Melvyn Bragg on Singlish

Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg

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:

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How words get into the Oxford English Dictionary

I have seen the word "linguaphile" (meaning word lover or language lover) on Dictionary.com and the Free Dictionary, but it's not there in the Oxford English Dictionary. It no longer tries to be comprehensive. "The language is expanding so fast this may be an impossible mission," said Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Mark Abley recalls their conversation in his book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, where he also writes about Singlish and other variants of the English language, as I mentioned here.

"The Internet poses problems," said Weiner. "We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we've tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We've occasionally taken quotations from websites. But we don't like doing that."

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Avatar No 1 on the Net: Indian words in English

Viagra sounds like the Sanskrit word for tiger — “vyaghra”.

Henry Hitchens points that out in his delightful book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes the similarity but doubts any connection between the two words. The “vi” of Viagra possibly comes from virile and virility, it says.

That may be so, but there are plenty of Indian words in English. Think of the Oscar nominee, Avatar.

That’s another Sanskrit word, which means incarnation. It was first used in English by the Orientalist Sir William Jones in 1784.

But how did avatar come to mean a computer graphics icon? OED offers no explanation for this new incarnation of avatar. It simply notes the word has been used in this sense since 1986.

Indian words may not be a dime a dozen in the English language, but they are certainly among the most common.

Think of curry, cot, bungalow, bangle, pyjamas. They are all from India. Cot comes from the Hindi “khat”, bangle from the Hindi “bangri”, pyjamas from the Urdu “pyjama”, bungalow from the Hindustani “bangla”. Curry is from the Tamil “kari”, which means sauce or relish for rice, says the OED.

Now let’s do a Google search to see which appears most often on the internet.

And the winner is …

Avatar!

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On Julia’s Clothes and 99 other most popular poems

This must be one of the shortest, heavily anthologized poems in the English language. On Julia's Clothes, by Robert Herrick, runs to only six lines. But, witty and playful, this 17th century poem is one of the 100 most anthologized poems in the English language, according to the Columbia Granger's World of Poetry. Here are links to the top 100. But first…

On Julia's Clothes
By Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

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That Old Cape Magic

 RichardRusso
Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic is one of the most heartwarming novels I have read this year. As a story of American academic life, it is far more enjoyable than Zadie Smith's On Beauty.

The protagonist, Jack Griffin, is a middle-aged former Hollywood scriptwriter who has become an academic like his parents —- two English professors from Ivy League schools who are as promiscuous as they are snobbish. It is their back story that adds to the entertainment. His mother, in her old age when the novel begins, is as sharp as Betsey Trotwood and no less funny.

As Griffin drives to Cape Cod on his summer vacation, carrying his father's ashes to be scattered into the sea, his mother calls him on his cell phone and tells him where to dispose of the ashes. "I'd just feel better if the Cape was between us, me on one side and him on the other," she adds. She is carrying on the bickering which did not end after their divorce.

Griffin is carrying his father's ashes to the Cape because that was their favourite place. That's where they used to escape every summer from the "Mid-fucking-West", as his parents used to call it — a large state university in Indiana, where they taught, unable to get jobs in their beloved New England.

As he drives through Boston on the way to the Cape, he remembers how his parents used to sing, "That old Cape magic", changing the lyrics of That Old Black Magic. Hence the title of the novel.

I remember the allure, too, of Boston Harbour and Quincy Market, which we visited when our son graduated on a scholarship this summer from a liberal arts college in the Midwest. And, no, it wasn't the "Mid-fucking-west". We loved his college. The teachers and students were so friendly. They congratulated our son for getting a scholarship to an Ivy League graduate school. A smiling woman in a professor's cap and gown for the graduation ceremony who had been to the same school assured us it was nice and friendly too.

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Malcolm Gladwell on outliers, maths and rice

Outliers

The Chinese are good at maths because their number words are remarkably brief, says Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

He quotes from The Numbers Game by Stanislas Dehaene, who wrote:

"Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for example, 4 is "si" and 7 "qi"). Their English equivalents — "four", "seven" — are longer; pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second."

So the Chinese have an edge over English speakers. "Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds," explains Gladwell. "We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within two seconds."

Try this test:

Read this list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6. Look away and spend 20 seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

"If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance remembering that sequence perfectly," says Gladwell.

"Chinese speakers get that list of numbers — 4,8,5,3,9,7, 6 — right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds."

What makes it more difficult for English speakers is their highly irregular number system, he says. For example, in English, we say eleven, twelve, but thirteen, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-two: the number form changes.

"Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system," says Gladwell. "Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is two-ten. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

"The difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children."

But do you think Gladwell is right when he says China, Japan, Korean and Singapore are good at maths because they have a rice-growing culture?

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Shakespeare On The Double! The Bard in plain English

TwelfthNightShakespeareOnTh

Shakespeare On The Double! Twelfth Night translated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

The greatest English playwright in plain English at long last! Now I can understand every word written by the Bard as long as I have a copy of Shakespeare On The Double! in my hand.

Shakespeare On The Double! The unusual format of this paperback edition of Shakespeare's plays makes him as easy to read as any current bestseller. Facing every page of the original text is another page which "translates" the text into modern English.

So on one page you have the original text:

If music be the food of love, play on…

On the facing page is the "translation":

If love feeds on music, play more music.

I am quoting the opening words of Twelfth Night (play, synopsis) spoken by Duke Orsino and "translated by" Mary Ellen Snodgrass.

It may not sound like Shakespeare. But the translation is useful when you run into more complex passages less easy to understand.

There are passages whose meanings might have been perfectly clear to Shakespeare's contemporaries but which have to be explained to us.

Take these words of Viola in Twelfth Night, for instance. She confesses her love for Duke Orsino to Olivia's jester, Feste. But here is the rub. She is disguised as a young man – and neither the duke nor the jester suspects she is a woman. And yet her confession draws no response from the jester. He merely asks her to wait while he informs his mistress that she has brought a message from the duke.

It is a dramatic moment – a "young man" confessing his love for another man. But we may not catch the meaning in the original text:

CLOWN: Now, Jove, in his next commodity of hair
send thee a beard!

VIOLA: By my troth, I'll tell thee, I'm almost sick
for one — (aside) though I would not have it grow on
my chin. Is thy lady within?

Snodgrass' translation makes the meaning clear.

CLOWN: When God passes out hair, I hope he gives you a beard.

VIOLA: I confide to you that I am lovesick for a man. (VIOLA in private) But I don't want hair on my chin. Is the Countess at home?

I have read Arden and other annotated editions which are useful for classroom studies, explaining words and phrases and allusions, putting Shakespeare in perspective.

But for simple enjoyment of his plays, Shakespeare On The Double! is hard to beat. The simple English translation is fun to read and makes one appreciate Shakespeare all the more. This could be a good companion to annotated editions for classroom studies as well.