A Dictionary of Singlish.

A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English is amazingly good; it’s like the OED of Singlish. We’ve discussed Singlish before (most recently here), and I’ve always found it a very interesting variety of English; how did I never know about this site, which has been around since 2004? At any rate, here are the first few entries:

AA adj. [Eng., abbrev. of a(ttract a(ttention] Blatant, conspicuous, showy, unashamed.
2005 Renee Tan The Sunday Times, 27 February, 38 “Never see she show half ball meh.. so A.A.!” What it means: “Can’t you see she’s revealing a lot of cleavage.. so attract-attention!”

abang /ah-bahng, ˈɑbɑŋ/ n. [Mal., elder brother; male cousin or male friend of one’s own generation (Winstedt); Ind. abang older brother or sister; form of reference for older males; form of address by wife to husband regardless of latter’s age (Echols & Shadily, Ind.–Eng.)]
[1955 R.J. Wilkinson A Malay–English Dictionary, vol. 1, 1 abang. .. (Mal., Java) «Elder brother»; .. Also, familiarly, of persons regarded as elder brothers, such as elder cousins and intimate friends; occasionally, a term used by a wife to a husband.. 1963 Richard Winstedt An Unabridged Malay–English Dictionary 1 abang.. elder brother, male cousin or male friend or one’s own generation, wife’s term for husband of any age..]
Mal. slang A familiar term of address for a male relative or close friend who is of one’s generation but older than oneself.

acar, achar /ah-chah, ˈɑtʃɑ/ n. [Mal. < Hind. अचार acār (McGregor) < Pers. اﭼار achár powdered or salted meats, pickles or fruits, preserved in salt, vinegar, honey or syrup, particularly onions preserved in vinegar; also the pickle or liquor in which these meats or fruits are preserved (Johnson); pickles (Palmer)]
[1955 R.J. Wilkinson A Malay–English Dictionary, vol. 1, 3 achar.. Pickle; preserve in acid. .. The acid used is native vinegar (chuka jawa) flavoured with coriander, ginger, red-pepper, etc.]
Vegetables, usu. including cabbage, carrot and cucumber, which are pickled with chillies and vinegar and have crushed peanuts and sesame seeds added to them.
2004 Justin Cheong Today (Festive Special), 10 December, 2 [A] bottle of his mother’s achar (pickled vegetables).. 2005 Alan John The Sunday Times (LifeStyle), 6 February, L12 .. Acar Awak, vinegared vegetables drenched in a garlicky chilli sauce with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.

That’s so well done I find it hard to imagine how it could be any better, and if I didn’t have to work I’d probably spend the rest of the evening playing around in it. Best lah!


  1. The best/worst thing about this site is that it makes you want to track down all of the citation sources too.

  2. It’s impressively thorough, but I wonder how current it is. People often drop the “a” and say bang for male friend.

    Malay Slang Wiki is less detailed, but it amused me.

  3. Note the pseudo-rhotic spelling of ac(h)ar.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Well, etymological in this case.

  5. Ooh, shiny! That led me to Wikipedia on variable rhoticity, which tells me not only that Indonesian has lost final /r/ whereas peninsular Malay has mostly not, but that Turkish and Uyghur are non-rhotic whereas the other Turkic languages are (still?) fully rhotic, and even that eastern batavophones pronounce their Dutch non-rhotically, apparently under the influence of non-rhotic Low German, which really surprised me (I started to write “suprised”, as this is an /r…r/ word in which even rhotic anglophones are variably rhotic or non-rhotic).

  6. George Gibbard says

    You have Malay : Indonesian backwards: Javanese when speaking Malay/Indonesian strongly trill their final /r/s, whereas real Malays generally don’t pronounce them at all. This may be related to the fact that real Malays largely say [ʁ] where it is pronounced vs. Javanese [r]. Historically, these sounds are actually not the same: Javanese /r/ mostly corresponds to Malay /d/, and Malay /ʁ/ mostly corresponds to zero in Javanese (and /g/ in Tagalog). So the root ‘hear’ is dəŋar in Malay, and rəŋö in Old Javanese. (roŋo in Polynesian, as in the Easter Island roŋo-roŋo inscriptions on wood tablets.) Javanese lor ‘north’ is thought to be cognate with Malay laut ‘sea’ (with final devoicing in Malay; this word suggests, unsurprisingly, that Java was colonized from the north coast inland).

    This lets us understand some examples: Malay /daʁat/ ‘dry land’ : Old Javanese /rāt/ ‘land’; Malay /daʁah/ ‘blood’ : Old Javanese /rāh/. Modern Javanese has lost vowel length, which has also led to the loss of understanding of quantitative poetic meters in the Kawi tradition that were borrowed from Sanskrit.

  7. George Gibbard says

    I suppose I meant to type that ‘hear’ in Malay was dəŋaʁ. (Tagalog dinig.).

    I said a lot of “mostly”s, but Austronesian reconstruction is complicated by the fact that in early Medieval times, Central Java was ruled by kings whose Śailendra dynasty originated from the Śrīwijaya kingdom in Sumatra (capital Palembang), who brought many of their Malay words with them.

  8. George Gibbard says

    On the uncertain etymology of the word “Malay” (Məlayu):

  9. I venture to suggest that abang and achar, rather than being Singlish, are simply Malay words dropped into the conversation by basically English-speaking inhabitants used to those words.

    Having lived long in France, we do it all the time, using a French word in the middle of an English sentence, such as “have you put out the poubelle ?”, “we’d better call the plombier” when it simply is the first word for something that pops into the mind. (We are careful only to do this in the family or it is gibberish, and/or pretentious, to others).

  10. Do you have a good way to differentiate between “Malay word that basically monolingual English speakers use a lot” and “Singapore English word that was loaned from Malay”, though? (Apart from waiting a couple of centuries to see whether it is affected by the same sound changes as the rest of English over that period, I suppose.)

  11. (We are careful only to do this in the family or it is gibberish, and/or pretentious, to others).

    The Singlish words are not just used within one family, they are generally understood in society, and are part of the L1 of a substantial portion of the citizens of Singapore that makes the words part of Singlish.

    Vocabulary, syntax drawn from Chinese languages, pronunciation, all make Singlish distinctive and sometimes incomprehensible to other Anglophones, which is obscured by calling the citizens “basically English-speaking”. (Hence the “Speak Good English” campaign).

    Obviously Malaysian English is much more influenced by Malay, but I would be curious about the extent to which Singlish and Manglish are converging.

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