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Singapore English

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2600 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The range of domains and depth of use of English are closely related to the degree and manner of nativization in a non native variety. For the second category of users, however, the use of English is restricted to international purposes and the elite of societies in certain very specific domains like academic discussions and publications.

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The Singapore award-winning poet, Edwin Thumboo, expresses:

We were very conscious of writing in English but not writing in England. We had to domesticate the English Language, give it a local habitation. For instance, I have never published a poem about a nightingale. But, of course, you cannot substitute one bird for another; you have to make the language your own. We were looking for an identity while using English to express it. (The Straits Times, 1989, November 1)

Countries are institutionalized varieties, which have developed over an extended period of time and are now used in many domains. In his arguments for recognizing these varieties, Kachru says that “non-native users of English have internalizations which are linked to their own multilinguistic, sociolinguistic and sociocultural contexts” (B. B. Kachru, 1991, p. 5). The varieties differ from native varieties, in range and depth of their nativized features. The deviations from native norms occur at almost all linguistic levels -phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, style and discourse, and they are systematic and productive.

These latter varieties of non-native English (or new English (for examples of non-native English, see (Moag, 1982), as they have been called recently, have been accorded status by both native and non-native speakers and have received much attention from linguists, educators and writers. Some linguists have gone to the extent of advocating use of the educated nativized variety of English as the standard for teaching (Tay & Gupta 1983; Gupta 1986).

Historical Background of English in Singapore and Malaysia

Any historical discussion on Singapore, especially relating to the period before its independence in 1965, is almost always linked to historical development in Malaysia. This is inevitable as Singapore was one of the Straits Settlements in British Malaya and, in 1963, it became a political component of the independent

Malaysia. Therefore, until its separation from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore and Malaysia constituted a single political entity.

The establishment of British settlements in Penang (1786) and Singapore (1819) and the British take-over of Malacca in 1824 from the Dutch in Great Britain’s attempt to control access to the Straits of Malacca, essential to its tea trade with China, mark the beginning of the influx of immigrants and the development of large and diverse speech communities in Malaya.

The increasing British influence on the Malay

Peninsula coincided with the further influx of large groups of Chinese from the south-eastern provinces of China and the Tamil-speaking Indians from South India. This was a result of increased production of tin and, at the beginning of twentieth century, the establishment of the rubber industry (Platt & Weber,


Platt and Weber note that “by the twentieth century there had developed in the British Straits Settlements and the Malay States a series of complex communities consisting not only of ethnic subgroups speaking their own native languages and dialects but also belonging to different social classes and backgrounds and engaged in different forms of employment” (Platt & Weber, 1980, p. 4).

At the beginning of nineteenth century, British interests in Malaya and the Straits Settlements expanded, and it was clear to some members of non European ethnic groups that English was an important, powerful language. It was the language of the colonial masters; it was the language of government and administration, and it was used extensively in the judiciary. Thus, a good command of the language was certainly an asset.

However, with the rapid expansion of their interests in the region, the British soon saw the need for a group of English-educated non-Europeans who could assist them in their duties. They thus authorized the establishment of private secular mission-supported schools in the Straits Settlements at the beginning of the nineteenth century (for a brief account of the history of English education from 1819 to after 1978, see Chua, 1990).

These schools were at first available only to children from the well-to-do families of the different ethnic groups but later medium families were able to use these education. These English-educated school children would use English at home with their neighbors who also attended English-medium schools. Their younger siblings, being impressed by the new language, also acquired some English even before starting school. Thus, the use of English spread from the school domain to the home domain, and later, to the employment and friendship domains (Platt & Weber, 1980).

It is thus clear that unlike some other varieties of English, Singapore-Malaysian English has developed through education. Some varieties of English like American English, Australian English, Canadian English, New Zealand English, etc. have evolved in a “natural” way because of mixing of settlers over a period of time, while others like creoles have developed though pidgin English (Platt & Weber, 1980).

The post-colonial era in the history of Malaysia and Singapore is marked by two major political changes. One was the independence of Malaya in 1957 from British rule, followed by the formation of Malaysia incorporating the Federation of Malaya, the crown states of Sabah and Sarawak and the then self-overned Singapore in 1963. The other was the separation of Singapore from the political union of Malaysia in 1965.These political changes have had an immense influence on the spread and use of English in Malaysia and Singapore.

English spread in Singapore

Unlike Malaysia, where the use of English is gradually decreasing, Singapore has seen an expansion in its use. This is mainly due to increased enrollments in English-medium schools (Doraisamy ,1969).At the end of 1983, when the Ministry of Education decided that all schools, starting from January 1984, would be gradually converted into National Stream schools and English will be taught as first language.

However, as more people are educated in English and with fewer people speaking Malay, English is slowly replacing Malay as the language for inter-ethnic communication, especially among the younger generation (for discussions on interethnic communication, see Platt & Weber, 1980, and Tay1982a) .

As English is now the common language in all schools we can thus assume that it will play an even more important role in international domains like trade, diplomacy, cultural exchange, conferences and intranational domains such as government administration, law, education, home and friendship communication in the near future.

The widespread use of English within the nation itself inevitably means that English has gone through the process called “indigenization” (Moag & Moag, 1977; Moag, 1982; Richards, 1979a) or “nativization” (B. B. Kachru, 1983a). To use B. B. Kachru’s words (B. B. Kachru, 1982b), English has been “transplanted” from its source country (Britain) and “acculturated” to the local environment. What this means is that certain features in native British English have been permanently modified in view of the new cultural setting in Singapore which involves the interplay of the distinct ethnic cultures of Malays, Indians, and Chinese. These features manifest themselves in the phonology, lexis, syntax, semantics and styles of discourse in Singapore English.

Therefore, when Singaporean English users speak or write English, there are telling signs that distinguish them from native English speakers or writers from Britain, America, Australia or New Zealand, although educated Singaporean speakers or writers have little problem making themselves understood. What are the features that distinguish the English of Singaporeans from that of, for example, the Englishmen or Americans?

Characteristics and features of Singapore English

The pioneering work done on Singapore and Malaysian English is the book by Tongue entitled The English of Singapore and Malaysia (1974). The book contains useful data on the phonology, syntax and lexis of Singapore English but it lacks theoretical foundation. The data are categorized under the dichotomy of “standard” and “sub-standard” forms. Some of the sub-standard forms given are actually not “wrong” but used in the variety of English. More importantly, Singaporean English is not treated as a system on its own, and the sociolinguistic contexts surrounding the use of “sub-standard” forms are not considered.

Crewe’s works (1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1979) reflect his “purist” attitudes towards Singapore English. He regards Singapore English as a “foreign” language and implies that the English-educated Singaporean is a helpless and pitiable person.

Later, Crewe came forward with the book British English and Singapore English.Exercises in Awareness (Crewe, 1979). The book claims to help Singaporeans to get rid of “Singaporeanisms” with a series of exercises where individual sentences have to be corrected so as to make them look more like British English.

A more scholarly and systematic treatment of Singapore and Malaysian English is by Platt and Weber in their book entitled English in Singapore and Malaysia (1980). Using the methods of statistical correlation designed by Labov (1972a, 1972b), they observe that there is a direct correlation between the degree and frequency of divergence from Standard British English and variables such as formality, topic, domain and relationship of interlocutors. They looked at Singapore English as a system.

Singapore English have been discussed from different views and therefore variety of characteristics and features have been mentioned and discussed. This study covers parts of these characteristics.

Rythem: Deterding (Deterding, 2001; Deterding, Brown, & Low, 2005) investigated the contrasting rhythmic properties of two varieties of English: Singapore English, which is often described as syllable-timed, and British English, which is more usually assumed to be stress-timed. Detering’s (2001) study showed that there is a significantly greater variability in this measure of syllable-to-syllable duration for British English, which supports previous indications that, by comparison, Singapore English might indeed be regarded as being more syllable-timed. Additionally, it was found that there is little evidence of the influence of speaking rate on the measured differences in rhythm, but there is some evidence that the greater frequency of reduced syllables with a schwa in British English contributes to the difference between the two varieties.


Difference between Singapore and British English grammar has been discussed by scholars (Deterding, Low, & Brown, 2003; Lim, 2004).

• Verbs:Verb generally appears in an uninflected form (Wee, 2004).For example, as Wee shows, “the verb eat is not marked for tense or number. Because the verb are uninflected, time and aspectual information are conveyed via words (using words like yesterday or already).

o A.He eat here yesterday

o B. He not yet eat lunch

o C. They eat already

Aspect is marked via forms like always, already or still. Thus, always is used to mark habituality

o The bus always late

The progressive aspect is marked by still

o Late already, you still eat.

Be and got: Platt and Weber (1980) noted that Singapore English clauses that are attributive or equative tend not to use the verb be

o The house very nice

The verb got is used variously in Singapore English as a perfective, a possessive, and an existentional marker

o He got go to Japan

o You got buy lottery?

o You got nice shirt

o Here got many people

• Nouns: As Wee (2004) mentioned: “Within the noun phrase, Singaporean tends to make use of articles. It treats non count nouns and its relstive clauses are ordered rather differently than their counterparts in more standard varieties of English”(p. 1058)

• Objects: Object preposing is another characteristic of Singapore English. “The object, (direct or indirect) is commonly preposed, giving rise to example like following”:

o To my sister sometimes I speak English

o The movie don’t know whether good or not

• Question forming:” In wh-interrogatives, the interrogative pronoun typically remains in situ”(Wee, 2004, p. 1063)

o You buy what?

o This bus go where?

For yes/no questions, they make use of the invariant tag is it. It also has another tag or not

o The food good or not?

o You busy or not?

• The passive:” Singaporean use kena passive phrase” (Wee, 2004, p. 1064)

o The thief kena caught (by the police)

• Adjective reduplication: “Adjective reduplication in Singapore English intensifies the meaning of the base adjective”:

o Don’t always eat sweet-sweet (very sweet) things.

La and Lah:

These two Variables perform an important part in Singapore English and are interesting topics for linguistic experts. For instance, findings from Bell and Ser (1983) concluded that: “The existence of strict rules governing the occurrence of La not only in sentences but also inside the structure of noun phrases and verb phrases. La demonstrates the value of solidarity, friendship, a reduction of social distance between participants, in contrast with Lah dignals hostility and social distancing function”(p.17)


Bell, R. T., & Ser, L. P. Q. (1983). ‘To-day la?’ ‘Tomorrow lah!’; the LA Particle in Singapore English. RELC Journal, 14(2), 1-18.

Deterding, D. (2001). The measurement of rhythm: a comparison of Singapore and British English. Journal of Phonetics, 29, 217-230.

Deterding, D., Brown, A., & Low, E. L. (2005). English in Singapore : phonetic research on a corpus. Singapore ; New York: McGraw Hill.

Deterding, D., Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). English in Singapore : research on grammar. Singapore ; New York: McGraw Hill.

Lim, L. (2004). Singapore English : a grammatical description. Amsterdam ; Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Platt, J. T., & Weber, H. (1980). English in Singapore and Malaysia : status, features, functions. Kuala Lumpur ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Wee, L. (2004). Singapore English: morphology and syntax. In E. W. Schneider & B. Kortmann (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English : a multimedia reference tool. Berlin ; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.



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