A-Z of Sri Lankan English: S is for Singlish

Singlish is the term used to describe the mixture of Sinhala and English which is frequently used by bilingual speakers. But Singapore got there first: Singlish is generally accepted as referring to colloquial Singaporean English. In a Sri Lankan context, the word tends to be used humorously or derogatorily to refer to colloquial usage which is considered substandard. Singlish is alive and well in the advertising industry, in baila lyrics, and online. Regional equivalents include Hinglish, which is thriving in India, Banglish, which the Bangladeshi government has recently attempted to outlaw on radio stations, and Tanglish, as popularised in the lyrics of the song “Why This Kolaveri Di”.

Some people use the term Singlish interchangeably with Sri Lankan English, but it is important to make a distinction between the two. Singlish may be considered one feature of SLE, but it is only part of the story – not least because it ignores the significant influence of Tamil. Singlish includes the use of Sinhala words in English-speaking contexts; grammatical features of the colloquial language which are derived from Sinhala but would be considered errors by speakers of standard English (including of course speakers of standard Sri Lankan English); and the tendency of bilingual speakers to switch (often subconsciously) between Sinhala and English, often in mid-conversation or even in mid-sentence.

Sri Lankan English, on the other hand, is the accepted term for the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka – by Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Muslims, etc. It is an inclusive term, incorporating all the various ways in which English is used in Sri Lanka, by people from different regions, different ethnic and linguistic groups, different religions, different generations, different social classes, etc. This point is emphasised by the fact that the chapter on SLE by Dushyanthi Mendis and Harshana Rambukwella in the latest edition of the Routledge Handbook of World Englishes (2010) is titled “Sri Lankan Englishes”, acknowledging the increasing recognition not only of SLE itself, but also of its various sub-varieties.

If “Sri Lankan English” is an umbrella term, “Standard Sri Lankan English” – as used by Manique Gunesekera in her book, The Post-Colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English (2004) – describes the variety of English used by Sri Lankans who speak English as their first language, and/or who are bilingual in English and Sinhala or Tamil. Standard SLE itself will vary (in the end, there are as many varieties as there are speakers of the language), but it does conform to a broad set of “standards” which distinguish it from the less recognised yet colourful and spicy mallung that is Singlish.

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A-Z Sri Lankan English

A-Z of Sri Lankan English is“an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip“into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on“Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.

  • wijayapala

    Hi Michael,

    Congrats on winning the MBE for your work on Sri Lankan English! I hope one day the powers that be in Sri Lanka will award you the MRE (Member of the Rajapaksha Empire) for your efforts.

  • Suji

    Good one Wijayapala. I agree.