Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Linking Lians, Libraries, and Linguistics

This will be a long and ponderous post. Read it if you can't sleep.

I was at NP's Lifestyle Library, where people go there to lounge around, chit chat with friends, observe the opposite (or sometimes, same) sex, or flip through glossy magazines. I, on the other hand, was there reading serious stuff, like Wired Magazine. Trying to read, that is, amidst all the distraction.

Then it struck me. Just about every other girl around me was an Ah Lian.

You know something is not right when a library is infested with Ah Lians. Maybe they don't have a better place to hang out in Ngee Ann, since we don't have discos or pubs or KTV lounges.

Anyway, if you have been scrutinising my blogroll, you would have noticed that I've actually linked to an Ah Lian's blog. A real Ah Lian - she even declares it publicly: "I am actually a simple Chao Ah Lian".

Are you surprised? Have you begun to question my tastes?

Just to ease the tension a little, no, she doesn't suit my tastes. At least not in that way.

* * *

Some of you may know that I hang out at the Mac Users Group (Singapore) forum, partly because I'm a Macuser, and partly because a number of the people who hang out there are pretty cool.

One day, someone in the forum posted this:

Hi, I'm not here to attack anyone, but I think sporadic instances of really terribly english in these forums are multiplying alarmingly.

These sorts of posts crop up every now and then in local forums. You can probably predict the usual comments that followed. Like the following from someone (from NP, I believe):
Written English was based on rules and guides. Breaking them doesn't show your "local flavour." it simply shows the ignorance of the language.

Hmmm. Later on, the same person adds:
desecrating the language like that simply shows our inability and ineptness to learn a language which is being taught as the first language throughout all schools.

Desecrating. I like that.

He also observes:
If Singlish is so distinctly Singaporean, why are our ministers not addressing us, as citizens of Singapore, in that uniquely singaporean way?

Maybe it's because our ministers are not linguistically enlightened? At least that's part of the reason, I would think.

So a know-it-all smartass had this to say:
What's Standard English anyway? Linguists will tell you that language is alive and constantly in flux because it's used by living people. And Singlish is but a dialect of English, and it's really no issue as long as another non-Singlish English speaker can understand it.
I love the English language, and I use "Standard English" where appropriate, but mugs forum got the ".sg", so if happy happy i use singlish, cannot meh?

Oh by the way, I'm that smartass =)

Then someone called macphaedrus added a really great post:
The spoken and written English today already incorporates plenty of foreign words, mostly culled from colonies of the British Empire (defunct). Thug, amok, sepoy and paddy are just a few coming from India and S-E Asia. If Singapore were still a colony, it is very likely that singlish words we use will find their way into English spoken in London.

Just like the English incorporating words from local languages and make them its own, local dialect words are still finding their way into the language. The difference now is that Singapore is not the 'parent' country of English, and thus confers no legitimacy, and this variant is at best parochial and have no chance of wider adoption.

Linguists will look at Singlish like they look at Pidgin, American ghetto speak and Carribean slave English as another example of a new language in the process of being created. The thing with any languages is that they may have their origins from a well established language, but will quickly develop its own gramma.

A true Singaporean will never confuse 'lah' and 'meh'. One is an emphatic end to a sentence, the other is a spoken question mark. And 'alamak' never comes at the end of the sentence. This is the gramma of Singlish that every Singlish speaker knows, and has to be taught to new speaker of Singlish.

I like that last paragraph - I never thought of that before. It's a pity he can't spell "grammar" right. But who cares?

* * *

I'm ashamed to admit that I wasn't as "linguistically enlightened" a year or so ago. I would have thrown myself into the other side of the fray, anathemising those lesser life forms who do not possess a "proper command of English".

Maybe I could share some of the blame with my English teachers. They taught us the "rules of English", reinforced them, and drew bright, red circles where we broke them. Those of us who could master those rules were rewarded with praise and respect, while the rest were sneered at with contempt. And being insecure little souls, we eagerly clung on to anything that afforded us some status. And no doubt, being "good in English" was status.

(Incidentally, those teachers never told me that the best English writers break the "rules" habitually. Bad teachers.)

But I've since grown up a little, and my self-worth is no more linked to my command of a language. It helped that I've also gained a bit more knowledge since those days, particularly in the area of linguistics (pity they don't teach that at Ngee Ann).

Singlish, even though it sounds like broken English, really has its own grammatical rules, which are as complex as any other language, including "Standard English". We don't realise its complexity because we grew up with it and it comes to us so effortlessly and naturally, like the how Her Majesty speaks the Queen's English. But ask Her Majesty to speak perfect Singlish, and you will realise that you will probably have more success getting an Ah Lian to speak Queen's English.

So dun pray pray - Singlish is neither broken nor inferior.

* * *

Let me press on.

Anthropology is a field of knowledge with links to linguistics, and it's also one of the (many) subjects I'm interested in.

In the earliest days of anthropology, fieldwork was almost exclusively carried out by researchers from England and the US. They went to faraway and exotic lands to observe how the tribal people lived. And quite naturally, the western culture was used as the benchmark to measure a society's stage in development.

Tribes were often observed to be primitive, backward, uncultured, uncivilised, savage, simply because they did not meet these early observers' standard of civilisation. They were uncivilised because they didn't use shiny cutlery, or because they ate grubs and insects, or because their women didn't wear bras (or corsets at that time). Come to think of it, a lot of western women don't wear bras or corsets either.

Eventually some anthropologists becamse enlightened, and realised that these backward tribes were actually developed in their own way, having elaborate practices, rituals, and customs, even though we may find some of those practices distateful. My point is, those cultures and societies were neither superior nor inferior to the typical western one - just different.

* * *

I don't think we have to go to the Amazon jungles to study and appreciate another culture (although helps - lame joke). We can do it right here.

The Ah Lian subculture, in my opinion, deserves anthropological study; and Singlish deserves linguistic study.

Thanks to the internet and blogs, we can do much of it in the comfort of our own homes, without risking the wrath of a jealous Ah Beng.

So now you know why I have an Ah Lian on my blogroll =)

P.S. Someone remind me not to use annoyingly aggravating alliterations for my future post titles.

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