Friday, April 13, 2007

Henfoon
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.

9 comments:

Sandra said...

I did wondered once when my American friend said that he just doesn’t understand why Singaporeans pronounce cell phone as handphone and SMS instead of text. I suppose that it’s because we are holding it in with our hands most of the time, therefore it’s known as handphone. In American terms, it could be that it’s using cell (battery) so it’s known as cell phone. Hmmm......

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Apparently the American term derives from 'cellular networks' -- each 'cell' is served by a fixed transmitter and covers a different area.

Call it what you will, but there's nothing at all illogical about the word 'handphone' since it refers to a phone that is small enough to hold in the hand.

If we object to the word 'handphone', then we ought likewise to reject 'handbook' (meaning, of course, a book/treatise small enough to be held in the hand) ... which has been in the English language (as 'handboc') for at least 1,100 years!

So, any objections to 'handphone' are grounded in snobbery, not fact.

CAL said...

In Chinese,different permutations of the word for 'hand' and 'machine'/'phone' are used too: 手机 or 手提电话.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Interesting, thanks. I don't know what the 'proper' term is in Malay, but 'handfon' and 'handpon' are possible ([p]~[f] alternation being typical of Malayo-Polynesian).

CAL said...

In case you're interested, in Japanese it's 'keitai' 攜帶 (pronounced 'xie2dai4' in Mandarin, meaning 'to carry around with you') and is short for 'keitai denwa' 攜帶電話(xie2dai4 dian4hua4 in Mandarin).

I've also heard Koreans saying 'han-de-fon' (sorry I don't know how to write hangul or reproduce the pronunciation accurately because Korean has different vowel sounds).

The Honourable Villain said...

"The Grammar Terrorist said...
Interesting, thanks. I don't know what the 'proper' term is in Malay..."

If I recall correctly, it is "Telefon Bimbit"

The Grammar Terrorist said...

The Honourable Villain said...
'If I recall correctly, it is "Telefon Bimbit"'

That's great, many thanks.

Vinodh said...

Curious, the Singaporean preference for "SMS" as a verb and noun over "text" even though the latter has one-third the syllables of the former and is therefore more linguistically efficient.

It proves my pet theory that Singaporeans have an innate preference for TLAs (three-letter acronyms) which has nothing to do with economy of words or syllables.

Our preference is so great that we coin TLAs even for two-word phrases (CTE for Central Expressway, SLE for Seletar Expressway).

We also insert or drop the initial letter of a preposition in an acronym to ensure that the magical TLA is achieved (Ministry of Manpower becomes MOM but Ministry of Foreign Affairs becomes not MOFA but MFA).

The Grammar Terrorist said...

I agree absolutely, Vinodh. I much prefer the more elegant 'text' rather than 'SMS' as a verb, but am always wary of using it for fear of being thought of as pretentious! On the occasions that I've used it, however, it seemed to cause no confusion.