Why do Singaporeans say “lah?”
The word lah doesn’t seem to have a clear definition in any of the four languages spoken in Singapore. But it’s the kind of word that doesn’t seem to mean something particular yet is strangely specific all at once.
So why do Singaporeans say “lah” all the time? And is there a right and wrong way to say it?
With this post, we’ll aim to get some understanding of this quirky linguistic mystery. We’ll be looking at
- What “lah” means
- How “lah” is used in Singlish (with some examples and when to use it)
- The history of “lah”
- The wrong ways “lah” can be used
What does “lah” mean?
“Lah” doesn’t have a single definition or meaning, per se. But when a non-Singaporean hears it being used, some translation might be in order.
Lah is a Singlish particle that follows traditional Cantonese or Hokkien linguistic attitudes. It places particular emphasis on how something is said (rather than what is said).
So the key is also understanding the tone and circumstance involved when “lah” becomes part of a conversation.
An article by linguist Junwen Lee observed how the term has conveyed different—and sometimes contradictory—meanings.
For instance, it can be used to both seek confirmation and express exasperation when uttered. And it’s versatile enough to soften the blow of otherwise seemingly authoritative order or assertive statement.
Sounds confusing so far? Don’t worry because we’ll be examining the lah phenomenon closely in the following sections using some examples.
How do you use “lah” in Singlish?
Being a multicultural melting pot has given Singaporeans a unique way of expressing themselves. Although English is spoken widely in Singapore (it’s the de facto language, after all), Singlish has become a more popular way of speaking.
So if you want to greet someone in Singapore as a local would, talking in Singlish would be your best bet. And when speaking in Singlish, you can expect the conversations to be peppered with the word lah.
Many regard it to be a suffix for just about any possible word in all manner of contextual situations. It can also help denote particular moods and feelings.
It’s an iconic enough Singlish word that’s become as recognisable as the Canadian “eh?” and other language quirks. It’s also become a favourite novelty merchandise design and establishment name that cater to both tourists and locals.
But how is lah used in Singlish in everyday conversations? Let’s look at some common instances.
1. It adds emphasis to a statement
When to use it: For the speaker to emphasise what they are saying as fact
Common examples: “They have the best chicken baked rice here lah!” “Of course lah!”
When you listen to snatches of conversations among locals in Singapore, you’ll likely hear “lah” being said emphatically. You can catch it in office spaces, preschools and high schools, public places, and practically anywhere you go.
“Lah” is most commonly used to add emphasis to what’s being said. It can serve both as an assertion and punctuation. It underlines situations that are either self-evident or obvious too.
It’s also used to put finality in a statement as if no arguments or questions should follow.
For example, if someone insists that they saw you the previous day when you didn’t even step out of the house, you can say “No lah, cannot be!” to erase all doubt that it really wasn’t you.
2. It can signal affirmation
When to use it: For the speaker to express agreement or affirm something that was said
Common examples: “OK lah.” “Can I go to your house today?” “Can lah!”
“Lah” is part of our list of 50 helpful phrases to use in Singapore if you’re visiting for the first time. Its most recognisable usage is to express affirmation or agreement with a statement.
It can be combined with another Singlish expression: “can,” which is a shortened version of “will be able to.” So if you want to confirm that you can do something for someone, you can say “Can!” or “Can lah!” to show that you’re both willing and able.
Still, the most common usage of this word to confirm something is a simple “OK lah.” It’s short, succinct, and can satisfactorily end a conversation with just two words.
3. It can express exasperation succinctly
When to use it: For the speaker to add finality to a statement
Common examples: “No lah, I told you I can’t come to the meeting.”
There are several ways of saying thank you in Singapore, and some of them are used to express exasperation over someone or a particular situation.
So if you hear someone say “Thank you lah” when you didn’t really do anything to help them, there’s a big chance it’s said ironically.
And yes, the word “lah” can be used sarcastically too. It’s not unheard of to use it within dialogues (or monologues, more like) that tend to run too long and too dully.
It can be a dismissive way to end a conversation. It might not be part of the most underrated Singlish expressions, but with the right tone, an eye roll, and other contextual clues, the use of an exasperated “lah” can easily mean “this talk is over.”
4. It can soften an urgent statement
When to use it: For a speaker to convey the importance of a situation but not be aggressive about it
Common examples: “It would be better if you come with us lah.” “No lah, you can’t bring durian on the trip.”
Our previous post explaining what the accent is in Singapore, it’s explained how Singaporeans tend to talk fast and even end up meshing some words together.
For a non-native speaker, this might seem like an aggressive way of communicating. And while it may be true in particular situations, an assertive statement can be somewhat softened with the use of “lah.”
So if you find that you need someone to act on something ASAP, you can suffix your statement with lah if you don’t want to seem abrupt, forceful, or bossy.
An example would be “You’ll need to come over to the house soon lah!” if you want to wait until the person is in front of you to break whatever news there is to break.
Does “lah” have a history?
“Lah” has the distinction of being the word that both Malaysians and Singaporeans use as a daily expression.
Singapore is not part of Malaysia, but the two countries do share historical, cultural, and geographical similarities that have given birth to this unique colloquialism.
So while “lah” seems to be distinctly Singlish, Malaysians can also come to regard it as part of spoken Manglish (Malaysian + English). This kind of language variability mirrors the two nations’ common cultural makeup and multicultural heritage.
When Malaysia and Singapore were living together under British rule, the influx of immigrants from China and India greatly influenced and diversified speech and expressions among them.
The multiple ethnic groups passing through the Straits of Malacca blended various languages (Malay, Chinese, and Tamil) and also paved the way for a common language right up to Singapore’s independence—and beyond.
One can say that the simple word “lah” is one of the invisible yet strongest ties that bind Singapore and Malaysia together. It’s the indirect product of geography, politics, colonialism, immigration, and interwoven histories and heritage.
Today, the way Singapore’s education system is structured aims to make Singaporeans more effectively bilingual. But when language is spoken, it becomes a living, almost organic thing that transcends linguistic rules set by a stringent academic setup.
Like everything else that has to do with Singapore, “lah” is neat, efficient, and gets the work done.
But it has enough nuances to encompass different situations, contexts, and meanings, which makes it as dynamic and inclusive as the country where it’s most associated.
Is there a wrong way to use “lah?”
Now that you know a bit of the history and context behind “lah,” you’ll still need to avoid being so off-hand or careless about using it.
Those considered novices in the way of Singlish should take care of how to speak this unofficial language so they won’t offend anyone. Let’s look at some instances that you should avoid.
1. Using it at the end of every sentence
When not to use it: When you feel that it’s forced, avoid using “lah” altogether
Common examples: “Good morning lah! A nice sunny day we’re having lah! See you later lah!”
Refrain from using “lah” to punctuate every sentence regardless of intention or context. It will sound very forced, and you’ll come across as extremely fake and trying too hard.
Basically, it should sound like a natural and effortless part of a sentence or anything you utter. You can learn by listening to different kinds of conversations throughout the day, and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Besides, “lah” isn’t just used at the end of sentences. It can be used right smack in the middle of a statement (“No lah, cannot!”) for emphasis.
2. Using it mockingly
When not to use it: When you just stepped foot in Singapore for the first time and want to sound how you think a “local” sounds like
Common examples: “Can I order bak kut teh lah?” “Hey lah, can you tell me how to get to Merlion Park lah?”
Nothing screams more geh kiang (someone who acts “fake smart”) than a non-Singlish speaker who uses lah as if it’s a speaking tic. And while the word is used judiciously by Singaporeans, there’s a nuance to it that involves appropriate situations and contexts.
So if you don’t want to sound like a smart-aleck (even if you aren’t really trying to), use “lah” sparingly in your speech. It can give locals the chance to gently correctly you and explain better situations for the word’s usage.
And with a strange foreign accent, it might sound even more awkward (or annoying). In short, don’t use “lah” for the sake of using it.
When not to use it: To make people obey you or hold you in high regard
Common examples: “I’ll need to borrow your notes lah” “Drop me off at the station so I won’t be late lah!”
As previously mentioned, using lah as a directive can soften the edges of asking somebody to do something.
The statement “Can you come with me lah” is a good example of this because it seemingly gives the other person options because of the persuasive tone.
But while “lah” can be used to emphasise or soften an assertive statement, it doesn’t mean you should use it to establish authority.
Unless you’re someone’s superior at work or elsewhere, overusing lah can come off as manipulative and inauthentic. Context and other factors will still influence how lah is used in this instance, so it’s best not to abuse the word just to hold sway over someone.
Some might say that “lah” is a situational word. One might be able to use it in a corporate setting but bear in mind that it’s Singlish and can be regarded as an informal language.
To Wrap It Up…
Lah can convey anything from excitement to exasperation and arguably even other emotions, moods, and meanings in between. Singaporeans who’ve been speaking this word since they learned to talk instinctively know when to use it.
As a novice to the Singlish language, it might take a bit more time and effort for you to pick it up and use it like a local, though.
Learning a new language isn’t as simple as going to Google Translate to understand what someone is saying.
Sure, enrolling with reputable Chinese tutors and other language centres can help, but truly immersing yourself in the culture is where understanding “lah” lies.