IOU, vowels

Imagine a world without vowels. We wouldn’t be able to speak or sing. We would be able to make various sounds — mmff! grr! hmm! — but not actually speak.

You only have to move your lips to pronounce letters like b,m,p,v and press your tongue against your teeth or some part inside your mouth to pronounce other consonants such as c,d,g,j,k,l,n,r,s,t,x,z.

To pronounce a vowel, you have to open your mouth and allow air to flow through it, as the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary points out. [Read more...]

Melvyn Bragg on Singlish

Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg

This may be my last post for about a month. I hope to be blogging again from the middle of November. So, before the hiatus, one last post about Singapore. Here is Melvyn Bragg writing about Singapore English. He is an eminent British journalist, who edited the recent issue of The New Statesman magazine, which included a poem by Ted Hughes about Sylvia Plath.

This is from The Adventure of English, Bragg’s history of the English language and its continuing evolution, published in 2003. He discusses Singlish in one of the later chapters and seems to quite like it. Here is what he says:

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How words get into the Oxford English Dictionary

I have seen the word "linguaphile" (meaning word lover or language lover) on and the Free Dictionary, but it's not there in the Oxford English Dictionary. It no longer tries to be comprehensive. "The language is expanding so fast this may be an impossible mission," said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mark Abley recalls their conversation in his book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, where he also writes about Singlish and other variants of the English language, as I mentioned here.

"The Internet poses problems," said Weiner. "We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we've tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We've occasionally taken quotations from websites. But we don't like doing that."

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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.

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Banyan, Kipling and Mandalay

The writer of the Banyan column in the Economist is bidding goodbye to Asia, cheerfully mangling Kipling: "For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say: Come you back, you British columnist; come you back to Mandalay!"

"Come you back, you British solider," is what Kipling wrote, "come you back to Mandalay!"

Banyan was having fun, echoing Kipling. For Mandalay is one of the naughtiest poems he wrote about the East. It's not about duty like The White Man's Burden or courage in battle like Gunga Din. It's far more earthy. The speaker is a British soldier who, back in London, finds the English girls unattractive after the woman he left behind in Burma:

Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

It goes on:

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;

Here's the full poem:

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Globish and Singlish

Are Indians and Singaporeans native speakers of the English language? That's what Janadas Devan wrote in the Sunday Times in Singapore. He wrote:

Any language as spoken by its native speakers — which, in the case of English, include not only the British and the Americans, but also Indians, Nigerians and Singaporeans — has a density of meaning, an intricacy of nuance, an irreducible idiomatic singularity that is not obvious to its non-native speakers.

He began the article with a compliment from of one of his newspaper colleagues, who said: "Janadas' English is so good, he can't understand my simple English." 

Anyone so conscious of his command of the language — "I write and speak a literary English," he added —  has to be a careful writer.

So he must have meant what he wrote about Singaporeans and Indians being native English speakers.

I am surprised. Only the Eurasians and Anglo-Indians among us, I thought, could claim English as their mother tongue.

My view is shared by Robert McCrum, who in his new book, Globish — reviewed by Janadas Devan in his column — explores the spread of English as a global language.

He does not regard Indians and Singaporeans as native English speakers but writes appreciatively of Indian English and Singaporean English, or Singlish, in his study of Globish — the English of non-native speakers.

The full title of his book is Globish: How English Became the World's Language.

But this isn't a history of the English language like Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words and Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma.

Nor does it explore the the differences between, say, Caribbean Creole and the Irish Brogue like The Story of English, co-authored by McCrum with Robert MacNeil and William Cran in the 1980s.

What McCrum does in his new book is look at the driving forces behind the spread of English — the British empire, the rise of America as a superpower, and globalization.

Countries like China, Iran and Greenland, which have never been under British rule or American influence, are also taking to English, he writes.

He devotes more than two pages to English in Singapore, which is worth quoting at length.

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Avatar No 1 on the Net: Indian words in English

Viagra sounds like the Sanskrit word for tiger — “vyaghra”.

Henry Hitchens points that out in his delightful book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes the similarity but doubts any connection between the two words. The “vi” of Viagra possibly comes from virile and virility, it says.

That may be so, but there are plenty of Indian words in English. Think of the Oscar nominee, Avatar.

That’s another Sanskrit word, which means incarnation. It was first used in English by the Orientalist Sir William Jones in 1784.

But how did avatar come to mean a computer graphics icon? OED offers no explanation for this new incarnation of avatar. It simply notes the word has been used in this sense since 1986.

Indian words may not be a dime a dozen in the English language, but they are certainly among the most common.

Think of curry, cot, bungalow, bangle, pyjamas. They are all from India. Cot comes from the Hindi “khat”, bangle from the Hindi “bangri”, pyjamas from the Urdu “pyjama”, bungalow from the Hindustani “bangla”. Curry is from the Tamil “kari”, which means sauce or relish for rice, says the OED.

Now let’s do a Google search to see which appears most often on the internet.

And the winner is …


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On Julia’s Clothes and 99 other most popular poems

This must be one of the shortest, heavily anthologized poems in the English language. On Julia's Clothes, by Robert Herrick, runs to only six lines. But, witty and playful, this 17th century poem is one of the 100 most anthologized poems in the English language, according to the Columbia Granger's World of Poetry. Here are links to the top 100. But first…

On Julia's Clothes
By Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

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Samuel Huntington on Lee Kuan Yew

Anyone with an interest in world affairs should read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P Huntington. It is heavy-going. I found it boring when I first tried to read it after the 9/11 attacks when critics disputed his theory of a world polarized on racial and religious lines.

But a year after his death — he died in December 2008, aged 81 — I am amazed at his percipience. Long before 9/11— the book was published in 1996 — he wrote:

A civilization-based world order is emerging: societies sharing cultural affinities cooperate with each other; efforts to shift societies from one civilization to another are unsuccessful; and countries group themselves around the lead or core states of their civilization.

The West's universalist pretensions increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilizations, most importantly with Islam and China; at the local level fault line wars, largely between Muslims and non-Muslims, generate "kin-country rallying", the threat of broader escalation, and hence efforts by core states to halt these wars.

Huntington was writing with the Bosnian war in mind, which pitted the Muslims against the Serbs.

But note that he also spoke of conflict with China. He wrote at length about the rise of China and East Asia. I will blog about that later.

This post is on what he had to say about Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. He figures prominently in the book.

"The best bloody Englishman east of Suez"

In the fourth chapter of the book, The Fading of the West: Power, Culture and Indigenization, Lee Kuan Yew is one of the three leaders mentioned who deliberately went native, casting off their colonial legacies. Huntington wrote:

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That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic is one of the most heartwarming novels I have read this year. As a story of American academic life, it is far more enjoyable than Zadie Smith's On Beauty.

The protagonist, Jack Griffin, is a middle-aged former Hollywood scriptwriter who has become an academic like his parents —- two English professors from Ivy League schools who are as promiscuous as they are snobbish. It is their back story that adds to the entertainment. His mother, in her old age when the novel begins, is as sharp as Betsey Trotwood and no less funny.

As Griffin drives to Cape Cod on his summer vacation, carrying his father's ashes to be scattered into the sea, his mother calls him on his cell phone and tells him where to dispose of the ashes. "I'd just feel better if the Cape was between us, me on one side and him on the other," she adds. She is carrying on the bickering which did not end after their divorce.

Griffin is carrying his father's ashes to the Cape because that was their favourite place. That's where they used to escape every summer from the "Mid-fucking-West", as his parents used to call it — a large state university in Indiana, where they taught, unable to get jobs in their beloved New England.

As he drives through Boston on the way to the Cape, he remembers how his parents used to sing, "That old Cape magic", changing the lyrics of That Old Black Magic. Hence the title of the novel.

I remember the allure, too, of Boston Harbour and Quincy Market, which we visited when our son graduated on a scholarship this summer from a liberal arts college in the Midwest. And, no, it wasn't the "Mid-fucking-west". We loved his college. The teachers and students were so friendly. They congratulated our son for getting a scholarship to an Ivy League graduate school. A smiling woman in a professor's cap and gown for the graduation ceremony who had been to the same school assured us it was nice and friendly too.

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