Saturday, 21 April 2007

Pasar Patois

Soon after arriving, I was asked how I was getting on with Singlish? "Fine" I said, I've been working in Asia for years. "Ah no", they said, Singlish is different, it's not just an accent, but an amalgam of languages including many loan words, mostly Hokkien, e.g.

"Wah, it's cheem ah?", meaning it's complicated or deep.

I don't speak Hokkien or Hindi or Urdu or much Malay so all loan words could be a problem to comprehension, but that's nowhere near the most interesting aspect of Singlish.

In linguistics, diglossia is a situation where, in a given society, there are two (often) closely-related languages, one of high prestige, which is generally used by the government and in formal texts, and one of low prestige, which is usually the spoken vernacular tongue. Singapore has a diglossic continuum of elite English, through Singlish and ending in Mandarin/Hokkien Chinese. People speak different languages, by choice, depending upon the situation. On the street, pasar patois ("market speak") mixes language, accent and vocabulary to establish the speaker's social class. And people migrate up and down the continuum to suit the situation, a bit like putting on a posh accent when going into an estate agent.

Regular readers here will now be wondering what the Government is doing. Checkout the Speak Good English movement launched in 2000 to encourage improvements in English. It is focusing on encouraging standard English sentence construction, rather than the common direct Chinese-to-English transliteration, e.g.:

Singlish: What time start?

English: What time does the event begin?

I like Singlish as I like all languages. It's a magic code to achieve things, like saying "peng" to a Thai taxi driver to negotiate the price down, Singlish can sometimes get more done than standard English. If there is a problem at work, a quick "How to do?" works wonders - it sounds familiar, non-threatening and invites cooperation. Sounds good to me!