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Singapore’s colorful creole is infamous for ending sentences with the untranslatable lah. Jock Wong, however, would like fellow linguists to pay attention to a more overlooked word in Singapore English, which he notes “is not found in Anglo English”—the word one.

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Importantly, he warns that Singaporeans’ use of this innocuous particle could easily lead to serious miscommunications among speakers of different dialects of English.

Both common and “culturally significant,” the word one can be used in various ways, as Wong notes. For example, if two people need to use the shower at the same time, the person who wants to go first may promise that he will be quick by saying, “I very fast one.”

Wong distinguishes between the use of one in at least two different parts of speech.

Firstly, one has a grammatical noun form, seen in phrases such as “she buy one,” meaning “the one she bought.” In the second case, the particle “follows a declarative sentence, either in sentence-final position or, frequently, followed by another particle or a tag.”

Wong reports that the particle form of one “occurs at very high frequency in everyday, informal speech,” appearing in sentences like “You have to be very careful one. Otherwise, you will lose one.” Based on these examples, he hypothesizes it’s used in ways that express opinion or speculation.

Yet “no overt distinction seems to be made between opinion and factual knowledge,” Wong observes. Indeed, “particle one can be used to make the proposition sound like a strong statement, as if the speaker is very confident about the validity of what he or she says.”

For example, a Singapore English speaker who wants to assert that nothing can be done about a situation is would simply say: “Like that means like that one.”

Wong observes that “speakers often exude absolute confidence even when saying things that seem mundane, trivial, or inconsequential,” thanks to the particle.

Such certainty extends to the use of one in rhetorical questions or questions where the speaker expects a definitive answer, such as “Last time here got one mad woman one, right?”

Based on this commonplace use of one, Wong argues that the particle ultimately reflects Singaporean cultural values that may differ from those of other English speakers.

Since one is associated with strong emphasis and overstatement, Wong suggests that its use “seems to reflect such a habit by which speakers speak definitively and exaggeratedly even in situations that may not seem to call for it” as a result of a cultural preference for certainty.

“From an Anglo perspective, the use of particle one to influence a person’s way of thinking about something violates the cultural rule of acknowledging an individual’s point of view, and could therefore be interpreted as excessively intrusive, not unlike a speaker’s hectoring the addressee,” he writes. But

from a Singaporean perspective, [the] particle one is crucial in everyday speech because it connects fellow interlocutors by way of influencing each other’s thoughts, and it is essential for the cohesion of any informal speech exchange.

Some scholars think that one entered Singapore English through Chinese languages such as Mandarin, Hokkien, or Cantonese. Wong agrees with this view, and adds of Singapore English more generally, “[M]any of the cultural values it embodies have been carried over from the Chinese language.”

At the end of the day, “while the [Anglo and Singapore] communities are both said to speak ‘English,’ the patterns of thought embodied in the two cultural dialects of English can be significantly different.”

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Language in Society, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 239–275
Cambridge University Press