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 Dictionary.com 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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