Having grown up in Singapore, I find myself slipping into using the word “lah” on top of other words (Q: Can you help me for a minute? A: OK-lah) frequently. Singlish, as it is called, is simply part of the culture here, a local nuance that adds color and music to the language.
Colloquial Singaporean English, also known as Singlish, is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore, and at times in Malaysia and Brunei.
The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi and to a lesser extent various other European, Indic and Sinitic languages, while Singlish syntax resembles southern varieties of Chinese. Also, elements of American and Australian slang have come through from imported television series and films. In the last two decades, an increasing amount of Mandarin words have found their way into Singlish because Mandarin Chinese is taught to most Singaporean Chinese students in school.
The ubiquitous word lah is used at the end of a sentence. It may originate from the Chinese character (啦, Pinyin: Lè/Là), though its usage in Singapore is also influenced by its occurrence in Malay. It simultaneously softens the force of an utterance and entices solidarity, though it can also have the opposite meaning so it is used to signal power. In addition, linguists have suggested that there is more than one lah derivative, so there may be a stressed and an unstressed variant and perhaps as many as nine tonal variants, all having a special pragmatic function.
In Malay, ‘lah’ is used to change a verb into a command or to soften its tone, particularly when usage of the verb may seem impolite. To drink is minum, but ‘Here, drink!’ is “minumlah!”.
Similarly, ‘lah’ is frequently used with imperatives in Singlish: Eat lah! – Just eat!
‘Lah’ also occurs frequently with “Yah” and “No” (hence “Yah lah!” and “No lah!…”). This can, with the appropriate tone, result in a less-brusque declaration and facilitate the flow of conversation. “No more work to do, we go home lah!” However, if the preceding clause is already diminutive or jocular, suffixing it with -lah would be redundant and improper: one would not say “yep lah”, “nope lah”, or “ta lah” (as in the British “Ta” for “thank you”)
‘Lah’ with a low tone might indicate impatience. “Eh, hurry up lah.”
What Of It? Even though the government has tried time and again to stress to Singaporeans that Singlish is considered low class, some Singaporeans hold on to it with some pride, an almost defiant use of Singlish in some circles connoting a form of anti-establishmentism.
Singapore’s Speak Good English Movement attempted to correct signs in and around Singapore where Singlish is being used, and has been met with some resistance. I wonder if Singlish, like London’s Cockney slang, is a way of simply holding on to a part of a cultural identity that many feel is being smoothed-out and homogenized.
I am Curious about the origins of languages, the small nuances that make a country its own, the subtleties of vocabulary, the beauty of a word that can change the meaning of a phrase.