Thoughts On Singlish

On 8 Dec 2013, I was featured in an article in The New Paper about Singlish. As a documentary filmmaker I understand perfectly how difficult it is to distill the entirety of what someone tells you into just a small snippet that (you hope) is representative of the whole, and that not only will nuances be lost, but excessive detail is often undesirable. I think Hui Theng did an admirable job retaining the essence of what I said without getting bogged down in the particulars. (Just one detail needs correcting: I've taken not one, but three linguistics classes at NYU.) That said, I think it would be a shame for my responses to Hui Theng to go to waste, so I'm republishing them here with her permission.

You mentioned you were annoyed when you saw the query "Why don't Singaporeans try to speak proper English?" Why? Was it because you felt the tone was patronising? Did the person who posted the query get back to you after your reply?

I think questions like that annoy me because implicit in the question is the assumption that one regional form of English is more "proper" than another. When phrased like this, the question assumes a prescriptive approach to language: there is a way English should be spoken, and anything that does not conform to the model is not "proper". But languages are much more complex than that - they're not static, they're constantly undergoing change, and that's a beautiful thing. So to begin with, it annoyed me that the question didn't recognise that. 

That's before I even get to the issue of Singlish: it's very easy to conflate Singlish and Singaporean English. I've already said enough about this, I think (but I will be happy to elaborate if you need me to). As a language, I think Singlish should not be regarded as lesser than English, and when Singlish gets conflated with English it's only a small step to take to call it "not proper" English, and declare that it shouldn't be spoken. The prospect of that upsets me because I think Singlish, as a language and a linguistic phenomenon, is absolutely fascinating and we should be trying to learn more about it, not pretending it doesn't exist. 

To be clear, I'm not saying prescriptivism has no place anywhere. A language learner needs to know what's acceptable in a language and what's not. But we aren't talking about people learning a language - we're talking about real-world usage of languages by native speakers, when a descriptive approach to language is needed instead, especially when a language is undergoing rapid change. 

Another reason I found it annoying is that the question shows both a lack of understanding of the linguistic reality in Singapore and a lack of openness to possible responses. I mean, does anybody deliberately use grammatically incorrect language to communicate with other people who also deliberately use exactly the same grammatically incorrect language? Of course not - someone who thinks that that is the case is refusing or unable to acknowledge that it's not that the language that is "wrong", it is that he/she has no conception of what this language is actually supposed to sound like. You might as well be asking why the Italians don't speak proper Latin to each other. 

As far as I'm aware, the anonymous original poster never got in touch with me after my response. 

Would it make any difference if you knew the nationality of the person who posed the query? For instance, how would you have replied if the person had been Singaporean, compared to a non-Singaporean?

I answered the question without reading the asker's comments. I assumed it was a Singaporean asking that question, actually - maybe because I thought only a Singaporean would undervalue his/her own language to that degree, since we are constantly admonished for using Singlish, whereas a non-Singaporean might not carry that strong bias. So - no, I would not have answered it differently. 

How did you know the anonymous person who posted the question was non-Singaporean?

The comment he/she made along with the question was "I understand they speak it as a second language, but you'd think that after years of British rule and with one of the best education systems in the world, the average Singaporean would try to correct their accent."

That's not something a Singaporean would say. That's a statement made by somebody looking in on Singapore from the outside.

People are sharing your reply online and largely giving you the virtual thumbs-up. While many are supportive of your reply, some like Liang Kaicheng felt Singaporeans have to realise we have a problem. "At best, we are very, very  good second language speakers. And given that we are in fact first-language speakers from one of the most prominent global cities today, that simply doesn't cut it." Are you surprised by the reactions? Why?

I'm more surprised by the reach that my response has had than by the reactions to it. I mean, it's not really a new debate - there's a reason for the Speak Good English campaign and a reason why it simply hasn't worked. I think most people already know where they stand on Singlish, and the question was just an opportunity for a large number of people to express how they felt about it. 

For the record, I don't disagree with Kaicheng, only his terminology. One cannot be a first- and second-language speaker of one language at the same time. If Singaporeans are not acquiring English to a level expected of a first-language speaker, that's because not everyone acquires it as a first language, and it is unreasonable to expect first-language proficiency from people who simply aren't in an environment to pick it up as a first language. 

I entirely agree that a low level of English proficiency is a problem. I think, though, that the way to solve the problem is first to draw a line between Singlish and English. The Speak Good English campaign, for instance, is entirely based on the premise that Singlish is bad English. Singlish is not bad English, because it is not English in the first place. (A comparable language situation might be Haitian Creole and French.) It is problematic when people are told that Singlish is bad English and should not be used in this or that situation, and yet everyone they know uses this "bad English" in an entirely consistent and comprehensible manner! How is anyone supposed to know what's "bad English" and what's "proper" in that situation?

If we could instead say, "You are using Singlish - could you please use English for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Singlish?" I think we can begin to work towards a higher level of English proficiency because then we are clearly defining what we need to do in order to be understood by English speakers, and at the same time not suppressing a perfectly valid mode of communication that feels comfortable and is comprehensible to us. 

Are you concerned about nasty comments from haters/trolls? Or fanning the flames of an Internet war of words?

I feel like I've said my piece, and readers can take it or leave it. I can't do anything about trolls or negative comments from people who have no interest in being constructive, so I just don't read the comments if I don't feel like engaging in a discussion that might turn into an argument. I'm not out there marshalling an army of people to support Singlish - if others want to turn it into a flame war, it's their prerogative and none of my business. 

How do you feel about being called a defender of Singlish online?

Haha gosh. To be honest, I don't feel strongly one way or another about being called a "defender of Singlish" at all - I wrote the answer because it was something that I felt needed to be said. It would have made no difference to me if nobody but the asker had read it. I'm definitely glad it found an audience, but if there's any long-term benefit from it having gone viral, I'd like for it to open up a more critical discussion of Singlish as a language and as a cultural reference point. I'd rather have that be the focus, rather than some silly notion of me being the "defender of Singlish". Singlish doesn't need a "defender" - it's a vibrant language with a large community of speakers who clearly love it, use it and take pride in it. 

If I asked you for three reasons why Singlish rocks, what would you tell me?

I'll give you just one reason, but it's a big one: Language reveals culture and history, even when we aren't aware of it. We know that "Singapura" means "Lion City" in Malay, but what most people don't realise is that neither "singa" nor "pura" are native Malay words - they are both words borrowed into Malay from Sanskrit. (Given that we know that lions aren't native to the Malay Peninsula it's not surprising that that is the case!) Sanskrit "pur" (city) is cognate with Greek "polis" (city or city-state), from which we get the words "politics" (things to do with citizens of a state), "metropolis" and so on.

What this points to is a history of humanity both general and specific: we are connected to the rest of the world by our language, in ways we cannot even begin to appreciate - and at the same time our language encodes our history. There is a tendency to see Singlish as a bastard child of other languages, cut off from their history and their tradition, but that is not at all the case. When we say "Singapore", we affirm our connection to a world that contains cities named Jaipur, Tripoli, Minneapolis, Naples (Neapolis)... and yet the word "Singapore" itself reflects a specific history. The Anglicised form reveals our colonial past; the fact that "singa" and "pura" came into Malay by way of Sanskrit reveals the interaction between the people of the Malay Archipelago and the Indian subcontinent well before Temasek was renamed Singapura, and everybody knows the story of Sang Nila Utama seeing the "lion". 

Let's take another example of how language encodes culture and history: kopitiam. The kopitiam is such a part of the Singaporean landscape it's hard to imagine what Singapore would look like without them. But if you look closely at the words, "kopi" is taken from Malay and "tiam" from Hokkien. So this word, which describes an integral part of Singaporean culture, is a reflection of of two cultures and languages coming together to form one. This article in the New York Times by Cheryl Tan highlights this beautifully: In Singapore, Drinking in the Kopitiam Experience. How is that not amazing?

What are your five favourite Singlish words/ phrases of all time?

Shiok: it's so hard to define, and yet every Singlish speaker knows exactly what it means. You can really see the difficulty of conveying the meaning of this word in this New York Times article: A Tiny Nation With A Big Appetite - in which Ignatius Chan defines "shiok" as "like hitting the g-spot for food" (not a bad metaphorical explanation), and the NYT proceeds to use "shiok" incorrectly.

Arrow: such a useful verb. Instead of saying "I was volunteered for an unpleasant task against my will", you can simply say "I kena arrowed" and get all the sympathy you were looking for in just five syllables.

Obiang: like "arrow", this word encapsulates a concept that would otherwise require many words to express.

Buay tahan: I like this one for the same reason I like "kopitiam" - two different languages coming together. Besides the fact that "tahan" has shades of meaning not quite captured by words like "to bear", "to endure", there's also the fact that as a phrase, we apply Hokkien tones to "tahan" when we say "buay tahan". We don't do that when we say "cannot tahan" or "tak boleh tahan".

Kope: this one is interesting for two linguistic reasons - firstly, it contrasts with "cope". It is the only case I'm aware of where Singlish shows a contrast between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops (this is only interesting to linguists, but it is very interesting to linguists). Secondly, nobody seems to know where this word came from. It appears that wasn't borrowed from another language, it originated here in Singapore (possibly as a modification of "to cop", but nobody knows) - that seems oddly appropriate.