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“Code-Switching and Standardizing Singlish”

Image, top: taglines and artwork from the 2019 Speak Good English Movement, “Let’s connect. Let’s speak good English.” Image, bottom: screen capture from “Code-Switching” by Singaporean sketch comedy duo the BENZI Project (

By Josh Babcock

In Singapore, code-switching is everywhere. Perhaps better, talk about code-switching is everywhere.

When Singaporeans use the term “code-switching,” however, it is rarely in the sense that linguistic anthropologists or linguists understand it: i.e. to describe how multilingual speakers navigate among different languages present in Singapore’s linguistic ecology, such as Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and English. Rather, it is used most often to describe Singaporeans’ ability to “switch” between “Singlish” and “Good English.”

For the past two decades, “Singlish” (a category often, but not always, used interchangeably with “Singaporean English”) has been a perennial topic of debate. The debate has centered largely on a contrast between Singlish and Good English. Singlish’s opponents generally deride it as “broken” English, which will prevent the acquisition of Good English and thereby hinder economic advancement at both an individual and societal scale. Its advocates, meanwhile, argue that it is a uniquely Singaporean identity-marker that need not interfere with the imperative of doing business with the world. (Lionel Wee’s 2018 The Singlish Controversy provides an in-depth account of the debate). Since 2015 there has been a growing (though not universal) consensus that Singlish is a language of its own, not a “broken” variety of English.

In 2019, this position was articulated by the chairman of the “Speak Good English Movement,” a campaign—relaunched annually since 2000—aimed at promoting the use of Good English. The chairman stated:

“You don’t have to choose between standard English or Singlish. We are not asking you to do so. If you can code-switch, more power to you. If you are learning standard English, we hope that you are able to tell the difference between that, broken English, and Singlish…We are practical people, not judgy gatekeepers.”

Written in July 2019, this three-way distinction among Singlish, standard English, and broken English was new, at least in public discourses on the topic. In the wake of growing advocacy efforts aimed at celebrating Singlish as “a” (or perhaps “the”) unique marker of pan-Singaporean identity, government concern has shifted away from efforts aimed at eliminating Singlish as “broken English,” and toward a more tolerant view premised on code-switching between Singlish and standard English (but not “broken English”).

However, mounting talk about code-switching in recent years seems to be driving new ideological projects with respect to Singlish, projects aimed at its phonetic and orthographic standardization.

I have overheard and been a participant in numerous conversations about the proper spelling and pronunciation of Singlish words. The salient dimension of contrast centers on the question of whether, and to what degree, the origin of a word matters. On one hand, there are those who call for Singaporeans to “learn to spell Malay words properly before using them,” arguing that a lexical items’ source—most often in such cases, Malay—should determine its orthography. On the other hand, there are those who respond by insisting that, because Singlish is its own distinct code, then source doesn’t matter.

A common example that has anchored debates over both spelling and pronunciation is jelak, a Malay item that, in Singlish, is used to mean ‘the feeling from eating too much rich food’ (or, metaphorically, ‘to be tired from doing something too many times’). Its common “misspelt” form, jelat, has inspired numerous on- and offline firestorms.

In interviews and less-formal interactions, others have articulated this kind of orthographic dispute as an issue of pronunciation. In standardized Malay orthography, k is used to represent a glottal /ʔ/. Many of my interlocutors—not having the benefit of IPA—use distinctions like jelak/jelat to refer to the difference between the glottal stop (“correct”) versus dental stop (“incorrect”), aspirated (th) or unaspirated (t). Those who use a dental stop (referred to in conversations as “using the letter t”) are getting it wrong. Or, those who insist on the glottal stop (“using the letter k”) are being overly pedantic, since incorporation into Singlish means that words can be adapted according to common use.

I should note that not all my Singaporean interlocutors subscribe to the idea of a single, unified Singlish. In fact, many argue that multiple Singlishes exist, varying according to socioeconomic class, race, and linguistic biography. But this doesn’t mean that when it comes to Singlish, anything goes. Whether insisting that source or target should guide spelling and pronunciation, and whether insisting on one Singlish or many, there is a clear acceptance of the idea that there is a correct way to do Singlish, and that usage should follow accordingly.

To be clear, when asked about what code-switching means, my Singaporean interlocutors will usually say that it’s not about “languages,” but about “tone.” Yet despite this difference in the overt discourses used to describe code-switching, there is still a sharp distinction produced between Singlish and standard/“Good” English. Though treated as differences in “tone” (corresponding to distinctions such as “formal” and “informal,” “polite” and “rude”), the framing of Singlish as a distinct code, into and out of which one switches, seems to be motivating new projects aimed at perfecting Singlish’s status as a respectable denotational code.

As Judith Irvine notes, we ignore the meanings our ethnographic interlocutors ascribe to terminology at our own peril. Even though the ways code-switching in contemporary Singapore is being used differs from habitual academic usage—and even though my interlocutors, when asked, turn their attention to “tone” rather than phonetics or orthography—it is still important to attend to the baggage that concepts bring with them. In this case, talking about Singlish as a distinct denotational code seems to be driving emergent standardization efforts, with an ideological focus on words’ spellings, pronunciations, or both.

Author Bio: Josh Babcock is an Anthropology, PhD Student at the University of Chicago

From the editors of JLA:

The co-editors-in-chief (Das and LaDousa) of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology are proud to feature three outstanding articles contributing to the analysis of the perceptions and politics of code-switching amid the standardization of varieties.  Daniels (2018) discusses pedagogical practices of “code-switching” and insights into the entanglement of race and language, Duane (2017) explores a debate on language differentiation, and Romero (2012) discusses a standardization project and the cultural roles of standardized varieties.

-Daniels, Julia R. 2018. “’There’s No Way This Isn’t Racist’: White Women Teachers and the Raciolinguistic Ideologies of Teaching Code-Switching.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 28(2): 156-174. Click here to access.
-Duane, Lucas. 2017. “Castilian Takes Backstage in the Balearic Islands: The Activation of Catalan Standardization Recursions in Facebook.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 27(1): 71-91. Click here to access.
-Romero, Sergio. 2012. “’They Don’t Get Speak Our Language Right’: Language Standardization, Power and Migration among the Q’eqchi’ Maya.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 22(2): E21-E41. Click here to access.