Singlish and English in Singapore

Mark Abley, journalist and author of The Prodigal TongueCanadian journalist Mark Abley, like the Observer's associate editor Robert McCrum, is fascinated by the sheer variety of English spoken and used across the globe. He notes with amusement what's happening in Singapore: the government's attempts to promote standard English failing to dislodge the Singlish spoken on the streets.

He devotes several pages to Singapore and Singlish in The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English. You could call it a traveller's notebook, exploring the differences in English from country to country. Anyone who loved The Story of English – where McCrum, Robert MacNeil and William Cran described how the language has evolved across the world – will enjoy reading this book.

Abley  (photo from his website) met Singaporean academics like Kirpal Singh and Lubna Alsagoff and Colin Goh of Talking Cock. They all say Singlish is here to stay.

Abley writes:

Can a government shape the way a language changes? If you want to be global, can you also be local, or should you try to minimize local expressions?… To grasp why Singapore has become a prime testing ground for questions like these, and perhaps for the future of English across Asia, it's helpful to understand a little about the country's past…

At first Lee (Kuan Yew) backed a policy of four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. If any of them carried extra clout, it was Malay, the "national" language… But Malay also came with unwanted baggage: the failed union with Malaysia and a long association with Islam, a religion most Singaporeans had no desire to embrace. Lee sensed a need to strengthen Singapore's uncertain identity and to keep the nation ultracompetitive. He launched a "Speak Mandarin" campaign in 1979… But eight years later the pendulum swung back: Lee decreed that all children, regardless of their ethnic children, would be educated in English. Schooling in Mandarin was abolished.

Since then, English has functioned as Singapore's main language, with Mandarin a comfortable second. A logical decision? Perhaps. Except that many Singaporeans, even now, don't speak Standard English and have great difficulty with Mandarin. They talk to each in what has, inevitably, become known as Singlish – the helter-skelter language of the streets. An impromptu creole that adds Malay, Tamil, Hokkien and other Chinese languages onto an English base, Singlish defies the government's urge to regulate and purify. Compared to its closest relative, the Manglish of Malaysia, it contains more words from Chinese languages and fewer from Malay. Of all the English-based idioms spoken in the Far East, Singlish may be the most distinctive…

The local divergence from Standard English extends to the structure of sentences and the sounds that words make in a mouth. One of the most basic elements of any language, the verb "to be", is changing in Singapore: it shows up when you might doubt its usefulness ("My mother is stay here what") but vanishes when you're expecting it ("He very sad"). Prepositions are in flux – I passed a sign outside the YMCA that read,"Volunteer or donate to help the people at Sri Lanka." Some elements of Singlish recall Indian English, such as the appearance of adverbs like "already" and "only" when a sentence is about to conclude. Here, as in India, words are repeated for emphasis. I talked to a young Singaporean woman whose father had phoned her after the December 2004 tsunami disaster to say: "Eh Ming Ming ah, don't go to seaside seaside places because tsunami can come  anytime." But the influence of Chinese syntax allows Singapore English to roam even further from its parent than Indian English does. Sentences like "That magazine on the sofa, take come here" are common. To ask a question, just make a statement and add "or not" – "Come on Friday, can or not?" "Love letters, got or not?"…

Lubna Alsagoff, who heads the English Department (at the National Institute of Education), … oversees a department of more than sixty professors. While she talked, I sipped an iced mocha in the (NIE) library's elegant cafe, looking over verdant parkland three floors below: "When I was young, the common language in Singapore used to be a Malay patois. But now it's been replaced by Singlish. I speak it, and I'm proud to say I do… But I'm constantly trying to update, because the young are changing the language so fast." She nodded toward Max, the cafe manager, adding that Singlish alone permits her to converse with him: "Singlish includes; Standard English excludes. Half the people in Singapore don't speak English well. Singlish is all they have. For them, Singlish isn't a colloquial form – it's their highest level. Without it, I couldn't bridge the gap that is caused by my education… I need Singlish to be able to communicate."

Abley adds:

As Lubna explained, Singapore wants to promote English as both a global language… and a common language. It's intended to arrive without cultural baggage. To profit from English while staying aloof from the supposed moral corruption of the West, Singapore has tried to seize hold of the language as though it were merely a tool. Amid the nation's mishmash of races, religions and histories, Singlish is meant to be a neutral instrument. Yet can a people thrive if their common language is bland and culture-free? Singlish embodies the zest and tenacity with which Singapore's residents have made English their own – and the government's neutrality policy helps to explain why the slang-packed hybrid has arrived with such force. "It's necessary for teachers to use Standard English in the classroom," Lubna concluded, "but I think it would be a mistake for the government to try and stamp out Singlish. It would drive it underground, and you don't want that."

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