Archive | April 2012

‘kopi’ & ‘teh’

I am a fan of coffee at Toast@Work (a coffee shop in Singapore). The other day when I was ordering coffee at Toast@Work at YIH, I was intrigued by their menu in which words such as ‘kopi’, ‘teh’ were used instead of ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’, and how certain suffixes were added to these 2 stems (i.e. kopi & teh) to signal different combinations of ingredients.

In Singapore, apart from such global coffee chains as Starbucks and the Coffee Bean which have long-established names for different types of coffee (e.g. Dark Mocha, Latte, etc.) that are widely recognizable and rather unequivocal in terms of what ingredients these labels entail, there seems to be a local naming convention for coffee and tea which employs affixation to signal different varieties rather than coming up with a new label altogether for each variety.

Here are some of the examples I have observed at different coffee shops in Singapore that use the local naming convention (though I only have space for one picture here):

1. Kopi: hot coffee with condensed milk and sugar
2. Kopi-Kosong: hot coffee with condensed milk without sugar
3. Kopi-Peng / Ice Kopi / Iced Coffee: Kopi + Ice

3. Kopi-O: hot coffee with sugar
4. Kopi-O-Kosong: hot coffee without sugar

5. Kopi-Si: hot coffee with evaporated milk and sugar
6. Teh-Si: hot tea with evaporated milk and sugar
7. Teh: hot tea with condensed milk and sugar
8. Teh-O: hot tea with sugar
9. Teh-Peng / Ice Teh / Iced Tea: Teh + Ice

I asked the coffee makers at various shops what the terms meant, and most (if not all) of their responses concurred with one another in terms of what ingredients are involved in each kopi/teh name aforementioned. Thus, the 9 examples above reveal that suffixes such as ‘kosong’, ‘peng’, ‘si’, and ‘O’ are bound morphemes that have distinct meanings. Below is my attempt to define these suffixes based on data from (1) to (9):

1. ‘kosong’ = without sugar
2. ‘peng’ = with ice
3. ‘O’ = without milk
4. ‘si’ = with evaporated milk

Interestingly, the presence of ‘condensed milk’ and ‘sugar’ is already entailed in ‘kopi’ or ‘teh’ though there is no affix found on these stems to signify the presence of these 2 ingredients.

According to‘kopi’ is borrowed from Malay, and ‘teh’ from Hokkien, and the English equivalents of these 2 terms are ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ respectively. However, the referents of ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ are different from those of ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’, in that ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ usually mean black coffee and (dark) tea, while ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ already entail the presence of ‘condensed milk’ and ‘sugar’. What is even more intriguing is that when the English equivalents (i.e. ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’) of ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ are used, these English equivalents are being re-lexicalized in such a way that their referents are what ‘kopi’ and ‘teh’ denote (coffee/tea which includes ‘condensed milk’ and ‘sugar’) rather than black coffee and (dark) tea. This may be a source of confusion to foreigners who use the labels ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ in their canonical sense (i.e. black coffee and (dark) tea). I myself was confused during my first few months in Singapore.

For your information, ‘si’ is probably a variation of ‘C’ (as in kopi-C), and the ‘C’ is the initial letter of the English word Carnation, a proprietary name for a brand of evaporated milk first sold by American grocer E.A. Stuart in the late 19th or early 20th century and now manufactured by the Nestlé company. (source:; and ‘O’, my guess, may come from ‘only’?

For a more systematic nomenclature of ‘kopi’, please visit this site:

Hope you found this post interesting! 🙂