Why You So Blur Like Sotong: A Singlish Lesson for Baffled Expats

Eh don't blur sotong already. Class starting leh!

It was a punchline before it became a badge of honour to all who mastered it. Some even argue it’s a language on its own. Singlish is one of the most distinctive aspects of Singaporean identity. Now, everyone living in Singapore for a longer period usually learns Singlish to fit in, because most Singaporeans use it. Even the Singaporean government has embraced it, even if it tried to suppress it in the past. There’s even a Singlish Wordle: Word-leh. It can be difficult to wrap your head around it as Singlish straddles multiple languages. Just imagine—you can use words from four languages in one sentence! But steady, ok? We can do this.

What is Singlish?

It’s a portmanteau of Singapore and English. In technical terms, it’s an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore. Manglish, i.e. Malaysian English, as well as Bazaar Malay, are close cousins. Though Singlish is more influenced by the Chinese dialects, while Manglish receives more Malay influence.

The History of Singlish

Singlish arose as different ethnicities mingled for a prolonged period. In pre-colonial times, most of the population on the island consisted of thriving Malay communities, such as Orang Bugis, and Orang Laut. As Britain colonised Singapore and established English-medium education, elements of English filtered out of schools and onto the streets. By then, other ethnicities began to take root in Singapore, namely the Southern Chinese, Indians, and other Europeans.

With time, non-native speakers of the English language used English as a common language to communicate with speakers of the many languages used in Singapore. The working class then learned elements of English outside of formal schooling and mixed in elements of their native languages. Singlish was thus born, with substantial influences from Indian English, Peranakan, Malay, Tamil, and the southern varieties of Chinese. More and more people began to use Singlish as a neutral language, allowing communities to communicate with each other.

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Singlish Today

Singlish has continued to evolve through the decades since Singapore’s colonisation. With its funny colloquialisms and vibrant imagery, Singaporeans formed a strong connection to Singlish. By the 1990s and 2000s, the hit sitcoms in Singapore used Singlish profusely, riding on the backs of Phua Chu Kang, a Singaporean everyman who mainly spoke in Singlish. 

Yet, the government wanted to present Singapore as pristine and business-friendly (whatever that means). It launched several initiatives to promote the use of standard English. One of its biggest programmes was the Speak Good English Movement. The prime minister at the time, Goh Chok Tong, said “If they [the younger generation] speak Singlish when they can speak good English, they are doing a disservice to Singapore”.

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But today, the programme seemed to back off a bit, with its website declaring that “The Speak Good English Movement recognises the existence of Singlish as a cultural marker for many Singaporeans. We aim to help those who speak only Singlish, and those who think Singlish is English, to speak Standard English.”

Honestly, what is good English anyways? Can communicate, ok already what! That said, the state of Singlish today belays the complex intricacies between language, culture, and identity in Singapore. Plenty of Singaporeans and foreigners alike still possess an affinity for Singlish. 

16 Common Singlish Words and Phrases

1. Bojio

Another Hokkien phrase, and it translates to ‘never invite’. To be used when you didn’t get invited to something. It also not-so-subtly hints at a desire for an invite; used unabashedly.

“You’re going to have dinner at the St Regis?! Bojio!”

2. Blur Like Sotong/Blur Sotong/Blur

Sotong is the Malay word for squid, and the meaning of blur like sotong refers to people who are a little slow catching on or have trouble understanding something. It is supposed to be comparable to the squid’s ink that blurs a squid’s predator.

“Don’t be so blur sotong, we already mentioned it in the group chat.”

3. Chope/Chop

This word has Hindi and Punjabi origins to it. It’s derivative means to stamp or to brand something. Chop in Singlish means to reserve a table at the place to eat. This is usually done by placing a small article such as a tissue packet, on the table. It is done in crowded hawker centres and food courts where there are large crowds and seating is limited.

“Why don’t you go chope seats while I queue up to order the Hokkien Mee?”

4. Kiasu

This is a Teochew term (驚輸/惊输) that is more popular with the older generations of Singaporeans, as it embodies their mantra of life. Kiasu means being afraid to lose out or miss out on something.

A good comparison to kiasu would be FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out). Kiasu parents would get their children signed up for primary schools even before birth,; kiasu Apple lovers queue up for the newest iPhone a week before the release date. You get the idea.

“That aunty is so kiasu, she bought a tent and pitched it outside the Apple store… the iPhone XI doesn’t come out till next month!”

5. Kiasi

It’s the sister to ‘kiasu’ (驚死/惊死) It’s often used similarly as “kiasu”, which literally means ‘afraid of dying’. But you can use it to accuse someone of being a coward or being hesitant.

“Just leave the office lah, not like you have any work to do. So kiasi for what?”

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6. Lah/Leh/Lor/Mah/Ah

These are words used at the end of a sentence to emphasise the statement or the request. Most sentences would mean the same thing without it.

“It’s raining lah.” Or, “Buy some food for me leh.”

7. Paiseh

This word comes from the Hokkien word 歹勢/歹势 (pháiⁿ-sè). Paiseh means to be embarrassed by a mistake made but is mainly used to apologize.

“Paiseh ah, I didn’t mean to spill milk on your pants”

8. Power La/Power

The term usually means to praise someone or something.

“Power la you, finish your homework so fast.”

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9. Sia

A Malay term denoting an exclamation.

“Wah that car is damn cool sia!”

10. Sian

Derived from the Hokkien/Teochew character ‘𤺪 (siān), This is a cry for when you’re bored or just being tired of life.

Example: “Sian. Why is the queue so long.”

11. Siao

To call someone “siao” is to call them crazy. Usually used when the said person is talking about doing something seemingly impossible or against the norm.

“You siao ah! Nobody eats fried chicken 5 days in a row!”

12. Sibeh

From the Teochew phrase 死父 (si2-bê6). In literal terms, it’s a vulgar phrase that means ‘dead father’. But the Singlish term is less severe, where it’s a more dramatic way to say ‘very’

“Sibeh sian sia, boss don’t let us work from home.”

13. Spoil market

To do so well at something that everyone else in the ‘market’ falls short in comparison.

“That guy’s got it all, he’s young, rich and handsome, he spoil market for the rest of us single guys.”

14. Steady

This is one of the more flexible Singlish expressions. It could be used to praise someone as being cool and steady.

“You can still find an affordable Singapore condo rental? Steady la!”

It could also be used as a way of agreeing over something.

“Oh you want to get Korean BBQ also? Steady la!”

The term can be used to signify a couple being officially attached.

“Eh, you two steady or not ah?” 

15.Talk Cock Sing Song

“Talk Cock” alone, is derived from the archaic English phrase ‘a cock and bull story’. It is used when someone is spouting nonsense, or something untrue.

Whereas talk cock sing song actually means to chat casually, especially with people who are close to you like friends and families. An English variation of this would be to ‘chew the fat’.

“They just talk cock and sing song the whole of last night.”

16. Wah Piang/Wah Lau/Alamak

Now wah piang and wah lau are inherently similar, they are both used as an expression of bewilderment or shock. Alamak is a Malay variant that carries a similar meaning.

“Wah Lau! They ran out of chicken rice already? It’s only 2pm!

About the Writer: Benedict Lim

As the resident punmaker, Benedict is really bad at making people laugh. They’re much better at diving into the nuances of the things they write about.

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