A new love for 'lah'

After living in London for almost a year now, I realise I've picked up some British slang.

So I have felt "knackered", owed someone five "quid", called my friends "daft" and... many other words that cannot be printed here.

I've also learnt that crisps are chips, chips are fries, wellies are boots and Boots is a pharmacy.

Yes. Uh huh. Very English. Very assimilated. I'm sure the folks at the British Embassy will be very pleased.

That was until a British friend of mine remarked one day: "What is this word you always say? This 'lah' word."

Alamak.

So apparently, while deluding myself into believing that I was peppering my conversations with British colloquialisms and spouting Queen's English, half the time I still talk like I'm at the Queenstown HDB market.

We all know what "lah" means but having to explain it to a foreigner is more complicated than you'd think.

Indeed, the process has got me thinking harder about Singlish.

So I went online to do some research on "lah". One website dedicated to Singlish says it is used for emphasis. Another simply explains that it's used like a full-stop in a sentence.

Wikipedia calls Singlish an English- based creole language "commonly regarded with low prestige", and that the Government and "many upper-class Singaporeans" discourage its use.

"Use Singlish means very low-class meh?" I snorted when I first read this entry. I may or may not have been propping my leg up on my chair at that time. Or scratching my armpit.

I'm not a linguist but in recent years, I've come to see Singlish as much more than a local form of bad English, which is unfortunately how some Singaporeans like to dismiss it.

Not all Singlish is equal, I admit.

While a phrase such as "Where got like that one?" is commendable for its vigour and brevity, it's hardly indispensable. "How can that be?" will work just as well.

There is, however, one word I feel I would struggle without - the quintessentially Singlish "lah".

I first noticed how important "lah" was when I was covering news in South-east Asia. "Lah", when weaved into conversations with people who understand it, is a great social lubricant.

It works with Singaporeans, but is especially helpful when speaking with Malaysians, who are chatty but usually want the tone of conversations to be kept light, whether they are politicians or nasi lemak sellers. They dislike open confrontation and will expect the same from you.

As such, if I had to put a newsmaker at ease or get a cautious interviewee to open up, it was often vital not to come across as too stern, opinionated or uncompromising.

This was particularly so in Malaysia given that I'm Singaporean, which can sometimes trigger a whole host of stereotypes and assumptions about snootiness and other attitudes from us island dwellers in the south.

"Lah" helps.

Indeed, when I add "at least, that's what I think lah" to a sentence, it allows me to disagree with almost anybody without offending them. (Of course, it isn't always appropriate. Adding a "lah" to "Did you plant the bomb or not?" isn't going to improve the quality of the response.)

Similarly in Thailand, I once heard a local telling a foreign journalist that he was asking questions in a manner that was too confrontational. It's impolite and puts people off, she said.

She told him - in a somewhat un-Thai-like manner - that he needed to speak in a less aggressive manner if he wanted to get good responses. Just like she was asking him to switch to the Thai style of conversation, she seemed to be switching to his more direct style of speaking to get her message across.

At that time, I thought to myself, if only "lah" can be used in Thailand. It softens one's tone, without having to try too hard.

Anyone can tell that "What's the problem?" sounds markedly different from "What's the problem lah?"

It is disarming even when used by kids on adults.

"No laaah," my toddler niece replied when I asked her once if she took my iPad. It was the first time I heard her use "lah" and awww, that's just too cute. Um, what was I looking for again?

But since very few people in London would understand what "lah" means, my usage of the word here cannot be due to any form of utility. I realise it has become so much a part of my life that I unconsciously slip it into conversations with people I'm more comfortable with, no matter where I am.

So through this process, I've come to gain a new appreciation for Singlish and I went back to my friends with this rather long explanation.

I also told them I was more certain than ever now that Singlish doesn't deserve its lowly status. It communicates in ways English cannot, and Singaporeans really shouldn't put it down so much.

Well, at least, that's what I think lah.

chengwee@sph.com.sg