Singlish enriches the English language, says Oxford dictionary editor


Oxford Dictionary consultant editor Dr Danica Salazar (Photo: Nurul Azliah/Yahoo Newsroom)

Contrary to popular belief, Singlish does not destroy the English language but enriches it, said Oxford English Dictionary (OED) consultant editor Danica Salazar, during an interview with Yahoo Singapore on Thursday (18 May).

The 32-year-old was one of the editors responsible for the latest batch of 19 Singlish words added to the renowned dictionary in March.

The latest additions surprised many Singaporeans after frequently used terms such as “ang moh”, “sabo” and “shiok” were added.

Back in 2000, the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) was launched in Singapore in response to the government’s concerns that Singlish was becoming the standard language among Singaporeans. According to the National Library Board (NLB) database, Singlish was said to have an adverse effect on the state’s goal of becoming a First World economy.

However, the OED seems to have a more positive view of Singlish. “Be it Singaporean English, Shakespearean English, British English or American English, it’s all English. They are just different from each other,” said Salazar, who has worked with OED for four years.

Salazar, who has a PhD in applied linguistics from the University of Barcelona, also addressed the common misconception that when words are added to the 132-year-old dictionary, it means that they have been widely accepted by the English-speaking world. This is not the case.

“People need to remember that the OED is a historical document that charts the semantic development of the huge and varied vocabulary of English,” she said. “Just because a scientific English word is found in the dictionary, it doesn’t mean you can use it in an informal English conversation.”

Similarly for the new Singlish words in the OED, their inclusion does not mean that one can use them in local academic papers, she said.

She added that Singaporeans can expect more Singlish words to be included in the OED in the near future.

How Singlish words are added

Salazar undertook months of research and editing before the OED eventually decided to publish the 19 Singlish words.

She said the OED takes a thematic approached in its research. For instance, the “new words” team she is part of will sometimes focus on researching new words for things such as colours or foods.

This time around, the team focused on new English words used in the Southeast Asian region, which includes Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The research process for Singlish words involved reading through articles from the NLB database and local publications to identify new words.

Such words are picked based on several indicators such as reasonable frequency of use, cultural significance to the region where it is being used and evidence of the words being used.

“When (the OED) first began in the 19th century, when there were no computers and social media, the only way we could get evidence was from the (OED’s) reading programme. Yes, the OED was the first crowd-sourcing project.

“We had volunteer readers who would write down the evidence of new words on little slips of paper and send them together with the books they found them in to Oxford. And then the bibliographers would organise them and put them in pigeonholes. When a researcher wanted to look for a word, they would just go to the bunch of slips from the pigeonholes and work on that.

“Now, we have a lot more things to look at. We also look at external papers like the Singapore NLB database, other newspaper archives and Google Books,” she said.

While researching on Singlish words, Salazar said she also read Singaporean teenage, music and lifestyle magazines. She prefers these to academic papers as “people tend to write naturally in these type of publications”, new words tend to crop up more frequently in them and writers for such publications are more “experimental” with their language.

Singlish shows creativity, sense of humour

Salazar enjoyd researching the Singlish words. She said that words such as “sabo” and “blur” gave her the impression that Singaporeans are very “creative in their play with words” and have a “sense of humour”.

On the word “sabo”, she said: “Why hasn’t anybody thought of this? It seems like such an obvious shortening.

“And then there’s the added dimension of playing a trick on somebody because in general English, ‘sabotage’ is quite a serious thing. You think of industrial espionage, you think of people blowing up things, but in Singapore it’s more about playing tricks on your friends.”

“In the months working on Singaporean English, even though I’ve only been here three times, I was able to find out a little bit about who Singaporeans are through the words that they used,” she added.