Friday, March 30, 2007

‘Local’ RevisitedRemember we saw a few posts ago that some Singaporeans feel ‘local’ wherever they are in the world? Not because they are bicultural, or multicultural for that matter — but simply because they don’t understand that the term changes its reference according to where the speaker is.

In the above article (New Paper, March 24, 2007), proprietor Mr Ronald Lim observes of his new restaurant in London called ‘Kiasu’:

‘Tourists from Singapore visit the restaurant because they feel at home and they can savour their favourite local dishes. Londoners, on the other hand, are curious what “kiasu” means and what’s on the menu. It’s a cultural experience for everyone.’

Hmm — so if Singaporeans eat ‘local’ food in London, does that then make Londoners outsiders in their own city, and their food ‘international’?

Excuse Me, Are You A Nigerian?

This excerpt from an article by Samuel Lee (ST Life!, Saturday, March 17, 2007) caught my eye. Interviewing a Nigerian musician wary of his country’s media, Lee was probed whether he was a countryman, prompting him to wonder: Do Singaporeans speak English like Nigerians?

Yes, we do. There is a strong superficial similarity between our accents, and it has to do with intonation — specifically, what are known in Phonetics as level tones and contour tones.

In British and American English, which have contour tones, the ‘tune’ of a speaker is generally fluid, with one pitch blending seamlessly into the next for the most part. It is like the undulating peaks and falls of a mountain range.

In a level-tone language, however, each syllable has its own pitch, largely unaffected by its neighbours’. Hence, the appropriate analogy is steps rather than slopes. Singlish and Singapore English have mostly level tones — this is almost certainly an influence from Chinese (specifically, Hokkien), in which most words have inherent tone. (However, it should be pointed out that Standard Mandarin is more ‘contoured’ than Singapore Mandarin.)

Where does Nigerian English come in, then? Well, some African languages (including, possibly, those spoken in Nigeria) have what is called ‘downdrift’: The speaker utters syllables that are alternately high and low, continuing on a downward slide towards the end of the utterance. Each successive high-low pair is lower in pitch than the last. You can picture this as a downward zigzag (or a rather depressing sales chart!). It is likely that the English spoken in Nigeria and also Ghana inherited this feature in the form of level tones.

So, Nigerian English and Singapore English do sound superficially similar — and that is because they both have level tones.
‘Cher’ and ‘Mee’

In Singapore, pupils often call their teachers ’Cher. And in Chinese- and Singlish-speaking homes, kids often call their mothers Mee (with a rising intonation). Contrast this with English-speaking societies, where mothers are called Mum/Mom, and, in colloquial American English at least, a teacher is Teach.

All this has to do with stress. Not the stress that comes with being a mother or a teacher, of course, but where the stress/accent falls in a word. Because teacher and Mummy are stressed on the first syllable in Western native varieties of English (i.e. British, American, Australian, New Zealand, South African), it is this syllable which is retained when the word is abbreviated. In Singapore the opposite holds true: teacher and Mummy are stressed on the second syllable; hence it is these that survive.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Singlish got grammar one, leh!
(‘Singlish does have grammar’)

Think Singlish has no grammar? This charming cartoon by Iskander shows otherwise. How many times have we had well-meaning foreign friends trying to talk like us but ending up making us laugh?

Although Singlish is very different from Standard English, that doesn’t mean it is completely haphazard. It has its own rules about what goes where, and when; and what you can or cannot say — in other words, its own grammar.
Pronunciation Traps

Two abbreviations seem to give BBC announcers rather a lot of grief.

First, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) — I can’t imagine them being very popular at the Beeb, because great care is needed to deliver this string of closing diphthongs and high vowels comprehensibly, without sounding like one of Old MacDonald’s farm animals. Many announcers slow down noticeably in anticipation of this minefield and suspend the expected liaisons (‘eye-yay-yee-yay’), beginning each syllable instead with a laboured hiatus. A reasonable compromise, I suppose, would be to put the hiatus right down the middle (‘EYE-yay, EE-yay’).

And then we have the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) — a rebel organization who are a constant thorn in the sides not only of the Colombian government, but also of the often prim and proper BBC announcers. This one needs no elaboration!

Speaking of which, the Scottish surname Farquhar — known in Singapore via William Farquhar (first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore, 1819–1823) and generally pronounced ‘fah-KWAH’ — is more correctly rendered ‘FAR-ker’ or ‘FAR-kwer’.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Do You Speak Technobabble?

Surprisingly, MS Word's spellchecker doesn’t recognize the word blog!
Teaching and (Not Necessarily) Learning

As a linguistics student in the UK, I was one of a handful in my class who could produce every single sound on the IPA (International Phonetic Association) chart. After all, being able to pronounce (if not necessarily speak) English, Singlish, Mandarin, Teochew, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil, German, Italian and French does widen one’s phonetic repertoire considerably. Not knowing Zulu, Xhosa, Hausa, Swahili, Luganda or any other African language, however, meant a big gap in that knowledge. The sound I found hardest to do was the ingressive click; and I am not sure if I ever mastered the voiced fricative ‘r’ (Czech ř, I believe).

The British have a reputation for being monoglots, and my classmates didn’t disappoint. Try as he could, one of my friends couldn’t pronounce the rounded front vowel /y/ (in Mandarin Chinese qu ‘region/song/go’; French brut ‘rough/raw’; German Küh ‘cow’). This prompted our professor to ask, ‘Didn’t you learn French in school?’ To which my friend blithely replied, ‘Well, I was taught it!’

He had no recollection of the episode when I mentioned it to him a few years later, but said it must have been a rare moment of lucidity. Anyhow, this drives home the importance of teachers taking time to reflect: ‘Yes, I have taught — but did they learn?’

Monday, March 12, 2007

Questions And (Not-So-Good) Answers II

This ad, by ComfortDelGro’s in-house advertising arm and intended to persuade advertisers to place their ads on its buses and trains and in stations, is a rather lame attempt at witty, in-your-face creative humour. I may be wrong, but somehow the question and answer seem curiously mismatched.

Since the question is How did the Dinosaur become extinct?, the reply ought to be either By not getting out enough or It didn’t get out enough. (Better still, make the question Why did the Dinosaur become extinct?)

If the reply must be It should have got out more, then the question should ask, What should the Dinosaur have done to avoid extinction/becoming extinct?
Excuse Me, Are You A Singaporean?

This ‘friendly’ salutation by a clipboard-wielding teenager must strike terror into the hearts of thousands of Orchard Road shoppers every weekend.

Quite surprisingly, few, if any, seem to ask ‘Are you a local?’ — considering that, in Singapore, local and Singaporean are often treated as synonyms.

Local is, of course, a relative term. In Britain it has a narrow scope, usually meaning ‘of this village or county or region’, and rarely ‘of this country’ (except when contrasting with foreigners). It can even be used as a noun to refer to the village pub. The connotation is thus a provincial one: In regional newspapers, one sees headlines like ‘Local girl interns at NASA’ and ‘Local man in Bali bombing’, meaning that they are local to the county.

In Singapore, by contrast, local has a national reach — a reflection perhaps of the country’s small size? Not only that, it is sometimes used to mean ‘Singaporean’ even when the point of reference shifts. Overseas, it is not uncommon to hear Singaporean students saying: ‘We don’t like hall food, so we Singaporeans always get together to cook local (i.e. Singaporean) food’!

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Whatever you think of the British gutter press, you’ve got to admire them for their utterly brilliant wordplay.

This was the cover of the Daily Mirror on January 6, 2003, two months before the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies. Rather than a blunt, insipid headline screaming ‘It’s All About Oil’, the paper very cleverly crafted a message around the names of the big petroleum companies. The last sentence is, of course, The message is I’m a-coming to kick your ass, Saddam — in a Texan drawl.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Loaded Words

When a university got a new president recently, he declared at his inaugural address to all staff that everybody mattered, and everybody made a difference. The egalitarian note of his message soured slightly, however, when he innocently added: ‘Even if you are a cleaner’. A Freudian slip, perhaps?

Even is a loaded word. What he might have said was: ‘Whether you are a cleaner or a professor, you make a valuable contribution to the university.’

This reminds me of that famous quote by the great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor, but honest.’

A variation on this appears in many discussions in Philosophy and in Pragmatics (a branch of linguistics concerning the meaning of language in use):

He was poor but honest.

Of course, but carries the implication (or conventional implicature, to give its technical name) that poor people are, by nature, dishonest. To avoid this implicature, and is preferred: He was poor and honest.
For What?

Most Singaporeans will be familiar with this typically Singlish demand, largely (but not always) synonymous with why.

It may therefore come as a surprise that this is exactly how the word why is derived in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese: pourquoi (Fr.), perché (It.), por qué (Sp.), por que (Pt.) are all formed from the words ‘for’ + ‘what’.
Punctuation Matters
This blog believes in giving credit where it is due. The above example, seen in Serangoon Central, is a pleasant surprise, with its two perfectly-placed apostrophes (Senior Citizens’ Corner; Residents’ Committee). In Britain they would almost certainly have been omitted altogether, because few people know how to use them and many think they look fussy and dated, especially in trade names. Even the venerable Harrod’s became Harrods decades ago. (Sony’s trademark name for its digital camera line — Cyber-shot — is in fact a rather surprising anachronism in this punctuation-shy age.) As with many endangered species, the apostrophe has its own champions — the Apostrophe Protection Society. Where this humble punctuation mark is encountered in Britain nowadays, it is often wrong. Greengrocers are often fingered as the worst offenders, because they typically make this sort of error, named the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ in their honour: Carrot’s, Potato’s, Strawberry’s (Carrots, Potatoes, Strawberries). But they are not the only culprits. At university I had a classmate who thought church’s was the plural form — it is, of course, churches. (Ironically, his father was Britain’s best-known linguistics professor.)

Contrast the perfectly-punctuated example above with this semi-illiterate advertisement (Today, July 31, 2006) by an English tutor, whose main selling point appears to be that he is a British native speaker. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words…

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Questions And (Not Very Good) Answers

Just how good are our Straits/Sunday Times headline writers? Not very good, it would seem.

Since the headline above (Sunday Times, 4 March 2007, p. 27) asks, ‘Just how receptive are the Japanese to foreigners?’, the subheading should reply, ‘Not very, it would seem’. If the answer were ‘Not very much’, as above, this would be tantamount to saying, The Japanese are not very much receptive to foreigners.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

How Come It’s Not Singlish?

There is a widely-held misconception in Singapore that the expression how come? is Singlish. In the late 1990s, the entertainer Najip Ali even joked on national TV that he had been misunderstood when he used the phrase in the UK — his puzzled British interlocutor allegedly thought he was enquiring about his mode of transport.

Surely Najip made this up. The expression is, in fact, of American origin and is common in colloquial American and British English — as the quintessentially American Calvin And Hobbes cartoon above shows!

The Oxford English Dictionary — no less — defines it thus: ‘how did (or does) it come about (that)’. The earliest citation is from John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1848: ‘How-come? rapidly pronounced huc-cum, in Virginia. Doubtless an English phrase, brought over by the original settlers, and propagated even among the negro slaves. The meaning is, How did what you tell me happen? How came it?’