SinGweesh on Wednesday: Ha

Jul 29, 2015 11.00AM |

by Gwee Li Sui

The first thing to get right about “ha” is its pronunciation. You dun say “ha” like how you respond to a certain viral MDA corporate video: “Ha ha ha!” It’s also not like how you squeeze into a packed MRT train and go “Ha!” “Ha” is a long sound – “haaa” – and it slides and then curls up in pitch. Sometimes, you may hear it as “ah”, with a silent “h” – but that’s really the same thing with French pretension.

“Ha” or “ah”, with “hor”, are special among Singlish end-particles. Both words can appear anywhere in a sentence and not just at its end, giving pause and stress to what has just been mentioned. So, while it’s OK to say “Gopal damn one kind”, you should try saying “Gopal ha damn one kind” or “Gopal hor damn one kind” to show Gopal more love.

But, of the two words, “hor” is always kinder. “Hor” is whiny and gossipy whereas “ha” feels kuai lan and accusatory. When “ha” appears early in a sentence, it’s to let you know what or who is at fault so that you can get worked up in agreement sooner. (That’s unless you are the fault, in which case you get a choice of reaction.) Some can nonetheless overdo it as when you hear: “You ha whole day ha sit and read newspaper ha and now pretend you dun hear me ha…” An overuse of “ha” is a symptom of a nag.

As an end-particle, “ha” serves to denote one of several shades of hostility it differentiates by mere tone. Yes, dun siow-siow: “ha” is serious Singlish stuff and not for dismissive angmos! There are six main forms I have observed:

  1. The abrasive “ha” signals a thinly veiled threat. So, in “You dun kachau me ha!”, “ha” is a way of saying how “I’m telling you” or “I’m warning you” not to be annoying.
  1. The intrusive “ha” sounds like the abrasive “ha” but appears only in a question. It’s inquisitive in a way that feels judgemental and sometimes interrogative like mata. Thus, in “Where are you going ha?”, the degree of unpleasantness depends on whether a kaypoh friend or a parent is asking.
  1. The suspicious “ha” curls to end on a flat, lower note; it hovers between a question and a sceptical opinion. For example, “You very smart ha?” means something like “You think that you’re very smart?”
  1. The deaf “ha” is a question in itself and can signal disinterest or genuine ignorance. It starts higher in pitch than the aforementioned forms of “ha” and means “What did you just say?” or “What are you saying?”
  1. The un-un-un-un-unbelievable “ha” is exclaimed like the deaf “ha” with greater volume and surprise. But it’s definitely distinct since what is said is heard. It means “What the heck am I hearing?”
  1. Finally, the retreating “ha” is pitched lowest and uniquely winds down without ever curling up, like a stalled engine. It expresses grudging settlement after having been unkind or distrustful, as when a response to a clarification goes “Liddat ha”, which means “I see now what you mean”.

Let me simplify all these further with a scenario where all six forms can be used in concert:

Mother: You dun need to study ha? (The suspicious “ha”.)

Son: Ha? (The deaf “ha”.)

Mother: Dun act stupid with me ha! (The abrasive “ha”.)

Son: So sian, why you so Gahmen ha? (The intrusive “ha”.)

Mother: Ha?! (The un-un-un-un-unbelievable “ha”.)

Son: Err… OK, study ha. (The retreating “ha”.)



– Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic novelist, and a lite-ra-rary critic who also likes to talk cock sing song. This is a weekly series.


Featured image from Meme Generator.

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