorry, as in: Sorry-la!
posted by OmieWise at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've spent over a month in Singapore in the last year or so working with a lot of Singaporean nationals, many of whom are part of the societal class that are "discouraged" from using hardcore Singlish. Speaking to us, particularly in formal meetings, there is not a "la" to be heard. The moment we go out for beers, or they start a side conversation with each other the Singlish starts to seep in.

An it always seems like the more emphatic they're being, the more "la" appears.
posted by olinerd at 8:29 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Think of 'la' as a word that replaces 'man' or 'dude'.. as in "Let's go have some beers man la!".

Singlish is definitely very commonly used today, more-so outside of work situations but tends to creep in there as well.

Lots more bizarre Singlish here.
posted by tillwehavefaces at 8:35 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


SG-er here...

1: Can you stick 'la' at the end of most sentence or word?

No la. Only some can. Others cannot.

2: Are there some words that should ALWAYS end with 'la', or NEVER end with 'la'?

No la, depends on how you use. Must look at situation ma.

(I think it's more the intent/purpose/context of the sentence/phrase that determines whether 'la' should be used. For example, you wouldn't use it at the end of a question. I think the use of 'la' was derived from the way 啦 is used in Chinese.)

3: I get that Singlish is officially discouraged by the powers that be - was or is there a backlash to that?

Aiya everyone can still speak la. Sometimes speak sometimes don't speak lor.

(People have always been using it. I suppose it's just not used in more formal situations, or if they're around people that don't understand/speak Singlish.)

4: As slang or informal language, is Singlish still popularly used today?

Ya la... of course we still use it la.

(The Amos Yee videos are kind of... weird. The guy goes on about how he is proud of Singlish etc... while speaking in an American accent... and he has a weird way of saying "Singlish". (like, "sing-GLISH"). Not sure what he's trying to do. I think he sounds weird to a Singaporean ear, but maybe more understandable to Americans? But perhaps his videos are a good approximation of what Singlish sounds like to an American.)
posted by aielen at 10:57 AM on July 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


(I wish I can favourite aielen more than once!)

for both Singlish and Manglish (Malaysian English), the way I've described the logic of it is, 'Asian (usu Chinese) language grammar + English words'. If you have any familiarity with any of the Chinese dialects, it may be helpful, and it does help to illuminate the logic of the sentence construction.
posted by cendawanita at 11:03 AM on July 18, 2013


Aielen's answer is spot on, and Cendawanita's description of Singlish and Manglish is perfect. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that there is a greater Malay influence on Manglish, not to mention "lah" is used in Malay and Chinese.

Think of 'la' as a word that replaces 'man' or 'dude'.. as in "Let's go have some beers man la!".


Eh, not really. And here's why:

1: Can you stick 'la' at the end of most sentence or word?

It depends. "Lah" can be used to soften speech ("No lah, I don't think it works like that lah.") or as emphasis to indicate dismissiveness or impatience. ("Too expensive lah." "Shut up-LAH." "Faster LAH." "Hurry up LAH.") For instance, unbidden, you don't tell your roommate "I'm going to the market-lah. I want to buy bokchoy-lah. Do you want anything-lah?" Many foreigners kinda use "lah" like this when they first discover it. It's incorrect. But if your roommate angrily demands where you're going, then you may respond with, "I'm going to the market-lah. What for ask so many questions?"

2: Are there some words that should ALWAYS end with 'la', or NEVER end with 'la'?

You can sort of add lah to most sentences ("To be or not to be, that is the question-lah."), but as aielen stated, it depends on the context, and you definitely don't end a question with lah. For advance speakers of Singlish/Manglish though, "lah" is sometimes used in the middle of a question like "Why-lah do like that?" This structure, I think, is more Malay than Chinese.

4: As slang or informal language, is Singlish still popularly used today?

Yes. Because speaking English "properly" (speaking grammatical English with a Singaporean/Malaysian accent as opposed to using "Singlish/Manglish" is usually proof of a privileged background. If you speak English grammatically by default, chances are you belong to an affluent minority who speaks English as their first language, who sends their kids to study abroad in the UK or the USA. English is an official language in Singapore and is taught from kindergarten onwards, so technically speaking, everyone in Singapore should be able to communicate in English. But if you grew up in a Chinese-speaking family and environment, Chinese may be a more dominant language and the English you speak may be far more Singlish-y. Also Singlish/Manglish is really fucking efficient as a language and easily understood across races, and it is so much more expressive.
posted by peripathetic at 12:08 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think your actual questions have been answered above. But for some (in my non-expert opinion slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, but still pretty accurate) examples of Singlish, watch some episodes of Under One Roof. It's an English/Singlish language Singaporean sitcom. Here's one.
posted by pianissimo at 9:39 PM on July 18, 2013


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