Singlish: Essential Phrases for Navigating Singapore Like a Local

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As its name suggests, Singlish is a mixture of English and Singapore’s three other official languages: Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Technically a creole language – a language developed from a mixture of two or more with a fully developed vocabulary and system of grammar – this linguistic melting pot has been spoken in Singapore in some form or another since 1965.

Although not used in formal communication, locals embrace it as a significant part of the country’s cultural make up, while its use has long been frowned upon by the government. Either way, speaking even a little Singlish during your time will help endear you to the locals – here’s a list of essential Singlish phrases to show off your skills when you’re cruising Singapore.

Catch No Ball

In an unfamiliar area, you’ll probably have some difficulty understanding the native tongue. Derived from Hokkien dialect, catch no ball is used to indicate that the speaker doesn’t understand what’s being said. For example, locals might say something like “can you repeat that, I catch no ball.”

Shiok

Say for instance, you’ve just sampled some food that’s so taste-bud tantalising you need to exclaim something upon being asked “how’s the food?” Shiok is the word to use! Meaning ‘great’, it’s one of the most common words you’ll hear and used often to express amazement of pleasure.

Die die must try

This rather morbid-sounding exclamation is kind of similar to the phrase ‘to die for’. Locals use this to say that something (whether it’s food or an outing) is so incredible, it has to be tried. If you hear someone saying this, then you know it’ll be good.

Orh

Perhaps you’ve asked for directions and need to reply in the affirmative to understand where you’re going. Orh is a short expression akin to ok or I understand. If you need to look like a seasoned Singlish speaker, just say this in reply to everything.

Paiseh

From the Hokkien dialect term meaning “embarrassed”, paiseh is used much in the same way the English word sorry is used. The likelihood you’ll need to use this is slim, but at least it’s there if you have to.

Can

Usually used to indicate consent or agreement, can is pronounced just as it looks and is an example of an English word taken on loan without changing its meaning too much. Can can is used for emphasis, while cannot is used in the negative.

Just Nice

Though it might sound only vaguely complimentary, this short phrase is used when something is spot on and right to your liking. If your waiter asks you how your food is, this is the phrase you should reply with (if your food is nice that is).

Lah

You’re sure to hear this more often than not while you’re here. The ubiquitous lah can mean many things, from emphasising particular statements to showing solidarity with other members of the conversation. It’s easy to use incorrectly because it’s such a common word, but with enough practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

Ta Pau

If you’ve eaten too much and can’t manage another bite, say ta pau to your waiter and they’ll pack the food up for you to take away and eat later. From a Cantonese phrase meaning to take away, this handy little phrase is essential if you’ve got eyes bigger than your stomach.

Chiong

When travelling in a particularly slow taxi, a simple mention of the word chiong will let your driver know to put the pedal to the metal. Chop chop is frequently also used to mean “hurry up”, too.

5C           

An interesting phrase that certainly gives you an insight into Singapore’s culture. Literally, it stands for Car, Cash, Credit Card, Condominium and Country Club membership – an expression that defines material success of people in Singapore – the country’s equivalent of the American Dream.

Lobo

Originally a military acronym meaning “left out of battle order” to avoid a complete wipe-out of an army by their enemies. In Singlish, it’s more broadly used to describe a lazy person. You won’t need to use this word, but at least there’s an interesting story behind it.

Talk Cock

Stemming from the 18th-century English phrase “a cock and bull story”, used to describe untrue stories. Talk cock is variously used in Singlish to imply somebody is talking nonsense, or to catch up and gossip when used by friends.

Makan

The Singlish word makan, also used in Malay, literally means “eat”. Heard often throughout Singapore, the phrase “let’s go makan” will crop up frequently during your time here.

Where bas?

A useful one for when you need to get around the city, this literally means “where is the bus stop?” A quick orh or OK lah will show you’ve understood what they mean.

Now that you’re speaking the language, head over to our dedicated Singapore cruise page and get planning your next trip, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 1300 522 460

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About Author

Alyssa Beit

Alyssa lives in Sydney, NSW. Born on the 14th October and is a Social and Human Service Assistant at Cruise 1st Australia. She is in her early 40’s and loves tranquility on luxury cruises.

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