Lasman: The Queen’s Singlish

For all its essential dryness, grammar is a deeply emotional subject. However little most of us would like to sit through a sixth-grade English class diagramming subjects and predicates, many people — especially at places like Yale — practically leap at the opportunity to splice any split infinitive that comes their way.

Some governments, it turns out, have a similar urge. In Singapore, an initiative called the “Speak Good English Movement” has been in place for 10 years, and this past Tuesday, reported the Associated Press, the Singaporean government announced efforts to revive and intensify the program. Its main target is a Singaporean-English creole called Singlish, whose strong Chinese influences can sometimes give it a Google Translate-like charm: “Borrow me five dollar can?” Fearing that Singlish corrodes “proper” English, the Singaporean government has taken down signs that employ it, decried sitcoms written in it and rigorously trained primary school teachers to root out its influences. Rather than a list of specific changes, the government is simply asking that people speak “global” English, the language that wouldn’t sound out of place in London or San Francisco: “In this country, the weather is very warm,” not “Dis country weather very hot one.”

But the problem with commanding someone to speak “good” English — as opposed to, say, French, with its venerable Académie — is that there isn’t actually anyone with complete authority to say what is, or isn’t, grammatical. Split infinitives, for instance, were considered largely unobjectionable until a small gaggle of English critics launched a crusade against them in the 19th century. The ultra-correct, semi-unforgivable way to answer a phone — “It is I!” — is in fact nothing more than an eccentric attempt to make English follow the rules of Latin, an approach which made sense to Classicists 300 years ago and just about no one else.

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a professor — a published and somewhat renowned author — that mentioned how the room, “due to it’s size,” felt a little cramped with the large number of attending students. A minor typo, certainly, but one that made me think about the authorities of English, and what, if any, responsibilities surround grammatical usage at a preeminent university.

After all, speech has historically been a major indicator of both education and the status that comes with it — “ain’t,” a contraction whose origins are shrouded in mystery, may or may not be grammatical, but it certainly doesn’t sound educated. Yet I’m not sure that many of us want or care to sound educated. Feelings towards those who do inclines towards extremism — “grammar freak” turns up 56,800 results on Google, “grammar police” gets 124,000, while “grammar Nazi” weighs in at 212,000. I don’t understand how censuring the individual use of “they” (“Each person needs to pick up their own trash”) is reminiscent of genocide, but I do think it’s indicative of a profound cultural discomfort with completely “correct” English. Nitpicking over apostrophe placement begins to sound as reactionary as Harold Bloom’s feelings about slam poetry.

As culture democratizes, as electronic communication favors different language patterns and as elitism grows more and more untenable, I wonder if the gap shrinks between, say, the speech patterns of a Yale graduate and a person from the same region with no high school diploma. Education probably does have something to do with whether or not someone knows the word predilection, but I feel that most people’s predilection to actually use it is about equally low. Most of our idioms come not from poems or literature but rather from music, and while we might sprinkle our iPods with the odd Bach sonata or Shankar raga to appear cultured, we’re mostly listening to what everyone else is listening to.

Ultimately, I almost feel bad for the government of Singapore. Its attempt to make Singaporeans’ English more “global” may actually be making it less so. Not only is the government asking its citizens to conform to an indistinct, hardly agreed-upon set of rules, but it is also asking them to conform to rules that many native speakers reject outright. Global English has become less the strict forms of Strunk & White and more the free-flowing grammatical compromises of the text message and rap lyric. Just think of Latin, which by the time the Roman Empire fell was written and spoken as two virtually separate languages, or Arabic, whose sixth-century case system is taught to students but long gone in all of the myriad spoken dialects. As such shifts occur, as the language of communication changes, how is a government, or a university, to respond?

I don’t have an answer; instead I offer a Singlish proverb. “Got eye see no tarzan!” — which means, apparently, “to have eyes, but be unable to see the large mountain.” I let you be the judge of that.

Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.


  • theantiyale

    Winston Churchill on ‘not ending a sentence with a preposition’: “That is nonsense, up with which I will not put.”

    Nice article.

  • gweek

    Nice article! One point of correction: in Singlish, we say “Lend me $5, can?”, not “Borrow me $5, can?” :) And here’s a Facebook group that may interest you:

  • slotusch

    Great article!
    I need to comment on the use of that last Chinese idiom though – in a literal sense, it means ‘to have eyes and not see Mount Tai’. See wiki on the peak in Shandong Province, China: When we use it in Chinese, we’re really referring to instances when we meet someone great or important, but not realize who we have in front of us.
    Hope this helps.

  • kixes

    I think “Borrow me $5, can?” works as well. That’s the beauty of Singlish, for me: anything goes!
    I have never had any trouble speaking “good” English, as much as anyone can speak good English. I can be well understood in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, etc. But nothing can beat the awesome feeling of coming back home to Singapore and unleashing a torrent of grammatically-suspect yet infinitely satisfying Singlish. Nothing is quite like it in making me feel like I’m back home.
    Also, it is a good reflection of the multi-racial, multi-cultural society that is Singapore, and the diversity among Singaporeans themselves, before we even add in the multitudes of foreigners who are flooding to our shores.

  • pauldada

    Funny stuff. But the background to it, at least as explained to me by the headmistress of my son’s school in Singapore (GO SJI!), is a deep laugh at Singapore gahmen in its everpresent fervor to make the citizens shape up. Singlish is apparently a relatively recent development in Singapore. It seems to be a result of the government’s strategic decision to insist on Mandarin as a required ‘mother tongue’ language in the Singapore school system. But no one at all in Singapore’s 75% Chinese-origin population spoke Mandarin. All the local dialects–Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, etc., etc., are from South China. The first generation of students forced to learn Mandarin started using its sentence structure and some of its vocabulary interspersed with the English that was the other required tongue. Result: Singlish. I’ve enough wondered whether native Mandarin speakers are as appalled and/or mystified as are native English speakers when they first encounter Singlish.

    I manage all right face to face with someone talking Singlish at me; maybe they’re going easy with me because I’m an old ang mo (=’redhead:’ slang for Westerner). On the telephone it can be totally incomprehensible. (The great resource for delving into Singlish and other Singaporean puzzles is

    I’m sure that any Yale/NUS student who’s able to make it through the gate will be totally fluent in Californian, which is the preferred dialect of all the international school kids with whom I come into contact, be they Belgian, Korean, or Singaporean in origin. And of course they’ll be fluent in their home-grown half-language soya-tinged jive.

  • gweek

    For me, the beauty of SInglish lies in part is how organic it is. It is always evolving towards something more reflective of a point where Singaporeans, in their various linguistic preferences at a given time, can agree. In this sense, if you say “Borrow me $5, can?”rather than “Lend me $5, can?”, it actually signals that your SInglish is at least a decade (or more) out of sync. This is what I meant in my earlier comment. The grammar and word use continue to change subtly.