While putting this together, I came to terms with the fact that Singlish is probably far more complex than any of us consciously might be able to describe. There are all sorts of additional nuances and additional use cases for all of these terms. There are exceptions to practically all of the following rules.
It's a humbling reminder language is a living, organic thing, and it does whatever the heck it wants. How like that? Like that lor.
A: “Hey, could you share your copy of yesterday’s lecture notes with me?”
B: “I don’t have lah! I didn't even go for the lecture!”
Lah tends to have a sense of exasperation, it's a bit dismissive. "No lah, where got?!" It adds finality. It’s usually very confident.
A: “I’m really quite certain that I saw your husband buying 4D at 7–11!”
B: "No lah, cannot be! My husband is not that kind one lah!"
Often, novice Singlish speakers throw in Lahs into sentences where there isn't as much finality:
- "Can I order some chicken rice lah?"
- "Hey, I'm going for lunch lah!"
- "Why you so like that lah?"
More appropriate usage might be:
"What am I getting for lunch? What else? Chicken rice lah!"
Lah can also be a little more mellow. "I don't really like him like that one lah…" But even in this mellow form, it's more resolute than Leh.
A: "Hey, could you share your copy of yesterday's lecture notes with me?"
B: "Huh, got lecture notes meh? I didn't get leh…"
Leh is more doubtful than lah. It's not so certain.
A: "I'm really quite certain that I saw your husband buying 4D at 7–11!"
B: "Huh? Sure or not? My husband not the kind to play 4D leh…"
Compare: "No lah!" and "No leh…"
A: "Wah, I heard you lost your job? That sucks balls sia…"
B: "What to do, life goes on. Like that then like that lor…"
There can be a sense of indifference and resignation with lor. It can also be very zen and philosophical. Like that then like that lor. Que sera sera. C’est la vie.
A:: "I heard from Jenny that you're very popular with the boys! Apparently a lot of them follow you on Instagram and heart all your sexy pictures!"
B: "Ehh, where got until like that? Don't have lor…"
A: "Hey, do you want to have lunch with me later?"
B: "Negative. I makan liao."
Liao is an interesting one– it's a tense modifier. I don't use it a lot myself– I'm tend to use "Oreddy" (already) instead. "I makan oreddy."
"I cannot make it liao."
"Win liao lor."
Q: "Wah, this Famous Amos damn stuck up sia. Anyhow kaopeh Ah Kong like siao."
A: "I also say. Cannot like that, hor?"
Hor seeks out consensus and agreement. It's has a certain "don't you think so too?" vibe about it. Hor is quite a useful term, hor? It sometimes reminds me of the British "init?"
Compare: Tom's a right wanker, init? / Wah, this Tom damn cheebye, hor?
Q: "How come you so relax ah? Everyone is stressing out leh!"
A: "Haha. I do all the Ten Year Series already mah… I confirm do well one."
Mah has an air of relaxed confidence about it. It comes from a place of quiet certainty.
Q: "Eh, why Singaporeans so boring and predictable ah?"
A: "We're born and raised in captivity mah… The lions in the zoo also boring and predictable.
A: "I heard Singapore got nuclear submarine sia."
B: "Harh? Got meh? Don't have lah! (OR) I don't think so leh…"
"Meh?" is doubtful. While leh is usually self-directed ("I dunno leh…"), meh? is usually directed at others. ("Can like that one meh?!")
(Some people spell sia with a h, but I think it looks better without.)
A: Wah, all this local blogger nonsense damn drama sia!
B: Liddat lor. These people thrive on attention mah. The time you spend reading their nonsense, is monetizable ad revenue for them. Their job is to sell your attention.
Okay lah, let's wrap up.
Halfway through writing this, I realized that it's very, very difficult to do justice to all of Singlish in a single sitting. I guess this is probably the case for all languages– reality is far richer and far more nuanced than we can possibly do justice to.
But I suppose it's always worth trying, hor?
If you've been bitten by the Singlish bug, you might enjoy some of my t-shirts at Statement.sg.
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