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Particles Matter!

by Felicia

Natural-sounding Singlish is peppered with particles such as lah, hor, meh and many others. No-one teaches a child how to use these; he absorbs this informally from the environment that he grows up in. These language rules and boundaries are not explicitly articulated, but are used every day in speaking the language. This tacit knowledge, not formal rules, determines what is correct and communicates effectively to speakers of Singlish.

Singlish particles

When I was doing my linguistics training in Singapore, one of our American teachers, wanting to be friendly, would end his questions with, “…, okay lah?” Lah is the best-known of the many particles used in Singlish. But this backfired, because he was completely wrong in how he used it. Every time he used it, I got annoyed with him! I finally told him that lah is not ever used as a question marker! Instead, lah and other Singlish particles are often used to indicate a mood.

Here’s a table borrowed from Gwee Li Sui, a local poet and writer[1]:

Singlish

Translation

I dun have lah.

I really don't have it.

I dun have leh.

For some reason, I don't have it.

I dun have lor.

I wish I had it, but sadly I don't.

I dun have liao.

I used to have it, but I don't anymore.

I dun have ha.

I remind you that I don't have it!

I dun have hor.

Don't look at me; I don't have it.

I dun have mah.

It would help if I had it, but I don't have it.

I dun have meh?

You think I don't have it?

I dun have siah!

I can't freaking believe I don't have it!

The Singlish Bible

Did you know that there is an online Singlish Bible translation2? It is actually a paraphrase with translations contributed by various people. Only a few passages have been completed so far.


As I read the Singlish Bible, I discovered that there were a lot of terms I didn’t understand! Most of these were in Hokkien, and my Hokkien is weak. I myself think that there’s no standard Singlish, but rather there are many overlapping Singlish varieties. The Singlish each person speaks is influenced by the languages they know, and the company they keep. So, my particular Singlish has less Hokkien in it, but more Malay and Cantonese.


Nevertheless, as I read the Singlish Bible verses out loud, my tacit knowledge kicked in. I did feel that the translators had not always got it quite right; some verses just felt wrong to me. For example:


(1) Genesis 1:6–8

6 Den God say, “All the water in between must have dua lobang, so then the dua lobang can separate some water and other water.” 7 So God made the dua lobang, then divide the downstair water from the upstair water; like that lor. 8 Den God say the dua lobang is Heaven. Got evening, got morning, so second day.


Lor in v. 7 seems wrong; it has an air of “it can’t be helped”. Definitely not to be used for God creating a good universe before the Fall. A better way might be “… so then like that, lah.” Lah in this context means something like “obviously” or “of course”.


(2) Matthew 26:14–15

14 Den one of the Twelve, that bugger call Judas Iscariot – he go to the tua kee priests 15 and ask dem “If I gib you Jesus hor, you gib me what meh? Best offer hor.” So they quote him thirty piece of silver.


Meh is definitely out of place here. Meh has an air of “Really? Convince me!” that is totally wrong. I would say, "If I gib you Jesus hor, you gib me what, ah?" Ah is more appropriate because it has a tone of appeal, as in, “Give me a fair deal here.”


Why It Matters

As these Singlish examples demonstrate, tacit knowledge of a language is hard to pin down and describe, but it can access storehouses of meaning and emotion in a language. A natural and interesting Bible translation must surely make use of this type of tacit knowledge to produce an accurate and flavourful translation that will engage its audience. And getting it wrong risks transmitting the wrong meaning, and will certainly be off-putting!


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