When you settle in a new country, the challenge of learning a new language can often be one of the most memorable experiences. But what if you move somewhere so multicultural that there are four official languages? You get a quirky unofficial fifth language!
Singlish is that unofficial fifth language of Singapore. It stems from English and features Malay, Chinese and Tamil dialects. The end result is a unique cultural patchwork that Singaporeans around the world know by heart.
Calling Singapore home now? Here's a Singlish guide for you. Pick up a few easy words and speak like a local, lah.
'Lah' is the simplest and most iconic word in Singlish - think 'yeah mate' in Australia or 'eh' in Canada. But what if we told you it has no meaning? 'Lah' is an expression after a statement as a mere emphasis.
How to use it: "What's for lunch today?" "Chicken rice sounds good lah!" "Okay can!"
One thing about Singlish is it gets straight to the point. 'Can' is a snappy way of saying yes to a request or whether something can be done, cutting 'sure, yes we can' to a simple 'can'. Can you grasp it? Can!
How to use it: Uncle: "Hey, can we go to this place for dinner?"; Auntie: "Can, I go chope now."
Hawker centres are a foodie mecca in Singapore, and getting a table at the popular ones can be quite competitive. If you're tasked to brave the crowd for a seat, do it like a Singaporean. Don't say "I'll get a table", say "I chope lah". People actually 'chope' by placing a tissue packet (or any other handy items they can afford to lose) on the table - that's something you can try.
How to use it: "Be considerate, just chope for four people, don't be too kiasu."
Everyone has FOMO - fear of missing out. We get it, it's human nature. In Singapore we call this 'kiasu'. But unlike the English term FOMO we're used to, 'kiasu' is often used for calling out on someone's selfish behaviour.
How to use it: "These aunties shoved into the crowd just for a freebie. How kiasu leh!"
One does not simply just use 'lah' in Singapore. Another expression you'll hear a lot is 'leh', which is a softer version of 'lah'. You can also use it to express uncertainty or doubt. Handy isn't it?
How to use it: "I didn’t know opening a bank account at HSBC could be so simple leh, paiseh."
Remember the last time you got into an embarrassing situation? Here's the word for it - 'paiseh'. You can use it as a simple 'sorry', or as an adjective to describe the sheepishness you felt.
How to use it: "Oops paiseh I didn't see the queue" or "I was too paiseh for ask for extra portion lah, but the uncle still gave me one, by the way food so shiok."
Singapore is a cosmopolitan city. No matter if you're trying out the local delicacies, or visiting the landmarks at Marina Bay or Sentosa, you'll see plenty of pleasant surprises. Want to say something's cool? Here's the Singaporean word - 'shiok'.
How to use it: "The place we went to last time so shiok, let's go again!"; "Sure but let's not bo jio anyone next time."
'Bo jio' is a word to describe the fact you're not invited to a social activity, say a party or a happy hour session. Hopefully you won't have to use this word very often, but it might be handy to know. Not invited for lunch with colleagues? That's 'bo jio'. Sorry to hear that, it happens.
How to use it: "You guys bo jio me for drinks again ah? Walao eh..."
This is what Singaporeans say when they're surprised, slightly dismayed or when something catches their attention. Think 'whoa', 'c'mon' or 'wow', but as a Hokkien-Chinese dialect.
How to use it: "Walao eh, that set lunch is a good bargain what."
In the 'land of the Merlion' - the nation's official symbol featuring a lion and a fish - the function of the simple word 'what' is more than just for asking questions. It's also an expression for emphasising your point or showing disagreement.
How to use it: "This is a good bargain what, other places cannot find one."
Similar to 'what', the word 'one' isn't just a number. It can be used for emphasising an adjective, adverb or status. Think 'this one' but with 'one' as a standalone expression and 'this' replaced by the point you want to highlight.
How to use it: "This I cannot afford one. Why we always go to this kind of atas place?
There are plenty of high-end restaurants and malls in Singapore. Add to the poshness, Singapore-style, and use the word 'atas'. With our help as your global financial partner, you wouldn't need to worry too much about the cost of 'atas'.
How to use it: "Walao this restaurant so atas one, cannot afford"; "Why you so liddat, use reward points from HSBC credit cards okay lor."
Why you so liddat?
'Why you so liddat?' is actually 'why're you so like that?' in English. This is how Singaporean express dismay at their peers. It's something like 'how could you?' or 'why are you behaving like this?'. The phrase is so popular that it's even been made into a song.
How to use it: Mum: "You must reach home before 11pm, else I will lock the door"; "Son: "It’s too early, why you so liddat?"
Congratulations, you've finished your beginner's guide to Singlish! We've given you 13 most common Singlish words to get started, so go out, practice with the locals and have fun with it.
At HSBC, we're here to help you through your expat journey in Singapore. Visit our expat guide to see what services we offer, or check out our list of essential Singaporean festivals.