Kopi, Coffee talk and Singlish

nytsinglish 2 If we were having coffee … we’d be talking about a recent New York Times article on Singlish.  It gives context to a website I stumbled on a while ago.  Sponsored by the Speak Good English movement, it is  a government initiative to  “… en­cour­age Sin­ga­pore­ans to speak gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect Eng­lish that is uni­ver­sally un­der­stood.”

On the site are dry and humorless pages that describe grammar rules and proper pronunciation. Reading it, my eyes glaze over at the ponderous distinction between countable and noncountable nouns.  I wonder who could learn from this.  It seems a pointless endeavor.

Besides for what reason should Singaporeans change the way they speak?

Mid-thought I realize the hypocrisy of my words. I grew up in another post-colonial society where status was tied to the way of speaking. On the highest rung were the modulated tones of upper crust British. At the lowest was the idiom rich language of the common man.

In primary school (then called Prep school)  we had weekly lessons in diction. Mrs. H was a battle-axe of a teacher who led us through pronunciation drills describing ‘Billy Button buying Buttered Biscuits’ and ‘She Sells Sea shells by the Sea Shore’.  Class drills were not so bad but once a month we had individual tests on elocution.

This was my introduction to the fear of public speaking. One by one we’d stand by our desk, nervously awaiting our turn.  Once, I’d worked myself into such a state, I fainted from anxiety (it happens). According to Mrs H, I collapsed in an apoplectic fit, twitching and foaming at the mouth. Mrs H was also the drama teacher, so maybe her description was a tad theatrical.

I’ve subsequently found that I have an ear for accents. It doesn’t translate into a talent for languages (I don’t have the memory for vocabulary) but I can mimic English in a range of  intonations. Maybe that’s why I don’t mind hearing the lyrical tones of  Singlish.

True, because the language is idiom rich it can be hard to understand. Funny thing though, with context and Singaporeans’ flare for dramatic expression, whatever they say it makes sense.

Consider this.

When  a person is overly conceited and tremendously arrogant, is there a better way to describe him than  yaya papaya? 

When a young man ‘talks cock’ with his buddies, can you not guess what it means?

… and could anything be more right and obviously correct than corright?

Hear these phrases once and you’ll remember them forever.

Singapore. June 2016

For the full New York Times article see Do You Speak Singlish? by Gwee Li Sui


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