Singlish is the unofficial lingua franca in Singapore. It is a local version of English that is peppered with grammar and phrases from vernaculars such as Malay, Tamil, Hokkien and Cantonese. This is a testament to Singapore’s immigrant heritage, where the intercultural interaction of many first and second-generation Singaporeans created a lingua franca filled with phrases from their native languages. Today, we take a look at Hokkien phrases, which form a big component of Singlish.
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #1 – Bojio (无招)
Bojio is a phrase made of two Hokkien words – Bo (无) = never, Jio (招) = call. Put together, it is often used in the context of social gatherings, where a person is not invited to attend. When used, it connotes the idea that a person has missed out on something, to their dismay.
A: Had a great meal with Nigel yesterday
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #2 – Paiseh (歹势)
Paiseh is term with two meanings. It can be used as an apology as well as to convey embarrassment. Paiseh also carries with it the idea that one does not wish to impose on people. A more recent composite phrase has emerged from this, the “paiseh piece”. It alludes to a familiar situation in local culture, the last piece of food on a shared dish that people are unwilling to finish as etiquette dictates offering it to those dining with us.
“Ask her out on a date lah! Don’t want, I paiseh!”;
“Paiseh, I’m late!”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #3 – Hoseh (好势)
In Hokkien the term “Pai” (歹) refers to something bad while “Ho” (好) means good. Thus hoseh is an expression that is used in an opposite context from paiseh. It is used to connote satisfaction when things are going well. Hoseh can be used as a greeting, in the form of “hoseh bo” (好势无) to ask a person how they are doing. Hoseh is also used in a sarcastic manner when things go awry. The phrase “hoseh liao” is used ironically to achieve this.
Positive – “Long weekend this week, hoseh ah!”;
Negative – “Computer crashed without me saving my work, hoseh liao”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #4 – Swee (媠)
Swee is a Hokkien word that means beautiful. In Singlish, swee (媠) is used to describe when things have gone according to plan or been done beautifully so to speak. The word can also be used in the form “swee swee” for added emphasis that something has to be executed properly. In conversations, this word usually appears towards the end of a sentence.
“Do the work swee swee ok?”;
“Can claim half day off, swee lah!”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #5 – Huat (发)
A commonly used word during the Chinese New Year, huat (发) is a term that means to prosper. It is often used together with the article – ah (啊) – which is an expression to emphasize a point. This Singlish phrase is especially common during the traditional tossing of the fish salad yusheng, where auspicious phrases are said in hope of a prosperous new year ahead. Huat can also be used when a person has struck a windfall or earned a lot of money.
(During tossing of yusheng) “Huat ah!”;
“I won 4D (struck the lottery) today, huat ah!”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #6 – Heng (兴)
A positive word, heng (兴) means lucky. It is an expression of relief used when a disaster has been averted. Heng is often used at the start or end of a sentence in the form “heng ah” (兴啊) to set the context. Just like huat, the article “ah” has no inherent meaning, but is used to add emphasis to the preceding word.
“Heng ah, avoided the traffic jam at Lornie Road!”;
“Heng ah, they didn’t spot the error.”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #7 – Buay tahan
Buay tahan is a unique Hokkien phrase that consists of the Hokkien word for cannot, buay (袂) and the Malay loanword tahan (to tolerate). Put together, the phrase is used when one cannot tolerate or bear what is going on. Such use of non-Chinese loanwords in Singaporean Hokkien is not unusual, as Singapore is a multiracial country where different languages freely intermingle and give birth to localized phrases like buay tahan.
“The weather is too hot, I buay tahan.”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #8 – Jiak Kantang
Another example of Malay loanwords in Singapore Hokkien, jiak (食) is the Hokkien word for eat while kentang is the Malay word for potato. A pejorative, it is used as a term for a westernized Chinese person who has a limited command of a Chinese language and is closer to a Westerner in terms of customs and lifestyle. The person is seen to have abandoned their roots and “eaten potato” so to speak.
A synonymous phrase with a less pejorative connotation is ang moh pai (红毛派). Ang moh, the Hokkien word for a Westerner literally means red-haired. The word ang moh is in fact very old, having been seen on the Ming Dynasty era Selden Map as reported in a Straits Times article. Ang moh is believed to have been a reference to Dutch merchants in Asia who had auburn hair. Evidently, the name has stuck and is still used in Singapore as a descriptor for Caucasian people.
“He jiak kantang. Can’t speak much Mandarin.”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #9 – Tia Gong (听讲)
Tia Gong (听讲) is a Hokkien phrase for hearsay. It is used to describe information of indeterminate credibility. With this in mind, tia gong is a phrase that is a good descriptor of the proverbial grapevine.
“Tia gong new iPhone coming out soon.”
Hokkien Singlish Phrase #10 – Pang gang (放工)
Pang gang (放工) is the Hokkien word for ending work. It is used as a catch-all exclamation of joy and relief in the form pang gang loh! Pang gang encapsulates one’s happiness at finishing with hustle and bustle or any task for the matter. At the end of a long day, nothing beats the exclamation of an exuberant pang gang loh.
“Finish this can pang gang already,”;
“I pang gang at 6pm today, bro.”
As we can see from these phrases, Hokkien’s influence on Singlish cannot be overstated. In fact, these phrases have also been used by non-Chinese in Singapore such as the Malays and Indians. Knowing Singlish has become seen as a hallmark of acculturation to Singapore. While official discourse tends to discourage the use of Singlish, I believe that it is a colorful language that tells a little piece of Singapore’s history. Of course, Hokkien phrases are just one part of Singlish. For the full gamut, one can consider picking up Singlish phrases from other vernaculars such as Malay, Tamil and Cantonese. After all, learning a new language gives us a new way to see the world. Why not add some more color to our lives?
Contributed by Brandon Goh
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