Learning to speak ‘expat’

Whenever native English speakers go abroad, they discover a wealth of new words and expressions that typically have their origins in the history and culture of the places they’re now living.

This phenomenon is neither new, nor a problem. Indeed, most expatriates who live in such financial centres as Hong Kong, Dubai, London, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro and the various British overseas territories seem to take particular delight in learning the local expat patois and its various slang expressions.

This is the case even when the local expressions might seem somewhat insulting, as in the case of the well-known and, most would agree, out-of-date acronym “FILTH” – “failed in London Try Hongkong”.

An unusual fondness for acronyms is a key feature of “Singlish”, the name given to the patois spoken by many Singaporeans. The Marina Bay Sands Casino, for example, is the MBS.
In the image above, some of the Merlion’s other acronynms are: TPG = Tanjong Pagar; ORP = One Raffles Place; LKY = Lee Kuan Yew (“founding father of Singapore”); GFC = Global Financial Crisis; UOB = United Overseas Bank (pronounced “yo-bee”); HDB = Housing Development Board

In countries in which English is not the official language, expats typically incorporate into their day-to-day speech certain words from the official local language, even if they don’t speak it otherwise.

Mix of languages

A number of the world’s most important financial services jurisdictions have been language melting pots for hundreds of years, which has left some of them with quite a well-defined lexicon of words and phrases that expats quickly learn and make use of.

Of the various jurisdictions of this type, Singapore is one of the richest in terms of the number of words in frequent use by foreign-born residents. While many of these words are unique to Singapore, others are used by expats in other regional centres, such as Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, reflecting the cities’ overlapping histories as well as their current inter-connectedness.

As Singapore evolved from a strategically-placed, low-lying port city inhabited mainly by Malay-speaking locals into a British colony, and then into one of the world’s most important financial centres, the language spoken by the majority of its people evolved as well.

English is also one of Singapore’s four official languages, which partly explains why certain words from the other three (Maylay, Mandarin and Tamil) have might have passed into use by locals when they opt to speak English.

So well-developed and distinctive is the Singaporean patois nowadays, in fact, that it’s been given its own name: Singlish.

This doesn’t, though, explain why Singaporeans love acronyms the way they do. (Or why they love to play around with them so much: www.askmelah.com, a local website, for example, notes cheekily that Sentosa, the name of a pricey island off the southern tip of the main island of Singapore, is said by some to actually be an acronym standing for “So Expensive, Nothing To See Actually”.)

Askmelah.com itself, the way, is an example of the use of the word “la”, or more often, “lah”, at the end of a sentence, in order to add emphasis to whatever is being said, while also giving the sentence an air of informality. “Hurry lah!” for example, means, “come on, let’s go!”

Lah is one of many Singlish words that have their origins in the Hokkien Chinese dialect, spoken by Chinese who come from the Fujian province of mainland China and, these days, from certain other parts of Asia as well.

Meh”, meanwhile, also a Hokkien word, is similar to lah, and is used by Singlish speakers to express incredulity.

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