#Singlish in Germany – Give me the currywurst lah!

By Naresh Subhash
Photo: bbc.co.uk

Every Tuesday, Thursday nights and Saturday mornings I take a train to the city center in Stuttgart to attend German language lessons. When I was growing up, my family were huge fans of Vince Powell’s “Mind Your Language” British comedy series, I can honestly say I learnt a good deal of English grammar from watching that show – all four seasons of it. Secretly, I wanted to feel how it would be like sitting in a class like that.

Now I get the sense that I have inevitably fallen into the set of the show every time I walk into class. I have the boisterous Italians sitting in a row, the clueless Greeks in another, the chilled out Polish on my right, the Indian computer expert – a jolly masters student who would probably never master the language, the Russians, whom I believe are versions of their great debutant leader, the Spanish whose essays consist largely of drinking or of another party somewhere in the woods outside Stuttgart. And there’s me, the only Singaporean representative.

My purpose there was clear – to take on the noble act of correcting the easily confused geographical location of Singapore, such as reminding people that Southeast Asia is in fact part of Asia.

German is not an easy language, it is in fact the most annoying, confusing, unemotional, militant language that mankind will ever create.

z.b. ( zum Beispiel , E.g.)

Deutsch: Ich Liebe Dich


Translation: I love you.

However, this is the language that they are incredibly proud of, and multitudes of European migrants who flock over to devour so as to have an opportunity to work in Europe’s strongest economy. The moment you start conversing in Deutsch, you suddenly feel as if you are part of secret group – the cool kids, if you would.

What is in a language? It is the identity of a group of people; a system of communication that is particular to a certain region, or community. So it is inevitable that between learning the 700th– 720th German grammar law I drift back to Singapore, missing the one thing I can truly be proud of – Singlish.

Yes, many have written about how Singlish should be accepted into mainstream Singaporean culture. Equally, there are many who would have and will continue to play out the negative aspects of Singlish. I will not immediately assume a position citing either the pros or cons of Singlish.

Instead, let’s really examine what Singlish means to us as individuals, nationally and globally.

Singlish is not just a brand of English that we have created, neither is it merely an outcome of a melting pot of cultures. It is a language, it has an established linguistic system. While it may not sound as sophisticated as French, German or even Hindi, the language has a structure, that when broken will not only cease to mean anything but would also immediately paint one as a moron – of epic proportions.

Untahanable ( verb. )

- totally, unacceptable

Singlish – the language that quickly evolved during the post independence years (1965– onward), began as a pidgin language form during the colonial years when English, the official administrative language, poured into the streets of Singapore and was adopted by the new migrants, who then mixed the language with expressions respective to their cultural background.

The language initially shared common characteristics with Mangrish (Malay–English) from Malaya, but post independence, developed its own grammatical identity, which helms its roots from Chinese dialects. That is not to say, that the Tamil, and Malay words have not found its way into the ever-evolving Singlish lexicon. However, regardless of the words used, there are structural rules that demand to be adhered to. This then effectively places Singlish in the position of a legitimate language that should be examined fairly closely.

damn cheem liao

- it’s too complicated now

Orientalism as stated by the esteemed theorist Edward Said suggest that it’s not merely a mindset that the West applies on the East, but rather a combination of perception, socio-political, political-economical, educational and cultural attitudes the West places on the “idea” of the East.

With colonisation, Singapore adopted English, the tongue of the colonial, as its main language whilst placing the tongues of the native Malay, migrant Chinese and South Indians secondary. Singlish is perhaps, a “subconscious attempt by the insider” (Said, Orientalism 1977) as neutralising the colonial influence on the shared history and tongue of the Eastern residents within the island state.

As history would illustrate, the language took a great leap of growth after the year 1965, where a mesolectal approach to the language was adopted. Like many living languages, Singlish continues till today (albeit on a basilectal level) to grow and evolve, as with any living language.  As a community of people, we have appropriated the laws of the English language, combining it with the colloquialism of the common languages found within our nation state.

Can Lah …

- possibility (can lah hor)

- awesome  (Can lah!)

- that’s enough! (Can Lah!)

Should we ignore the warnings of the jurisprudence that has made claim that Singlish is indeed a reductive language? Does that mean that Cockney, Manc or SSE (Scottish Standard English) are reductive forms of the English language? These variants of the English language, however, add character, persona and the sense of geography to those who use it, it gives a sense of identity that by itself is a plausible argument for Singlish as a lingua that defines a uniquely Singaporean identity.

As such, I call for Singaporeans to embrace the language in all it’s glory and use it proudly to define ourselves as a country and nation irrespective to how others might define us.

In reflection, we as a nation have subconsciously rejected the imposed image of the “others” by restructuring the imposed lingua by the essence of the colloquial that is already existent within our culture. Simply put, we created a mode of communication that is easily identified and deciphered by Singaporeans – regardless of education, social or cultural background.

Contrary to common believe, Singlish does not impede the performance of Singaporeans in an international and regional level. In any case, more people become intrigued by the language as it grows in vocabulary and remains a “go to” lingua for Singaporeans who find each other on the streets of a Palermo, Italy. Understandably, many would have their reservations of Singlish being a language or identifier, to them I can only say Singlish will always remain a non-imposing language, it is but a colloquial engineered to serve the communication needs of a community of people.

This writer has begun taking efforts infusing Singlish characteristics into the German language, coining the term ‘SingDish’. His efforts are at its infant stages, and probably would never fully evolve as a colloquial, quite honestly, due to his terrible distaste for German currywurst