The evolving Tao of language

Cheryl-Marie-Cordeiro-by-Alen-Cordic-2012-1581Photo and Text © Alen Cordic, C Cordeiro-Nilsson 2012

In the midst of preparing an academic paper for an upcoming Yin Yang themed conference at the Stockholm University School of Business, I as usual got sidetracked into other interesting reads. This time one by L.H. Wee[1], on how Singapore Colloquial English (SCE) helps build Singapore’s national identity.

Growing up in a Eurasian family in Singapore[2], there were many on my father’s side who worked as civil servants, mostly within the British administration system, English being their mother tongue and language at work. I always marveled at how very proper their spoken English sounded but never thought much of it.

Eventually when I started school at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus[3], I noticed that not all classmates of mine had English as first language, and the fact that my paternal grandparents spoke English with Received Pronunciation, became more of a dismay to me than anything else, since the English my friends spoke outside of the speech and drama classes from the Nuns, was different.

It was so different that it included words that didn’t even belong to English at all. I was a bit confused but tried to keep this ‘other’ language secret from my grandparents and other aunts and uncles who when I had slipped and spoken with a more Hokkien influenced English intonation, had rapped my knuckles followed by disapproving clicks of their tongue, tsk tsk…

Still, there was no stopping learning this ‘bad English’ at school, because socializing across cultures meant that a common language was needed in order to be part of the group, whether it was playing games or buying food at the canteen.

This ‘bad English’ was of course my first encounter with SCE or Singlish.

Having read theories of SCE[4], of it being for example a diglossic variation to Singapore Standard English (SSE), and having grown up in Singapore with English as mother tongue, which would theoretically place me in the acrolectal end of the sociolect continuum, I was surprised when reading Wee’s paper on the Singapore linguistic scene, that the words cited in the paper such as “cheebalized”, “untahanable” and “agaration” were not just new, but their usage unfathomable to me. I could of course guess their etymology, but I couldn’t really place them in context. I was for example, more familiar with the phrases, “bueh tahan” and “agak agak”, and where the word “cheebalized”[5] was certainly unimaginable in any polite context of use, here I found it cited in an academic paper!

Suddenly concerned at my lack of knowledge of SCE, I immediately flipped to the first page of the paper to check its year of publication – 2007 – only a mere five years after I had left Singapore, to live and work in Sweden.

My first thoughts were – I’m getting old – but from there, I of course realized that this linguistic scenario was also the reason why my knuckles were rapped by my older Eurasian relatives when I was young, for using ‘bad English’. Language evolves, and even the colloquial form of English in Singapore had never stopped evolving since the early 1900s, both as reflecting and as a reflection of current ‘realities’, between the people who use it. SCE had now moved on to new frontiers.

The larger comfort, if I could call it such, is of course to situate all of this experience and initial alarm into the broader picture of things, framing it potentially in the theoretical Yin Yang perspective of culture. As language makes up part of culture in dialogic evolution with its people, in the context of Singapore, SCE has been and continues to be part of the country’s national identity, a shared heritage from the times of the British East India company with Singapore as a free port of trade, and when the necessity of a lingua franca arose between immigrants who arrived in Singapore for trade.

This shared ‘common language’ of course still exists today across ethnic and religious backgrounds, whilst Singapore still keeps standard English as one of its main administrative languages.

This observation, that as usual turns every sidetrack into something useful, had put me back in touch with my academic roots in language and linguistics.

And instead of being the typical over-achiever Singaporean with alarm sirens going off when I find that I no longer understand words from SCE cited in an academic paper, I figure it’s better to sit back and be rather Swedish about the whole thing, take things over fika in the manner of lagom and contemplate why it is that the very existence of new words within SCE, could well contribute to the overall theoretical foundations of the Yin Yang perspective of culture[6] – not a bad idea at all to share in Stockholm come early June 2012.

[1] Wee, L.H. 2007. Englishization as an aspect of building the Singapore identity. Chapter contribution to, Englishization in Asia. K.K. Tam, ed. Hong Kong Open University Press, pp. 46-69.

[2] Lim Pin Foo. The Singapore Eurasians – The Inheritors of Western and Asian Cultures. March 31, 2011 at 12:00 am (Current Affairs, History).

[3] CHIJ Katong was established in 1930 by the Infant Jesus Sisters based on the philosophy and teachings of Friar Nicolas Barré. Born in Amiens, France, on 21 October 1621 and educated by the Jesuits, Nicolas Barré joined the Minims of St Francis of Paola. The Order of the Minims (O.M.) are members of the Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Francis of Paola in 15th century Italy. The Order soon spread to France, Germany and Spain and continues to exist today. The movement of the Order includes the friars, the nuns (who set up the CHIJ schools in Singapore) and the laypeople who live in the spirit of the Order in their daily lives. Today, there are two fraternities of the Minim tertiaries, both are in Italy.

[4] See the body of literature on SCE and SSE by Anthea Gupta Fraser, Anne Pakir, Bao Zhiming, Mary Tay, Joseph A. Foley, John Platt, Lionel Wee, Lubna Alsagoff, Ho Chee Lick and Thiru Kandiah (et. al).

[5] cheebalized – a fusion word in SCE to denote a sarcastic remark for “civilized”, with Hokkien etymology and the English suffix “-ize” (Wee, 2007). Here in the title of this blog, the word is meant to refer to the “uncivilized” and perhaps “uncontrollable” manner of language evolution, that leads to the serendipitous use of words in new contexts.

[6] “YIN YANG: A new perspective on culture”. The Inaugural International Conference on Yin Yang Paradigm at the Stockholm University School of Business. June 7-11, 2012. Conference Chair: Professor Tony Fang, Stockholm University School of Business.