New Borrowings and Disused Loans in A Changing Linguistic Ecology

Author: Ying Ying Tan (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
Speaker: Ying Ying Tan
Topic: Language Contact and Change
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Singlish, which comprises primarily elements of English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin-Chinese and Cantonese, is a contact language spoken by most Singaporeans. While some linguists prefer to label Singlish as a “colloquial form of Singapore English” (e.g. Rubdy 2001; Chng 2003; Bokhorst-Heng 2005; Wee 2010; Bruthiaux 2010), the grammar, phonology and lexis of Singlish are however drawn from Sinitic languages such as Hokkien, Mandarin-Chinese and Cantonese, as well as languages such as English, Malay and Tamil. The most distinctive linguistic characteristic of Singlish lies in its word-stock, which is primarily made up of borrowings from languages in Singapore’s linguistic ecology. As a result, loanwords also provide a glimpse into the changes in the ecology.

This paper provides an analysis of loanwords in Singlish by looking at new borrowings as well as disused loans. Attention will be paid to the etymology of these loans, allowing us to see clearly the importance of some languages in a changing ecology. There is, for example, an increase in Malay and Mandarin-Chinese loans. The results also show that while there is a good number of “stable” and fossilized Hokkien loans, there is also a large number of Hokkien loans that have fallen into disuse. The second part of the paper focuses on the users of these loanwords, and comparisons will be made across users of different age groups and ethnicities. These variations in loanword knowledge and use serve to show how language communities have an active role to play in the borrowing process.

Consequently, this paper aims to highlight, through the changes in loanwords between English and Malay, Chinese, and Singaporean, the on-going evolutionary process of Singlish.


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Keywords: Singlish, linguistic ecology, loanwords