Monday, November 26, 2007

Topic–Comment in Singapore English

‘As for filters wise, get a UV filter if you wish to protect your lens’ (DP Review, retrieved 22 November 2007).

On reading this, I suspected the poster was Singaporean; this was confirmed by a click on her/his profile. Why? Because the sentence structure — namely topic–comment — is characteristically Singaporean.

A topic–comment sentence is one where the speaker/writer starts off by explicitly naming the topic of the sentence, and then adds a comment to it. In the above example, the sentence topic is filters.

What is interesting is that, in Singapore English, topics may be marked with Singlish-type particles such as ah and ha, or with English-type markers such as for, as for, regarding, with regards [sic] to, and –wise. Some examples, with topics underlined:

My teacher ah/ha, she always scold us.
As for me, I don’t like swimming.
For teachers, they should always help weaker students more.
Regarding/With regards [
sic] to your enquiry, we are still investigating.
Colleagues-wise, I like my new school.

Note that this is similar to varieties of Chinese, which have topic markers such as a, ha and ne. (This appears to be as much an areal as a linguistic feature — languages such as Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese, Japanese and Korean also have topic markers.) The example quoted at the start of this post is fairly unusual, however, in having a doubly marked topic: as for filters wise.

Topic–comment is such a pervasive feature of Singapore English that it extends even to formal writing. One way of checking if a marked topic is non-standard is to move it to the end of the sentence and see whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, then the marked topic is non-standard (as indicated by *):

For teachers, they should always help weaker students more.
*They should always help weaker students more, for teachers.

By simply removing the marked topic and substituting the resumptive pronoun they with Teachers, we get a Standard English sentence:
Teachers should always help weaker students more.

Topic–comment is not generally regarded as an unmarked (default) structure in English, but it is in fact quite common in colloquial American English. However, there are interesting differences between topic marking in American English and in Singapore English. For one, American English allows topics to be marked with –wise wherever they may be in a sentence, while in Singapore English, the topic is necessarily sentence-initial (i.e. it must begin a sentence). Hence, the following is good in American English but not in Singapore English:

I like my new school, colleagues-wise (AmE/*SgE).

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