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Singlish Transcription Challenges: Keeping Standards Consistent

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Singlish – an English creole fertilised and incubated over the past century on this land Singaporeans call home. Whilst often not considered proper for formal occasions, Singlish functions like an emulsifier, a badge of identification that locals in Singapore use to signal our membership in a common national identity.

Although widely accepted as a spoken vernacular – and there are academics and language lovers who have done the hard work to study the semantics of this neo language and to compile dictionaries of Singlish terms – Singlish not classified as a variant of English due to their vast differences in grammar and sentence structure.

Singlish ≠ Singapore English

Yes, you read that correctly. Singlish does not equate to the Singapore variant of English. The Singaporean variant of English is based on language conventions of British English in terms of spelling and vocabulary – think centre instead of American spelling center, and pavement rather than sidewalk.

This is unsurprising given our historical ties with England as an ex-British colony. But whilst many of the spelling conventions closely follow that of our previous occupiers, there are also differences in many of the proper nouns that we use locally, as language evolves and localises naturally. The proliferation of entertainment and popular culture, as well as its influence in media and commerce, has imported many Americanisms that have also become part of the Singapore lingo.

Singapore English is what you will find on our English language newspapers, as well as reports, official documents, presentations, anything written in our version of what is proper English in Singapore.

Singlish is mostly spoken and it seems to follow its own set of grammatical rules. Mandarin speakers would no doubt find Singlish very familiar because many of the Singlish phrases have the same grammatical structure of a Chinese sentence, except that the Chinese characters have been replaced by English words. Take for example, “Why you so like that?”, which locals often like to shorten it to “Why you so liddat?”, basically said when asking someone why they are behaving in a particular way that is not seen in a positive light. For those of you who speak Mandarin, doesn’t this remind you of “你怎么这样呀?”

So be careful not to mix up the two when you are working on localising your content for a Singapore audience. Singlish is a colourful vernacular that is not considered proper English. It might appear on interviews, talks shows or films that want to play up the Singlish factor. Consider injecting a word or two into your content as a surprise element, which increases its familiarity and likeability, but overdo it and it starts to sound awfully unprofessional, unless of course that’s your intention.

Singlish in Legal Transcription Projects

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In Singapore, transcripts of audio and video files are required when submitting them as evidence to the court during legal proceedings. Many of such recorded conversations are conducted in a mish mash of Singlish, English, Mandarin, Malay, local Chinese dialects, as well as some Tamil.

As a multi-racial and multi-lingual country, there is nothing surprising at all about this fact. The trouble comes when the client provides the files to the translation agency and says they are English conversations. The translation agency, taking the client at word value, then proceeds to assign the job to an English transcriber. That’s when the job gets into the cry-father-cry-mother (you can Google it; and please do excuse my language) territory because this causes quality issues that is messy to correct later on and may create stressful delays in the legal proceedings.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the issues that are common in Singlish transcription projects.

Particles like lor, lah, hor, meh, siah and many more others lend additional meaning to sentences. These particles likely came from the different mother tongues spoken by the different ethnic groups in the country. These particles would make absolutely no sense to non-Singaporeans, and may be overlooked as just sounds by an English transcriber who doesn’t understand Singlish. This may cause critical information to be left out of the transcript. Take for example hor, which changes the sentence to a question.

“We are going to the movies tonight hor?”

In the above sentence, the addition of hor at the end of the sentence changes the meaning to “Are we going to the movies tonight?” or “We are going to the movies tonight, right?” A non-Singlish speaker who listens to this sentence and doesn’t register hor in the transcript would completely distort the meaning of what is being said to a statement “We are going to the movies tonight.”

  • Working with the Singaporean accent

Differences in accents means that even some of the English words get wrongly transcribed. Many English transcriptions of Singlish conversations that I have proofread and edited in the past contain extensive errors. And this is by no means the fault of the transcriber. It is the responsibility of the translation/transcription project manager to determine the accents of the speakers involved in the recorded conversations and to assign the job to the transcriber with matching skillset and cultural background.

  • Singapore’s love of acronyms

From ECP to SGH to TIS and MOM, Singaporean conversations are peppered (or littered) – no, more like flooded, whacked or pummelled – with acronyms. I’m not even going to bother explaining them in details. You can check some of them out here and here.

It adds to the confusion even for local Singaporeans. Some of these acronyms can mean more than one thing or organisation. It shows up in official statements, news articles, company presentations, in everyday conversations. It brings people in the know closer together because of the common lingo. On the flip side, it alienates those who are not in the lucky majority and have to *gasp* interrupt the conversation to ask what an acronym means.

For acronyms that I’m unsure about, I will usually highlight them in transcripts for my clients to clarify or confirm, to ensure that the conversation is accurately replicated.

The Importance of Accuracy in Transcripts for Legal Proceedings

The purpose of transcribing recorded conversations is to convert the conversations into a type-written format, because you can’t be expecting the judge and lawyers to be sitting for hours and days listening to all these audio recordings in search of important points to consider or to build a case. One can certainly read a transcript much faster than listening to an audio.

The job of a professional transcriber or transcriptionist is to accurately convert the recordings into a neat, organised transcript that is easy to read and process. A good transcript needs to have the following elements:

  • Clear margins with a lot of space for annotations

  • Font size that is large enough for easy reading

  • 1.5 to double line spacing

  • Timestamps (if required) so that one can easily listen to the critical sections of the conversations

  • Clear indication of different speakers and who is saying what

  • Problem areas should be highlighted with their corresponding timestamps indicated

  • The same terms should be translated consistently (if translation is required)

The loyalty of a transcriber of transcripts used in legal proceedings is not to the client that engaged them but to the court and the laws of Singapore. Whatever the transcriber-translator submits has to be true to the best of his or her knowledge.

If the speakers are talking at the same time and parts of the conversations cannot be properly heard, it is important to indicate this clearly in the transcript.

Often, the job of the transcriber-translator doesn’t just end with the delivery of the transcript to the lawyer’s office. There is usually a period after delivery to clarify and update on the parts of dialogues that can’t be clearly heard.

And if the transcript is submitted as evidence to the court, an affidavit may need to be signed, which involves the transcriber going down to the lawyer’s office to sign and swear/affirm in front of a commissioner of oaths.

Qualities of a Good Transcriber

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  • Detail-oriented and meticulous

  • Patience, with a strong desire to get details right, because the work involves sometimes listening to parts of a conversation over and over again to determine what is said

  • Familiar with a variety of different accents


There’s really nothing particularly spectacular about Singlish transcription. It is just a specific type of transcription that needs to be categorised as such instead of being squashed into the larger category of English transcription.

I hope I have provided you with useful information that helps you to understand why it’s important to categorise Singlish transcription into a class of its own.

If you have any Singlish transcription requirements for legal proceedings, please contact us here and let us help you out with it! Our confidential policy can be found on the same contact page under the FAQ.

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