Adventures in Colloquial Singaporean English (Singlish) – The curious case of “already”

Singlish particles truly define this creole, giving it its identity, making it stand out as much as Bislama and Tok Pisin, both of which are other creoles of English spoken in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea respectively. Singlish particles draw influence mainly from Chinese (and its dialects) and Malay (and one from Tamil). This post discusses a few particles which modify the verb aspect, and giving a passive voice in a sentence.

Our first particle is the word “already”, usually pronounced “oredi”, and it is an optional particle to mark the hypothetical or real change of state in past, present or future. It is used interchangeably with the particle “liao”, pronounced “liau (with a low falling tone)”. Such examples include:

That place I go liao.

That place I go already.

Both sentences meaning “I have been to that place.” Note the interchangeability of these two particles.

This game you play liao ma? (Have you played this game?)

These particles do not, however, convey the past tense even though they carry such a connotation. This is due to the lack of reflection of the habitual or continuous past tense when these particles are in use.

Our next pair of particles are the words “kena” and “tio” (pronounced with a low tone). The former draws influence from Malay, originally meaning “to touch”, while the latter draws influence from Hokkien. “Kena” and “tio” are used interchangeably in many scenarios, especially negative ones like:

I tio fine / I kena fine (I was fined.)

“Tio” can also be used in positive situations, however. Consider the following sentence:

He tio jackpot (He struck the jackpot.)

This is one case where it is appropriate to use the particle “tio” but inappropriate for the particle “kena”. Another case where this is true is when the speaker is trying to show sympathy regarding an unfortunate event about someone close. Consider these two sentences:

He tio cancer.

He kena cancer.

While both sentences mean “He was diagnosed with cancer”, the former tends to show more sympathy with the person of discussion, while the latter shows a rather crude criticism of the person of discussion.

In most scenarios, both particles are used to convey the passive voice, similar to bei4 in Chinese. When “kena” is used under a given context but without a clause following it, it conveys the meaning of “I’m/you’re/they’re gonna get it”, like “Don’t listen to me, you will kena.”

It is also interesting to note that the word “kena” is also used with other words to create really Singlish Singlish expressions, like “kena arrow” to mean “to be assigned an undesirable task”, “kena whack” to mean “to be beaten badly, can be used in the context of games and physical fights”, and “kena sai” to mean “to be affected by an unpleasant thing”.

This is just four of the numerous particles used in Singlish, so stay tuned for our continuation post on Singlish particles, this time, covering the ubiquitous particles, lah, leh, lor, etc.


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