Sunday, October 12, 2008

Uniquely Singlish

Oct 12, 2008

By Andrew Raven

About a year ago, I stepped off an airplane and onto Singapore soil for the first time, heartened at being in an English-speaking country after 10 months in the linguistic wilderness of Vietnam.

After grabbing my bags, I hopped into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Toa Payoh, which I pronounced as a mash of As, Os and Ps.

Somehow he understood and said, in his heartlandiest Singlish, 'So how? You want go PIE, CTE hah?'

I recognised most of the words, but the overall meaning of the sentence totally escaped me.

Asking him to repeat the question didn't make things any clearer, so I crossed my fingers and said 'Yes'.

That conversation was the precursor to seven months of blank stares and blind guesses in shops, cabs and hawker centres as I struggled with the unique take Singaporeans have on English (Why yes, I will have the fish-head soup and goat testicles, thank you very much. They sound lovely.)

For many, my English proved equally mystifying.

Conversations with the housing agent who found my Toa Payoh HDB flat sounded like Abbot and Costello's Who's on First?

Me: What's the earliest I can terminate my lease if I need to? Six or 12 months?

Him: Yes, can.

Me: No, when can I break the lease? What amount of time?

Him: Must tell owner. Then can.

Me: Uh, thanks. Pass the lease.

After buying 10m of the wrong - and therefore utterly useless - television cable in July, I cursed Singlish for the first time.

It had stopped being quaint and become the reason I had 10m of superfluous rubber-coated coaxial wire gathering dust in my closet.

But some time in August, I had an epiphany of sorts. Instead of lamenting the occasional snafu, I should become Singlish-proficient.

I soon realised the key to understanding the dialect was the complete abandonment of my grammatical snobbery.

Twenty years of schooling and five years in journalism formed a rigid structure around my English.

It was laden with articles, prepositions and all kinds of other little grammatical widgets that actually made communicating harder.

My language needed to be stripped bare of all non-essential components. That meant junking all the 'ofs', 'ifs' and other space fillers, relying almost exclusively on nouns and a select few verbs.

What's left was a hulk, the linguistic equivalent of a decommissioned oil tanker that has been picked clean by scrap-metal scavengers.

It is far from Shakespearean, but remarkably effective in communicating relatively complex ideas quickly.

'What do you think is the best way of going about this?' becomes 'So how?'

'Yes, I agree. That is the most effective way of approaching the situation' is 'Can lah'.

And 'Do you not agree with my perspective on the subject?' is 'Hah?'

In the last two months I've developed an appreciation for Singlish, but not only because of its simplicity and versatility.

It is one of the few things that gives Singapore, which can be quite antiseptic, character. Ask travellers what they remember most about visits here, and often it's not the Flyer, or the Night Safari or Clarke Quay.

It's the quirky way the natives talk.

Singlish, in its most basic form, has long been a bugbear of government officials, who are waging a campaign urging heartlanders to embrace the King's English.

But here's hoping that doesn't take root. What a shame it would be if, one day, everyone sounded like Londoners.

Singapore is a unique country, with a long history and a mix of cultures. It should have a dialect that reflects that.

The writer is a copy editor with The Straits Times. He has lived in Singapore for a year.

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