"Want" as Future Auxiliary in Singlish

Here's a little something I noticed a while ago. Singlish allows you to do something interesting with the verb "want", but only under certain circumstances.

For those who are familiar with German or with the history of the English language, you will notice that what I am about to outline in Singlish is a parallel phenomenon to what happened in English. German "will" means English "want" (verb). Formerly, in English, "will" did use to mean "want", and you can see this sense of the word in "last will and testament", or "I willed it into existence", or "where there's a will, there's a way." Now, of course, we primarily use "will" in English as a future auxiliary, to indicate that an action will be happening in the future.

This particular semantic drift most likely occurred because if you want something, it is in the future, not in the present. (As for why something similar didn't happen in German: language change is explainable but not predictable.)

I confess, the first time I was given this explanation, part of me refused to accept it. Of course my brain understood why it was likely, but the fact that "will" is already grammaticalised as a future auxiliary blinded me to the process - I could not conceive of making that leap from "will" as in "want" to "will" as in future tense. I took the explanation at face value but didn't like it.

So imagine how intrigued I was when, while working on a documentary, this gem of a Singlish sentence showed up in the Singaporean musical I was following:

"I eat until I want to bao zha (explode) already!"

Any Singlish speaker will recognise this as a valid construction. "Want" here, however, does not indicate volition. You cannot substitute "would like" in the sentence: "I would like to explode." Neither can you substitute "will": "I eat until I will explode." The only acceptable substitution is the "going to" future: "I eat until I [am] going to explode already."

The first explanation is that Singlish acquired this construction from Chinese, and you can see it in a direct translation:

"I eat until I want to explode already!"
我吃到我要爆炸了!

The question, then, is whether Chinese uses this construction to mark the future. The answer is: it does. Sort of.

As with many things in Chinese, the exact meaning is context-dependent, but take me at my word for now:

我要上学了。
Lit: I want to go to school already.
Meaning: I'm going to go to school now.

我们要吃饭了。
Lit: We want to eat already.
Meaning: We are going to eat now.

他们要走了。
Lit: They want to go already.
Meaning: They are going to go now.

Other meanings are possible, but I don't want to get too much into the complexities here. The important thing is, in all three cases, a Singlish speaker can hear the literal translation and accept the dynamic translation as meaning the same thing.

Without actually conducting full-scale research on this, my guess is that it is the "already" inchoative aspect marker that does the trick - when used together with "already", "want" is focused from a generalised volition down to a specific, immediate-future time frame. Take away the "already" or the 了, and suddenly volition becomes the preferred interpretation in almost any context:

我要上学。
Lit: I want to go to school.
Meaning: I want to go to school.

我们要吃饭。
Lit: We want to eat.
Meaning: We want to eat.

他们要走。
Lit: They want to go.
Meaning: They want to go.

Curiously, not all verbs can be used in all meanings with this construction. Not to be deliberately crude or morbid, but I think Singlish speakers will recognise these:

"I work until I want to die already."
"I want to vomit blood already."

The volition interpretation is not possible in the above sentences, in the same way it is not possible to willingly want or choose to explode.

The thing is, of course, when the verb has a neutral or positive connotation it is much easier to assume that volition is intended. For example, you would have no issues with the usual English definition of "want" in these sentences:

"I want to sleep already."
"I tired until I want to sleep already."

In fact, in the second sentence above, it is not possible to substitute "want" with the "going to" future. Volition is pretty much the only interpretation that makes sense.

The answer to untangling this construction lies somewhere in Chinese grammar. That's as far as I've worked it out in my head.

Production of word-initial stops by Singaporean English/Mandarin and Singaporean English/Malay bilingual children

This paper was written for Lisa Davidson and Frans Adriaans’s LING-UA 54 Learning To Speak: The First and Second Language Acquisition of Sound in Spring 2014. We spent the semester reading primary research, and the assignment was to design an experiment to test for an aspect of first or second language acquisition.

I have Lisa and Frans’s comments on this paper but except for one major note I make below, I have not modified the paper.


Introduction

How do simultaneously bilingual children distinguish between phonetic categories in their two languages, especially when some of those categories overlap? When bilingual children begin to produce speech, how accurate are they in producing phones that correspond to the correct language?

Current models of speech perception tend to use a monolingual approach, with subsequent language learning being analyzed through the lens of the L1’s phonetic inventory. The two dominant models of speech perception are Best’s Perceptual Assimilation Model (Best et al 2001) and Flege’s Speech Learning Model (1995). In the Perceptual Assimilation Model (PAM), non-native contrasts are assimilated in various ways to native speech sounds, and these non-native distinctions are always parsed relative to the listener’s L1. In comparison, Flege’s Speech Learning Model (SLM) postulates that L1 and L2 phonetic categories co-exist in a common phonetic space, and that while L1 distinctions acquired in childhood remain the primary mechanism for speech perception, these distinctions evolve with subsequent language acquisition to account for phonetic categories in L2 languages.

These models, however, do not account for simultaneously bilingual children who receive input from two or more languages from a young age. Historically, the dominant approach towards understanding bilingualism has been the unitary language system (ULS) hypothesis, which posits that bilingual children do not differentiate between the two languages in the beginning, essentially treating all language input as part of a single monolingual system, and the languages only become fully differentiated later in linguistic development, around 4 years of age (Volterra and Taeschner 1978).

More recently, Paradis and Genesee (1996) suggested that code-mixing in simultaneously bilingual children is not necessarily indicative of a unitary language system, but could equally be the result of an interaction between two separate systems. In this model, a bilingual child begins the process of language acquisition with two separate systems, one for each language, and these systems can either remain completely distinct such that it is as if two separate monolingual acquisition processes were happening in parallel (autonomous development), or they can interact with each other (interdependent development). This interaction can take the form of transfer, acceleration or delay. Transfer refers to the systematic employment of part of one language’s grammar in the other language, whereas acceleration and delay refer to the earlier or later acquisition of aspects of a language relative to monolingual acquisition.

Both the ULS and the autonomous and interdependent development models deal with lexical and syntactic acquisition, but can also be useful in generating a framework for bilingual phonological acquisition. The pertinent question is, do bilingual children have just one phonological system for two languages, or do they have two separate systems that may or may not interact? According to the interdependent development model, a bilingual child should have two phonological systems with the possibility of phonological transfer from one language to another, with the exact specifics of such transfer being dependent on the child’s relative knowledge of the two languages’ phonologies.

Yet another viewpoint is presented by Vihman (2002), who argued that in the earliest stages of language acquisition, there is no evidence that children have either one unitary system or two distinct systems. Although bilingual children eventually do develop two separate phonologies, early acquisition is asystemic, the result not only of language exposure but of a child’s vocal motor development, with an increased facility with speech production being the primary determining factor in a child’s first utterances. Under this model, differentiation of phonological systems is an emergent phenomenon resulting from word learning in two languages. This hypothesis, however, does not adequately explain phonological transfer from one language to another during the acquisition stage.

Research on simultaneous bilinguals’ production of speech segments that fall within overlapping phonemic categories is relatively limited and inconclusive. Fabiano-Smith and Barlow (2009) looked at the phonetic inventories of monolingual English and Spanish 3-4 year olds, and bilingual Spanish-English children of the same age. They found that the bilingual children had phonetic inventories that matched the monolingual children in complexity, and evidence suggests that bilingual children maintained distinct phonological systems with some transfer between the two languages. Fabiano-Smith and Bunta (2012) conducted a study of 24 3-year-olds divided into three groups: monolingual Spanish, monolingual English and bilingual Spanish-English, and found that while the VOT of /p/ and /k/ productions in the monolingual Spanish and monolingual English children were different in their respective languages, the VOT productions of bilingual Spanish-English children were similar in both languages, suggesting that the two phonetic categories exist in the same phonetic space.

The study that is most relevant to the one proposed in this paper is Johnson and Wilson (2002), which presented preliminary data on VOT length in stops based on lab recordings of a family of four: two bilingual Japanese-English children at ages 2;10 and 4;8 with a Japanese-speaking mother and an English-speaking father. The children had similar amounts of exposure to both Japanese and English. The researchers took measurements of the father’s VOT lengths in English, the mother’s VOT lengths in Japanese, and the children’s VOT lengths in both English and Japanese. Both parents’ VOT values matched previously-obtained reference VOT values for English and Japanese. The younger child, at age 2;10, showed no significant effect of language on VOT length in voiceless stops. However, the older child, at age 4;8, had a significantly longer VOT for English /p/ and /t/ than for Japanese /p/ and /t/.

The study proposed in this paper will take a similar approach, but applied to a larger participant pool and with different stop distinctions. Many Singaporeans now grow up simultaneously bilingual in Singaporean English (SgE) and either Mandarin or Malay, in homes where both parents are also bilingual in the same pair of languages. This presents intriguing possibilities for exploring the development of phonemic categories in simultaneous bilinguals, as these three languages have different categories for stops in word-initial position. Mandarin has no voiced obstruents and contrasts aspiration. Malay has no aspirated obstruents and contrasts voicing. Relatively little experimental data on Singaporean English phonetics exists. Gut (2005) found that in Singaporean English "syllable-initial voiceless plosives /p, t, k/ are often aspirated to a far lesser degree than in British English." No indication is given of how much shorter the aspiration in Singaporean English is, other than that the voiceless stops of some speakers may be perceived as voiced stops by speakers of other varieties of English (i.e. VOT of < 40ms for a voiceless stop).

By comparing the production of word-initial stops in Singaporean English, Malay and Mandarin by SgE/Mandarin and SgE/Malay bilingual children, this study hopes to find out if children in the process of developing phonological systems for these languages develop each system independently and are able to keep them separate, or if these different phonemic categories interact with each other during this stage of language acquisition.

In this study, Standard Singaporean English will be used, as opposed to Colloquial Singaporean English (also known as Singlish). There are two reasons for this: 1. as a creole, the lexicon of Singlish is drawn from multiple languages, including English, Mandarin, Malay, as well as Hokkien and Teochew, both of which have a three-way distinction between initial voiceless aspirated, voiceless unaspirated and voiced stops, and too many confounding factors will be introduced and, 2. anecdotally, Singlish itself may have a three-way contrast between voiceless aspirated, voiceless unaspirated and voiced stops in some highly specific situations ("kope" /kop/ vs "cope" /khop/ vs “goat” /got/; “kaki” /kaki/ vs “car key” /khakhi/ vs “gaga” /gaga/).

Participants

Participants will be 40 four-year-olds from Singapore and their parents. Of these, 20 households will be English/Malay-speaking, and 20 households will be English/Mandarin-speaking. According to Platt and Weber (1980), educational level correlates highly to sociolect of English in Singapore; to control for this factor, both parents should have some college education so that the child will have exposure to Standard Singaporean English.

The age of four years was chosen because by this age, children have usually acquired nearly the entire phonetic inventory of their L1 languages (Fabiano-Smith and Barlow 2010), but are unlikely to have started mandatory formal schooling, which in Singapore begins at age 6 and is conducted primarily in English. As a result, their language input is likely to be distributed fairly evenly across the two L1 languages, as opposed to being predominantly English input once they reach age 6.

Children from households where both parents or other primary caretaker (for example, a grandparent or nanny) speaks Hokkien or Teochew should be excluded from this study, as both these languages have a three-way contrast between voiceless aspirated, voiceless unaspirated and voiced stops in word-initial position. While they would be an interesting group to look at for precisely this reason, the potential for confounding factors in the context of this study is too great.

Stimuli

The stimuli are designed to combine word-initial stops with vowels that can occur after a word-initial stop in all of the languages under study. This is done to control for any effect the following vowel may have on the stop. The words chosen are generally concrete/picturable nouns, adjectives or verbs that a four-year-old can be expected to be familiar with or to learn during the experiment, such as “pisang” (banana), “gemuk” (fat), or 哭 (cry). In some cases, an abstract but common word has been chosen over other words that, although concrete, a four-year-old is unlikely to be familiar with. These include 比 (comparison particle), 不 (not), and 个 (the most common noun classifier in Mandarin). The Mandarin stimuli are not controlled for tone, as controlling for tone would considerably restrict the set of possible stimuli, making it difficult to test for words within the vocabulary range of four-year-olds.

Mandarin does not have [o], or [e] after /th/ or /kh/, making it impossible to test for combinations containing those vowels. Although Mandarin does have 陪 /pheɪ/ (to accompany), it is not a suitable stimulus for four-year-old subjects. As such, the experiment will not test words with [e] or [o] following the word-initial stop.

Partial list of stimuli (only the initial stop and following vowel are transcribed):

Malay Mandarin English
Voiceless Voiced Aspirated Unaspirated Voiceless Voiced
pisang
/pi/
biru
/bi/

/phi/

/pi/
peek
/pi/
beak
/bi/
tinggi
/ti/
dinding
/di/

/thi/

/ti/
tea
/ti/
deep
/di/
putih
/pu/
buruk
/bu/

/phu/

/pu/
pool
/pu/
boo
/bu/
tua
/tu/
dua
/du/

/thu/

/tu/
too
/tu/
do
/du/
kuning
/ku/
gula
/gu/

/khu/

/ku/
cool
/ku/
goose
/gu/
penoh
/pə/
besar
/bə/

/phə/

/pə/
* *
kecil
/kə/
gemuk
/gə/

/khə/

/kə/
* *
panjang
/pa/
basah
/ba/

/pha/

/pa/
park
/pɑ/
bark
/bɑ/
tanah
/ta/
dalam
/da/

/tha/

/ta/
tart
/tɑ/
dart
/dɑ/
kacang
/ka/
garam
/ga/

/kha/
勇敢
/ka/
card
/kɑ/
guard
/gɑ/

* Heng and Deterding (2005) found that Singaporean English reduces a relatively low percentage of vowels to /ə/, with 45% of vowels being reduced compared to 100% for the British English control group for the tokens being analyzed. Because the incidence of /ə/ in Singaporean English is still high, it is important to test for this combination if possible, but it is unlikely that Singaporean English stop + /ə/ tokens can be reliably elicited from a word list. Instead, where available, relevant tokens from spontaneous production should be analyzed instead.

[Note: the paper came back from Lisa and Frans with a suggestion to test /ʌ/ if /ə/ could not be reliably solicited, since /ʌ/ is the stressed equivalent of /ə/ in General American. Singaporean English, however, has the phoneme /ɜ/ as the stressed equivalent of /ə/, which would be an even better test. /ʌ/-/ɜ/ is contrastive in Singaporean English, as in the minimal pair bud-bird.]

Method

Given that Singaporean English is poorly defined and described, this study will compare children's production with their parents' production, rather than against a standard set of phonetic features. The parents’ production of these words will serve as a baseline result, allowing us to establish the phonemic distinctions in each of the three languages. If a set of parents shows statistically anomalous significant transfer effects from one language to another, the child’s results can be excluded or considered separately from the main participant pool.

The experiment will take place over two days for each of the groups in order to mitigate any potential priming effects from having both languages tested on the same day. On the first day, each child will be shown pictures designed to elicit the target words in English, in the carrier phrase “this is (a) ________”. If the child does not produce the word, delayed elicitation can be used to prompt the child to produce the word. This will be followed by a spontaneous five-minute conversation between the child and a native speaker of Singaporean English. On the second day, this procedure will be repeated with the other language (either Mandarin or Malay).

The parents will be individually tested in separate rooms at the same time as their child. On the first day, each parent will be given the list of target words in English and asked to read them aloud in the carrier phrase “I say ________”. This will be followed by a spontaneous five-minute conversation with a native speaker of Singaporean English. On the second day, this procedure will be repeated with the other language, with the conversation being carried out with a native speaker of the other language.

After the speech samples have been collected, they will be coded and analyzed with the aim of identifying how phonemic distinctions are codified in each of the three languages, and the extent to which each individual speaker was able to maintain distinct phonemic categories across both languages.

Discussion

I expect the baseline results from the parents’ speech samples to show that for word-initial stops, Mandarin has an aspiration contrast, Malay has a voicing contrast, and Singaporean English has a VOT length distinction with aspiration accompanying longer VOT. It is also possible that Singaporean English has an aspiration contrast with optional voicing, or a voicing contrast with optional aspiration. I do not expect place of articulation or the subsequent vowel to have a significant effect on either the parents’ or children’s voicing, aspiration or VOT in word-initial stops.

Based on this, I would expect the SgE/Mandarin bilingual children to have acquired the aspiration contrast in Mandarin and the SgE/Malay bilingual children to have acquired the voicing contrast in Malay. I would expect both groups of children to have a VOT distinction in Singaporean English. If this is indeed the case, that would suggest that the phonological systems of bilingual children at age 4 are separate and distinct, with minimal transfer from one language to another. A phonemic category is not defined only its discrete segmental properties, but is linked to one language or the other in the mind of the speaker.

If the SgE/Mandarin and SgE/Malay children have different contrasts for word-initial stops in Singaporean English compared to their parents (for example, SgE/Malay children contrast voicing in English while SgE/Mandarin children contrast aspiration in English, while both SgE/Malay and SgE/Mandarin parents contrast VOT in English), that would suggest that there is interference from Mandarin or Malay in their acquisition of English. Conversely, if the SgE/Malay children have aspirated stops in their Malay production or if the SgE/Mandarin children have voiced stops in their Mandarin production, that would suggest interference from English in their acquisition of Malay or Mandarin. In either case, this result would indicate that the phonological systems of bilingual children are not kept completely separate, at least not at age 4.

These results would not necessarily answer the question of whether bilingual children begin the process of language acquisition with one or two phonological systems, only of whether they end the process of phonological acquisition with separate systems, and whether there is any interaction between the two systems at the end of phonological acquisition. To more accurately trace the development of phonological systems in bilingual children, a longitudinal study from first words to the end of phonological acquisition is necessary, but there are many methodological considerations that make such an undertaking difficult. For example, the linguistic environment of bilingual children is likely to vary much more widely than that of monolingual children, making direct comparisons between children problematic. Additionally, in the earliest stages of speech production, before individual segments are fully acquired, it is difficult to ascribe utterances to one language or another.

One more possibility must be considered: if there is a significant effect of language pair on stop distinctions in English among the parents (i.e. SgE/Mandarin and SgE/Malay parents have different stop distinctions in English), that points to a larger question that cannot be adequately answered in this study: dialectal variation in a language as a direct result of the great majority of its native speakers being bilingual in other languages.

Other potential follow-up studies include a perception study to see if bilingual Singaporean children and adults accurately perceive voiceless aspirated, voiceless unaspirated and voiced stop distinctions depending on their own native languages and the language being spoken (for example, can an SgE/Malay speaker accurately perceive the difference between /ph/ and /p/ in both Mandarin and English?) Additionally, if a similar production study could be replicated in other areas where simultaneous bilingualism is common, such as Quebec, Catalonia or Hong Kong, it could be determined whether the result obtained in the Singapore context is specific to the linguistic situation in Singapore, or if bilingual children as a group maintain separate or merged phonological systems in their two native languages, regardless of what those languages are.


Bibliography

Best, C., McRoberts, G. & Goodell, E. (2001). Discrimination of non-native consonant contrasts varying in perceptual assimilation to the listener’s native phonological system. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 109 (2). 775-794.

Fabiano-Smith, L. & Barlow, J. (2010). Interaction in bilingual phonological acquisition: Evidence from phonetic inventories. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1). 1-17.

Fabiano-Smith, L. & Bunta, F. (2012). Voice onset time of voiceless bilabial and velar stops in three-year-old bilingual children and their age-matched monolingual peers. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 26 (2). 148-163.

Flege, J. (1995) Second-language speech learning: theory, findings, and problems. In W. Strange (Ed.) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience: Issues in Cross-Language Research (pp. 229-273). Timonium, MD: York Press.

Gut, U. (2005). The realisation of final plosives in Singapore English: phonological rules and ethnic differences. In Deterding, D., Brown, A. & Low E L (Eds.) English in Singapore: Phonetic Research On A Corpus (pp. 14-25). Singapore: McGraw-Hill.

Heng M.G. & Deterding, D. (2005). Reduced vowels in conversational Singapore English. In Deterding, D., Brown, A. & Low E L (Eds.) English in Singapore: Phonetic Research On A Corpus (pp. 54-63). Singapore: McGraw-Hill.

Johnson, C. & Wilson, I. (2002). Phonetic evidence for early language differentiation: Research issues and some preliminary data. International Journal of Bilingualism, 6. 271-289.

Paradis, J. & Genesee, F. (1996). Syntactic acquisition in bilingual children: autonomous or interdependent? Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 18. 1-25.

Platt, J. & Weber, H. (1980). English in Singapore and Malaysia: Status, features, functions. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Vihman, M. M. (2002). Getting started without a system: from phonetics to phonology in bilingual development. International Journal of Bilingualism, 6. 239-254.

Volterra, V. & Taeschner, T. (1978). The acquisition and development of language by bilingual children. Journal of Child Language, 5. 311-326.

“Already” / “Liao” as aspect marker in Singlish

This is an essay I wrote for LING-UA 36 Indo-European Syntax at New York University.

Despite the name, Indo-European Syntax at NYU is much more of a historical linguistics class than a syntax class, reflecting the expertise of Professor John Costello.

Even though Singlish appears to have nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European syntax, this oddball topic was accepted as an essay for this class, because it studies a change in syntax resulting from language contact (another one of Professor Costello's research interests), in which one of the languages in contact is Indo-European.

This essay is not a research essay, but rather an outline of ideas. As a result, it does not meet the burden of proof required of a proper research paper; temper your expectations accordingly.

To the best of my knowledge, the syntax of this aspect marker has never been described in this way, although if that is not the case, please let me know.


Singlish is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore, influenced by various Chinese dialects, particularly Hokkien, Teochew and Mandarin, Malay, and to a lesser degree, languages from the Indian subcontinent. It is often thought of as "English with Chinese syntax", although as we will see in this essay, this is not strictly true. In this essay, I will analyze the function of the word "already", as well as the closely related “liao”, as it is used in Singlish.

“Liao” is the Hokkien cognate of Mandarin Chinese 了 (lè), which has two primary functions in Mandarin Chinese: it can mark completion, thus functioning as a perfective aspect marker, or it can indicate a change of state, functioning as an inceptive or inchoative aspect marker (Ross and Sheng Ma 62, 226, 236). “Liao” in Singlish has these two functions as well. In Singlish, “already” is used in the same way as “liao”; “liao” can always be replaced with “already” except in one case, and the reverse substitution of “liao” for “already” is not always valid, as we will see in this essay.

A common and unambiguous use of Singlish "already" or “liao” can be seen in the following sentence: "Eat already or not?" / “Eat liao or not?” This question, meaning "Have you eaten?", corresponds exactly, in terms of syntax, to the Mandarin Chinese equivalent "吃了没有?” (chī lè méi yǒu):

Eat already or not?
没有?
verb perfective marker negation

In this sentence, “already” / “liao” corresponds to Chinese 了. In the Mandarin sentence, 了 marks completion and is thus a perfective aspect marker. “Already” / “liao” similarly functions as a perfective aspect marker in this sentence.

An ambiguous use of “already” / “liao”, however, can be seen here:

I eat already
pronoun verb marker

In both the Singlish and Chinese sentences, “already” / “liao” / 了 might mark completion, or might mark change of state. If “already” / “liao” / 了 are being used to mark completion, the sentences mean “I ate”; if they are being used to mark a change of state, then the sentences mean “I am about to eat” and “already” / “liao” / 了 therefore instead mark the inchoative aspect.

In Singlish, there are ways to disambiguate the meaning of the sentence, such as through the use of mood particles or interjections. It should be noted that in these situations, the primary function of these mood particles or interjections is not to disambiguate “already”, but rather that because they add additional context, they have the side effect of disambiguating “already” / “liao”. For example:

Eh I eat already can?
interjection pronoun verb marker question particle

(It is possible to contrive a scenario in which the above sentence means “I ate”, but it is a sufficiently marginal case that I will not consider it in this essay.)

In this example, the addition of the interjection “eh”, used to catch the attention of the listener, and the question particle “can?”, used in this case to ask for permission, provide sufficient context to determine that the speaker is asking for permission to begin eating, and therefore “already” / “liao” in this sentence serves as an inchoative aspect marker. A similar (but not syntactically identical) sentence in Mandarin Chinese, with the same meaning, would look like this:

可以 吗?
I can eat (marker) (question particle)
pronoun modal verb verb marker question particle

In the example above, 了 serves as an inchoative aspect marker as well.

Yeah I eat already
interjection pronoun verb marker

In the above sentence, the addition of the affirmative “yeah” suggests that the speaker is answering a question, possibly the question “Eat already or not?” or “Have you eaten?” and “already” here can only be a perfective aspect marker.

Another way to disambiguate the meaning of the sentence “I eat already” is to move “already” from sentence-final position to pre-verb position and to add “liao” in sentence-final position:

I already eat liao
已经
pronoun adverb verb marker

He already go home (liao)
已经
pronoun adverb verb object/adverb marker

(In the first example, “liao” is not optional, whereas in the second, “liao” is optional; in both Mandarin sentences, 了 is required. At the moment, I do not have an explanation for why “liao” is optional in some cases and required in others.)

In these examples, the syntactical correspondence with the Chinese sentence suggests that pre-verb “already” is not an aspect marker but is instead an adverb, corresponding to Mandarin 已经 (yǐ jīng). In this situation, the presence of adverbial “already” indicates that the action occurred in the past, and “liao” is therefore a perfective aspect marker. We can safely conclude that in Singlish, whenever “already” appears in pre-verb position, it is parsed as an adverb rather than as an aspect marker and the perfective aspect is implied, regardless of whether the verb is conjugated in the past tense, and if sentence-final “liao” is also present, it marks the perfective rather than inchoative aspect. Because pre-verb “already” corresponds to Mandarin 已经 rather than Mandarin 了, the Hokkien “liao” can never appear in pre-verb position. Additionally, “I already eat already” is understood but generally not accepted, due to the repetition of “already”. This is the only scenario in which “liao” cannot be replaced by “already”: when “already” appears elsewhere in the clause as an adverb.

Other verbs or adverbs can be used to disambiguate the function of “already” / “liao”. For example, “start” implies that “already” / “liao” marks the inchoative aspect:

I start eating already
开始
pronoun auxiliary verb non-finite verb form marker

Conversely, “finish” implies that “already” / “liao” marks the perfective aspect:

I finish eating already
pronoun auxiliary verb non-finite verb form marker

The above sentence has no syntactic equivalent in Mandarin. However, curiously, in Singlish, “finish” can be used as an adverb, analogous to Mandarin 完 (wán):

I eat finish already
pronoun verb adverb marker

Throughout this essay I have emphasized the correspondence of “already” / “liao” and Mandarin 了. However, there is one important difference between “already” / “liao” and 了: Mandarin allows the use of 了 in post-verb position, as in the following example:

已经
He already eat (marker) rice
pronoun adverb verb marker object
He has already eaten.

Singlish, however, never admits “already” / “liao” in post-verb position (unless that also happens to be the sentence-final position). Given that English does not admit “already” in post-verb position except after “be”, “have” (when used as an auxiliary verb) and modal verbs, I believe this is likely to be due to the influence of English syntax.

An additional note is necessary: in his thesis, Lim Heng Liang found there is no statistically significant difference between Chinese and Malay speakers in terms of which positions of “already” were acceptable for a given aspect, except for perfective sentence-initial “already”, which Malay speakers were more likely to accept than Chinese speakers. I would like to note that “already” is in fact acceptable in sentence-initial position in English, but it seems to me that any sentence beginning with “already” is likely to be parsed by a Singlish speaker as English rather than as Singlish, and its validity as a sentence will be analyzed as such. Furthermore, Malay does admit “sudah” (already) in sentence-initial position, but a deeper analysis of such a construction is beyond the scope of this essay.

To sum up, Singlish “already” / “liao” generally functions as either a perfective or inchoative aspect marker, indicating the completion of an action or a change of state, much like 了 in Mandarin. The ambiguous aspect can be clarified by the use of verbs or adverbs, such as “start”, “finish” or even “already” itself, that imply one of these two aspects. Unlike Mandarin 了, “already” / “liao” is acceptable only in sentence-final position, not in post-verb position, possibly as a result of English not accepting “already” in the post-verb position. Additionally, “already” is also acceptable in pre-verb position in Singlish, where it is parsed as an adverb, as it would be in English, rather than as an aspect marker. As such, the syntax of word “already” is a salient example of the multiple linguistic influences present in Singlish.


Works Cited

  • Lim Heng Liang. “Creole Homogeneity in Multiple Substrate Situations: Findings from Singapore English kena, already and until.” Undergraduate thesis, National University of Singapore, 2012. Print.
  • Ross, Claudia; Sheng Ma, Jing-heng. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.