Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Sound of Singapore.

In my last post I mentioned that I was born in Singapore. There's been quite a bit of reporting from that country of late on The World, as their correspondent Patrick Cox sends in stories on the island nation. The last, aired on Friday, was about the country's unique expression of the English language: Singlish.

Here's the link to listen to the report, and some samples of that language.

All I can say is, in the school I attended, teachers didn't encourage Singlish. Some of them simply wouldn't tolerate it. For me, it was just one of several "languages," dialects and other variants I spoke growing up. "Proper" English at school and most of the time at home. A smattering of Peranakan Malay with my paternal grandmother. A dash of Cantonese with my maternal grandmother and our maid. A forced dose of Mandarin as my mandatory second language in school. And of course, Singlish, as the company or occasion demanded. I also understood a tiny bit of two other Chinese dialects, Hokkien and Teochew, widely used in Singapore. This was not at all unusual: most Singaporeans switch from one language or dialect to another without batting an eyelash.

For all this, it pains me to say that today it is only my first language with which I am very comfortable. When necessary, I can stumble through rudimentary Mandarin and Cantonese. But fortunately, great expressions and phrases in Singlish are easy to recall.

One example: catch no ball

A word-for-word translation of a Hokkien phrase liak bo kyew, it's used when someone is trying to say they don't comprehend something. For example, if a math teacher launches into an explanation of some esoteric concept, a student who failed to grasp it could mutter, "Sir, (I) catch no ball!" Isn't that a great expression? So economical!

Here are more examples of Singlish.

And this is a linguist's take on Singlish on Wikipedia.

So, like dat, lah!

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