Melvyn Bragg on Singlish

This may be my last post for about a month. I hope to be blogging again from the middle of November. So, before the hiatus, one last post about Singapore. Here is Melvyn Bragg writing about Singapore English. He is an eminent British journalist, who edited the recent issue of The New Statesman magazine, which included a poem by Ted Hughes about Sylvia Plath.

This is from The Adventure of English, Bragg’s history of the English language and its continuing evolution, published in 2003. He discusses Singlish in one of the later chapters and seems to quite like it. Here is what he says:

English was used in Singapore for a hundred and fifty years and when it went independent, Singapore made it the official language of business and government partly because English united the diverse population of Chinese, Malays and Indians and partly because of its commercial and financial importance. But alongside official English, you also hear English which grows and develops despite the efforts of the government to root it out. Some scholars believe that Singlish indicates the way in which future Englishes will develop. In so many ways, it fits the tongues and the traditions and the vocal rhythms of the people of Singapore much better than official English and could threaten to replace it. And is it not yet another dialect of English?

Some words come recognizably from English: “go stun” – to reverse (maritime “go to stern”) and “blur” (confused). But others come from Malay and Hokkien. Words such as “habis” (finished), “makan” (to eat), “cheem” (difficult), “ang mo” (redhead in Hokkien and hence white person), “kiasu” (very keen, especially of a student). Some of these words are now being used as part of Singapore Standard English and they will change it greatly. Making plurals and past tenses  is a matter of choice and so you get phrases such as “What happen yesterday?”, “You go where?”, “Got so many cat?”, “The house sell already.” The verb “to be” can be optional. “She so pretty”, “That one like us”, “Why you so stupid?” These phrases are easily comprehensible to more traditional English users, often full of bite and wit and energy.

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