by Gwee Li Sui
You know what’s the problem with Singlish’s street cred? Every joker who has ever heard it before thinks he or she can speak it. Just ask that angmo who’s been in Singapore for a few weeks, and you may hear him or her boast: “You think I cannot speak lah?” Actually, angmo, I dun think hor, I know – because that use of “lah” is so salah.
Poor, poor “lah”! It has kena so much abuse that sometimes we wonder whether we’re still a Western colony. Come on, show some respect! “Is ‘lah’ a note to follow ‘soh’?” isn’t funny – we’ve heard it a gazillion times. Such wilful ignorance isn’t cute. “How go to Orchard Road lah?” “Lah your friend is so beautiful.” “The chicken rice nice-nice leh lah!”
What the fiak. (Yes, that’s how we say it.) “Lah” has to be like among the most abused words in the history of abused words. So let’s get the rules right for the sake of our sanity. “Lah” is firstly used at the end of a sentence or a main clause – nowhere else. No “Lah you is so funny” or “I take lah the bus home”. This isn’t French. But you can say “Dun care him lah, let’s go!” or use it with a filler like “OK”, as in “Please lah, OK?” (By the way, this “OK” doesn’t mean OK; it means “for God’s sake”. Surprise.)
Secondly, there’s no need to use “lah” to end every sentence. Once is enough to set the tone – unless you want to change this tone or to be irritating. So it makes sense when you cry, for example, “Help me lah! Lend me money lah!” Otherwise, dun lah-lah-lah please.
Thirdly, “lah” isn’t exactly meaningless. And it doesn’t mean “dude” or “babe”, and you shouldn’t say “How are you lah?” when you mean “How are you, bro?” There are even multiple meanings to it, and each meaning is defined by the context in play. I can identify three main types:
- The pleading “lah”, as in “Go away lah!” or “Go and die lah!”, and both of these mean “Please get lost”.
- The emphatic “lah”, as when you hear “You see lah!” The emphasis here is on you seeing – which presumably you haven’t been – and the line therefore means “Didn’t I tell you to watch out?”
- The affirmative “lah”, as in “Steady lah!” or “Solid lah!”, both of which mean “You’re impressive! Keep it up!”
These three “lahs” are also differentiated by tone, and so you need to learn to enunciate right too. None of them involves the sing-song “lah” of The Sound of Music. The pleading “lah” sounds like a deflating balloon: “laaah”. The emphatic “lah” is a spurt ending on a higher pitch, like when something drops on your foot. The affirmative “lah” is also a spurt, but it pulls downwards after going up, thus showing the very control of feeling it signals.
So, everyone, please lah, OK? Dun simi sai also go lah. Use your “lahs” sparingly and accurately, and you will win over the easily wounded hearts of native Singaporeans faster than HDB upgrading!
– Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic novelist, and a lite-ra-rary critic who also likes to talk cock sing song.
Editor’s note: Dun siow-siow this Gwee Li Sui! He can write funny poems and draw lovely comics and churn out cheem-cheem essays… and lagi best he’s not foreign talent. Some more got Permanent Head Damage in England from England! If you not happy with him, seek him out at his kopitiam, buy him an Anchor and talk cock until you happy. No need to tekan him online lor. Oh. And this is a weekly hor.