Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, William!

Today, April 23rd, is a triply important date.

Not only is it the day William Shakespeare died (in 1616), it is also reputedly the day he was born. (Why reputedly? Because in those days it was the custom to record the date of baptism — in Shakespeare’s case, April 26, 1564 — rather than the date of birth.)

That’s not all. Today is also St George’s Day. St George, as you may know, is (among other things) the patron saint of England.

If you’re a student or teacher or lover of English, there can’t be many dates more significant than this!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Exquisite English

I have the good fortune of knowing an emeritus professor of English, whose e-mail messages — in lyrically beautiful prose — are always such a delight to receive. The following (names changed/deleted to protect the guilty) is elegant and precise without being verbose or bombastic — the last often the mark of an immature writer. Who says ephemeral, electronic communication has to be in a degraded form of English?

My dear _______,

Is it true that the space bar gets more use than any other key on the board? Certainly in this cybercafé the space bars often seem defective, and the other day I sent a message that turned out to consist of a single enormous word! I say this by way of prefatory apology for any eccentricities in this letter, or any more than usual.

So you are, in a sense, a free man until 12 January, I think you said. This is a vacation of astounding dimensions, though I know not a vacation in the literal sense of emptiness as far as you are concerned. Still, a change is said to be as good as a rest, and I hope you will find some satisfaction in getting back to writing.

All continues well here. Firoz is away in Delhi for a couple of days on business. Last weekend we were at his house on the beach, which seems a thousand miles away from the hurly-burly of Bombay though it is only twenty or thirty. The gardener’s wife cooks plain but wholesome food, we sit and watch the grass grow, and walk on the beach early in the morning and towards sunset, it being too hot to venture far in the middle of the day. My tour of Sri Lanka is now confirmed, departing on 22nd, and I look forward to it very much. I am going with a Hindu friend, Viswa, a devout fellow who gives me insights into religious culture that I would certainly not get from my less godly friends!

No need to reply to this, of course.

Yours ever,

Friday, April 13, 2007

What do you call this communication device?

If you’re Singaporean or Malaysian, it’s most probably a handphone to you. If you’re British, either a mobile phone or mobile; if American, a cellular phone, cell phone, or simply cell. (And if you’re Russell Crowe or Naomi Campbell, it’s something you hurl at people you don’t like.)

Many ‘posh’ Singaporeans, however, avoid using the term handphone on the grounds that it is i. non-standard (hmm ... whose standard are we talking about, when even the Brits and Americans can’t agree?), or ii. illogical (‘Of course, you hold any phone receiver in your hand!’). So it might be news to them that even the precision-minded Germans call it a Handy (no prizes for guessing the donor language), eschewing the formal, clumsy Mobiltelefon or Handtelefon.
Speaking of which, handphone is commonly pronounced in Singapore as henfoon. I became aware of this only after reading a cartoon by Colin Goh (who, despite spending most of the year in New York City, has an amazing ear for Singlish). Incidentally, I’ve also begun noticing people pronouncing don’t as doon and won’t as woon.

But back to terminology. Whereas we say ‘Henry SMS-ed me last night’ and ‘Jenny will send you an SMS’, the British use text in both instances (verb and noun): ‘Henry texted me last night’, ‘Jenny will send you a text’. This has the advantage of brevity — it’s one syllable, not three. Since we’re so obsessed with making our utterances as compact and efficient as possible, it’s a wonder we haven’t adopted this usage yet.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Colourless Green Ideas

In his seminal Syntactic Structures (1957), the great linguist and political thinker, Noam Chomsky, devised this brilliant piece of nonsense to demonstrate that sentence meaning and structure were quite separate:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Although clearly nonsensical, it is grammatically perfect in English, as any speaker of the language would attest. We observe that each successive word contradicts the former: If something is green it cannot be colourless; ideas are abstract, hence cannot be green or any other colour for that matter; ideas cannot sleep; and one may sleep fitfully but not furiously. Absolutely brilliant stuff.

In Singapore we do not need a Chomsky to coin these sentences for us ... for we have our very own Ja!

Impossible Is Nothing

So declares Adidas’ gung-ho and rather meaningless marketing slogan, obviously a play on ‘nothing is impossible’.

In this connection, haven’t we all at some point or other been exhorted to ‘do the impossible’?

If, as Adidas tells us, impossible = nothing, then it should logically follow that ‘do the impossible’ means ‘do nothing’!