On Language and Money

Let’s talk about language, as a social divider, a class definer or perhaps just definitive of a person. This is about the battle between Singlish and the Queen’s English. What is it about Singlish that is so bad? Is it the butchered English, the lah’s and leh’s that pepper your average Singaporean conversation? Is it the unintelligible way that some pronounce certain words? But what’s fundamentally wrong with Singlish? Is it because it’s wrong? Wrong, because the proper standard is British English? Well, English is spoken in other countries and it took on different forms– American English, Spanglish and so on. So why is Singlish so wrong and bad?

Commercial viability? Because we want to be understood. Not to each other, we understand each other well enough, ask for your nasi lemak and your teh si go-song and you’ll be understood. So we want to speak well in pure, unadulterated English so as to be understood by the rest of the English speaking world. Cos you know, Singapore is so small, the last thing you want to do is to let it be inward looking and speak its own language. Ooh, the horror.

So they call Singlish degenerate English, sub-standard, tainted and the like. The thing is to speak fluent, unaccented English. The way words are pronounced as shown in the phonetics of the dictionary. The thing is, I don’t think Singlish is sub-standard. Yes, it’s different, and I understand the policy reasons for wanting to eliminate it, but that’s a different question altogether. Singlish is a product of Singapore, the outcome of the mish-mash of various cultures due to the immigrant beginnings of this country. Of course it’s different from your British English, that was spoken with other languages and soon it took on a whole new different form called Singlish. (In personal prop legalese: It remains a mixture, I don’t think English itself has lost its identity in Singlish.) And the thing is, all languages change with time. The English spoken a century ago was quite different from today’s modern usage, just ask any English or English Literature student.

 So why are we unwilling to accept this change as part of our culture? Why are we so adamant that Singlish is bad, sub-standard, intolerable English?

 I think personally, it’s a matter of asthetics. It’s simply because Singlish is jarring to the ears and sounds terrible as spoken by your average ah beng and ah lian on the streets. The upper middle class refuse to acknowledge it as part of the language they speak. No, they speak in pure, untainted English, sometimes with an accent thrown in for good measure. No lehs and lahs for them, thank you very much. And therein lies the class divide. The condescension for Singlish, and perhaps the inability to speak Chinese. Both are trumped as distinctive traits, not just for your ACS/ ACJC students but for the people of a particular social standing.

We’ve all watched My Fair Lady, language barrier within the same language is what separates the rich from the poor. What she spoke was gutter English and she could only transcend that class barrier if she sounds just like them. Maybe we could have an ‘ah lian’ rags to riches story based on that too.

One Response to “On Language and Money”
  1. lorelai says:

    wao lao, that was why i was revered in that school ok, by being “good” in chinese (or maybe cause everyone just wanted to bum off me during AO’s). anyway, my real problem is, why no one reply my email? *sobs*

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