Linguistic Hybridity: Making a Dictionary of Singaporean and Malaysian English

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Hybridity, which figures so importantly in postcolonial literatures and the cultural and literary theories they generate, appears with particular clarity in attempts to chart linguistic usage in nations that formerly belonged to the British Empire. As fiction and poetry in English from Africa, Asia, and the Carribean reveal, the empire has in fact written back, demanding of readers in London or New York that they learn new words that originated in distant places and that they recognize the shaping of English occurs in many places and not just at a single cultural center.

Much of the border crossing that one observes in postcolonial literature appears in attempts to create a dictionary for speakers of English in Malaysia and Singapore. According to the front matter in the most recent edition of The Times-Chambers Essential English Dictionary, the editors worked with five categories, the first being "Core English," the standard English and American variety. As the local editors under the direction of Dr. Vincent B. Y. Ooi, point out, such standard English "already contains many words taken from other languages, such as bungalow (from Hindi), and garage (from French)" (v), and the Dictionary contains examples derived from from the region, including lychee, yin and yang.

Whereas the first category contains words from once-colonized places that have made their way into a universal understanding of English-language-ness, the second represents words derived from English that, in general, only Singaporean and Malaysian speakers of English employ: "These words are generally regarded as acceptable usage in formal contexts by educated SME speakers. Some examples of these words are: airflown [= of food: freshly imported and of high quality], heaty [= of food: having too much 'yang'] and redpacket [= a red envelope containing money, given on ceremonial occasions]" (v).

The editors' third category -- "words from other languages, not used in core English" -- are in many ways the most interesting to the student of postcolonial literature and world literatures in English because they so strongly exemplify the principle of writing (or speaking) back. As the editors explain, these words have entered the speech of speakers of English Singapore and Malaysia "because they represent concepts or things for which no English word exists. Sometimes, even when there is an English equivalent, they are preferred in formal contexts because of local associations, eg. dadab [= illicit drugs], which is used especially in Malaysia." (v-vi; emphasis added). Examples include sarabat, a strong-tasting drink made of ginger and sugar, and silat, the Malay equivalent of karate or kungfu. Like the fiction of Achebe, Saro-Wiwa, and Rushdie, the Dictionary asserts, however timidly, that standard English as it currently exists is inadequate to communicate the everyday experience of many users who live in former colonies.

The last two categores -- slang words or words used only informally from English and other languages -- have implications for the nonlocal reader of Singaporean literature, since literature often includes such them. According to the editors, many local speakers consider English-derived slang "as 'Singlish', 'Manglish' or simply as errors." Examples of informal language derived from English: "cut (verb) [= to overtake: His car cut mine.]" and "zap[= to photocopy]." Examples of informal language derived from other languages: "chim [= profound], kiasw [= afraid to lose out] and malu [= shamefull]. . . . Some, such as kaypoh, snaku and tekan use sounds that do not occur in English. Others do not show a full set of inflections, or do not have any at all. Many also represent cultural perceptions that are not easily paraphrased in English" (vi).


The Times-Chambers Essential English Dictionary (TCEED2). 2nd edition. Singapore: Federal Publications/Chambers-Harrap, 1997.

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