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From rabak to rabs kebabs: Singlish sees creative evolution

From rabak to rabs kebabs: Singlish sees creative evolution
PHOTO: Pexels

Rabak sia! This quintessential Singlish phrase is a favourite among Singaporeans, used to describe anything that's out of control, from work havoc to the scorching weather this month.

If you're a millennial, you might be more accustomed to using a more concise form, rabs or rabz, in text messages. But have you heard of the newer version of the expression: rabs kebabs?

I certainly had not, until a recent discussion on Singlish trends with millennial and Gen Z colleagues. One of them chided me to "keep up" with the times, while another mused if Singlish was starting to sound more fancy, or as she put it, "de-ah-beng-ised".

This little episode reminded me of what I love most about Singlish: its sheer fluidity and scope for eclectic new expressions.

The older generation of Singaporeans came up with colourful phrases, like blur sotong, using a squid to tease someone who's clueless or "blur", and kancheong spider to describe an overly-eager person.

While some phrases like steady pom pi pi have fallen out of use, new ones like rabs kebabs have popped up. Singlish is somehow both structured and flexible at the same time, evolving to reflect changes in society.

And this is no accident. It turns out there is a science to this creative madness, according to linguists who have been studying Singlish closely.

Not just "powderful England"


To understand the evolution of Singlish, we first have to get one thing straight: it isn't simply "bad English".

This was in fact a misconception reflected in early research about the language in the 1970s, when scholars characterised it as a basilect — a variety of a language that deviates from its standard form and is considered the least prestigious in a community.

"The whole model was attached to class and education, and therefore this association that if you're not terribly well educated, you must be speaking the basilect," explains Singlish expert Tan Ying Ying, an associate professor of linguistics and multilingual studies at Nanyang Technological University.

But as any connoisseur of Singlish would know, mastering its nuances takes skill. "Singlish is extremely systematic... You can't simply throw in a 'lah' and expect people to say: Oh yeah, that's correct," says Prof Tan.

Over the years, linguists have begun to view Singlish more objectively. Prof Tan's research especially highlighted its identity as a contact language, one that is created when people speaking different languages — such as Bazaar Malay and Hokkien — interact with each other for a sustained period of time.

And therein lies the explanation for its fluidity. As a contact language, and a relatively young one, Singlish is "more susceptible to innovations", says Prof Tan.

"The beauty of Singlish is that it's not fixed... We kind of know the rules, but we don't have them written down, so it allows people space to be creative and do things with it. So there are definitely trends," she says.

So a big part of Prof Tan's job, as she puts it, lies in "always tuning my ears out to people using Singlish".

When I say rabak, you say?

Beyond studying the vocabulary of Singlish, some researchers are also trying to understand how we process it in our minds. Case in point is psycholinguist and cognitive scientist Cynthia Siew, who is currently building a network map of Singlish words.

Siew, who is an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, is working on a project called A Small World of Singlish Words. She is collecting data on how Singlish speakers associate words with one another, by getting participants to complete a word association task. When presented with a Singlish word, a participant would have to type the first three words that come to mind.

This can actually help us understand how our minds store and comprehend Singlish words.

"The way that we store words is not the same as a dictionary — we're not storing a list of words and then doing some sort of lookup. (Our words) are connected in very complex ways. The word association task is one way to find out what those links might be," Prof Siew explains.

As an example, she asks me what are the first three words I think of when given the word shiok. I respond somewhat sheepishly: "Tasty, nice... and fun?"


"That's a perfect example of word association, just whatever comes to your mind," Prof Siew responds with a laugh. "For me, actually the first word that comes to mind is 'durian'. It's the most shiok thing I can think of."

With the aggregated results, Prof Siew is pulling together a network map of Singlish lingo and commonly associated words. Her project is in fact an adaptation of a bigger study, Small World of Words, that has built similar maps for English and other major languages.

The results of this research could have applications in marketing — if a company wants to use Singlish to promote a product — or even in building large language models to tailor artificial intelligence tools for Singaporeans (SianGPT, anyone?).

I ask Prof Siew why she feels the need to include Singlish in this research effort, and she describes it as a natural extension of her work in psycholinguistics. She adds: "I'm also just curious to know, what is Singlish like now? Singlish is changing... It's also worthwhile to study it as part of our cultural heritage."

Thanks to the good work of researchers like Prof Tan and Prof Siew, we get to better appreciate the rabs kebabs world of Singlish.

ALSO READ: Ang moh who grew up in Singapore defends use of Singlish after accusations of 'casual racism'

This article was first published in The Business Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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