How does Singaporean English differ from Standard British English?

Seminar Paper, 2020

14 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 History of Singaporean English

3 Characteristics of Singaporean English
3.1 Definition
3.2 Phonology/pronunciation
3.3 Syntax and morphology
3.4 Discourse particles
3.5 Vocabulary and idioms

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Singaporean English is spoken roughly by 4 million people (Trudgill & Hannah, 2008) as a postcolonial British English variety. A nation, which has been independent for about 60 years, underwent a radical change from poor developmental conditions to one of the leading nations worldwide regarding technology and sustainable living (Hofer & Kolbeinsson, 2019). This paper rests on the hypothesis that Singaporean English also underwent such a radical (language) development and differs considerably from Standard British English. In order to verify the assumption, this term paper analyses the characteristics of this variety and compares it to British Standard English. Firstly, the paper gives a brief overview on how Singapore has come in contact with the English language and how it has developed until now. Then Singaporean English is analyzed in depth in the areas of phonology, syntax/morphology, discourse particles, vocabulary and idioms. In the area of phonology, the Standard British English accent of Received Pronunciation (RP) is used as a reference, as it is the model of reference in terms of pronunciation commonly used in EFL/ESL classrooms and therefore, widely known. In the other areas Standard British English is referred to.

2 History of Singaporean English

The island of Singapore has been a place for trade for many years before the first British settlement was set up there (Wee, 2008). As Gupta (1998) points out, the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 marked the beginning of a more formal connection with the British, which ultimately led to the status that the English language has today. According to Bloom (1986), the British faced a community divided into four groups: Malays, Chinese, Indians and “others”. All of these four groups had their own legal system. In addition to that the first three ethnic ones also had a so called “capitan”, who oversaw the system. The discovery of this system is of significant importance today and will be explained later on. As in many other settlements, the British wanted to establish an English-educated elite, in which they had only succeeded partially by 1870 (Bloom, 1986). However, the spread of the English language took place and was at some point considered the language of socioeconomic mobility. In the year 1900, English had already reached a considerably wider occupational range and the established local English-educated elite showed a greater language proficiency than in the beginning of the settlement (Wee, 2008).

The reign of the British ended in 1959 (Trudgill & Hannah, 2008), however, by that time English had already been established as the language of communication in a number of schools. Platt & Weber (1980) point out that those so-called English-medium schools taught the language in order to help its learners to have better employment and a knowledge of the western way of life later on. As the English language was considered to be so prestigious, other family members, especially younger brothers or sisters tried to acquire the language from their older siblings. Consequently, a more colloquial variety developed at home contrary to the more standardized variety taught at schools. This colloquial variety was highly influenced by the other local languages including Cantonese, Malay, Tamil or Hokkien and spread quickly from schools to playgrounds and ultimately to other homes where it was quickly adopted as a prestigious alternative to the local ethnic variety (Platt & Weber, 1980).

Today, the initially explained “capitan system” is still present in the country’s policy of “multiculturalism”. This policy treats Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English as its official languages forming a modern version of the system. In order to keep the “compartmentalization and distinctiveness” of Singapore, English serves as a neutral lingua franca to communicate internationally and inter-ethnically (Wee, 2008).

3 Characteristics of Singaporean English

3.1 Definition

According to Platt, Weber & Ho (1984), there exist certain features that postcolonial English varieties have in common. First of all, the development in an area where English was not spoken by neither natives nor the majority of the population, secondly, the development as the medium of instruction and as a subject at schools, thirdly, the use as a means of communication for government officials as well as speakers and writers, and lastly, the process of localization and adaption of the English language to the needs of the local population.

The so called “English-knowing bilingualism” is characterized by Tan (1986, in Wee, 2008) as an encouragement for all the children to learn English as a gateway to knowledge, technology and worldwide expertise; but also, to learn their mother tongue in order to not forget their culture and heritage. Wee (2008) agrees that in Singapore, English is treated as a neutral medium of communication as well as the language of education. Hence the English language is not considered a mother tongue. However, according to Hannah & Trudgill (2008), the colloquial variety of Singaporean English, called Singlish, is already undergoing the process of a so called “shift variety”. Hereby, the former English as a second language (ESL) variety is slowly becoming an English as a Native Language (ENL) variety.

As all of the features that postcolonial English varieties have in common can be found in Singaporean English according to the examples stated above, it is safe to say that Singaporean English is in fact a postcolonial variety and differs from Standard English in the following areas: pronunciation, vocabulary/idioms, grammar and discourse style (Jenkins, 2014). In order to properly compare Singaporean English to Standard English, this paper focuses on Singlish (CollSgE), the colloquial variety and Standard British English (SBE) is used as a reference.

3.2 Phonology/pronunciation

Regarding phonology and phonological processes, it is difficult to compare Singlish with Standard British English in general as there are many different accents and dialects included. Therefore, this paper uses Received Pronunciation (RP) as a reference.

There exist several differences between RP Standard English and Singlish. Speakers of Singaporean English seem to be aware of differences in vowel length, however, they do not normally make a distinction themselves (Hung, 1995). For example, in RP the pairs pool/pull would be [pu:l/pul] whereas in Singlish they are pronounced the same (Wee, 2008). Jenkins (2014) comes to a similar conclusion as she states that postcolonial English varieties generally tend to do so, adding that the word staff in RP [sta:f] turns into [stAf] making it sound more like stuff. Consonants in Singlish do not differ too much from RP regarding the onset of a syllable. However, as Hung (1995) notes, a maximum of two to three consonants is used regarding the coda. Therefore, words like texts [teksts] and glimpsed [glimpst], including four consecutive consonants in the coda are reduced to two [teks] and three [glimst] (Wee, 2008). Contrary to RP, in Singlish syllabic laterals and nasals in the nucleus position are avoided. In order to do so, a schwa-sound is inserted in the nucleus position. The words button [bAtn], bottle [bot|] and whistle [wis|] turn into [batsn] [botsl] [wissl]. Furthermore, Colloquial Singaporean English speakers tend to devoice consonants in the final position (Trudgill & Hannah, 2008). For example, RP pronounced leg [leg], news [nju:z] or tab [teb] become [lsk], [njus] and [tsp].

Another phonological process is consonant deletion. As this process deletes stops that are in the final position of the word, different words are created: limp pronounced [lim] becomes the same as limb and stink pronounced [stiq] becomes the same as sting. Therefore, contextualization is important to maintain comprehension. However, consonant deletion is quite complex as adding the “ing” - form to a a word leads to no deletion but forming the past tense, again, does. Accordingly, the word limping stays [RP- limpiq] and does not turn into [lim’iq] or [limiq]. The word helped [RP - hslpt] becomes [help] missing the last /t/ sound, stabbed [RP - stebd] does not become [stsb] but [stsp] due to the consonant devoicing being added. Some words do not follow the rule of the final stop being deleted. It does apparently not apply when the second last consonant is a continuant: milk, bolt, and silk stay the same (Wee, 2008).

The third phonological process described by Wee (2008) and Trudgill & Hannah (2008) is called glottalization and refers to the stops in the final position of the word being unreleased or stops being deleted deliberately to make an unreleased sound. For example, the word tap [RP - t^p] becomes [tsp’], the apostrophe signaling the glottal


Excerpt out of 14 pages


How does Singaporean English differ from Standard British English?
University of Linz
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ISBN (Book)
Singaporean English, Singlish, British English, phonology, pronunciation, syntax, morphology, discourse particles, vocabulary, idioms
Quote paper
Axel Kolbeinsson (Author), 2020, How does Singaporean English differ from Standard British English?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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