Commentary: Singlish is not English. That’s not a bad thing
To ask if speaking Singlish makes it difficult for people to speak English is akin to asking if speaking Spanish would be detrimental to the learning of Greek, says NTU Associate Professor Tan Ying Ying.
SINGAPORE: The narratives surrounding Singlish has dominated both the public and academic imagination.
Singlish has had her share of supporters and detractors. Supporters of Singlish believe that Singlish is a language that binds Singaporeans together as it is built on a shared common Singaporean identity.
Detractors of Singlish hold the belief that Singlish is “bad English”, and that this corrupted form of English will make Singaporeans come across as less intelligent or competent.
THE MYTHS ABOUT SPEAKING SINGLISH
As a linguist working on languages in Singapore, I have lost count of how often I have been approached to comment on how Singlish is the reason why Singaporeans cannot speak good English.
Of course, some people are better than others at learning languages, but that is an issue of one’s language learning abilities, and has nothing to do with the languages themselves.
To ask if speaking Singlish makes it difficult for people to speak English is akin to asking if speaking Spanish would be detrimental to the learning of Greek. It is, to my mind, curious and ludicrous.
This essentially means that people cannot be bilingual or multilingual, and we in Singapore in particular know this is not true.
It frustrates me greatly that this refusal to delink Singlish and English is present also in academic circles. We have now seen a good five decades of academic research on “Singlish”, “Singaporean English”, “Singapore English”, and numerous other terms that people have come up with.
SINGLISH IS NOT SINGAPORE ENGLISH
Most linguists like to refer to Singlish as the “colloquial” form of Singapore English. Singlish, by this definition, sits on the opposite end of the same continuum as Singapore English.
Singapore English is the “standard” form of English, whose syntax and lexicon are not distinctly different from other “standard” British, American or Australian varieties.
What sets Singapore English apart from other Englishes is primarily in its phonology and how a native Singaporean sounds when speaking English.
To put it simply, Singapore English has most of the syntactic and lexical features that most will consider to be “standard” English, but yet sounds distinctly different to other Englishes.
Not unlike the treatment Singlish has received from the language police, linguistic purists, and the Singapore Government, Singlish has also taken a few beatings in scholarly discourse of earlier days.
Early linguists such as John Platt and Heidi Weber, both of whom were non-Singaporeans based in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s, referred to Singlish as a product of imperfect learning and spoken only by the uneducated and uncouth. This deprecating perception of Singlish, unfortunately, is exactly the one still held by many.
Luckily, such a position has been shown to be outdated and erroneous within academia. Today, most scholars working on Singapore English and Singlish prefer to think of them as variants of English used by the Singaporean community.
Singapore English has been considered then to be the “high” variety, acquired through formal education, is used in written and formal contexts and is in complementary distribution with Singlish, which is considered to be the everyday “low” variety used only in informal communication. Speakers then use Singapore English and Singlish in appropriate contexts and exploit them for functional purposes.
This view is attractive because it treats the use of Singlish as a matter of personal choice rather than as a function of a speaker’s educational level. It is with this perspective that Singlish is considered to be a colloquial variety of the “standard” Singapore English.
WHY DOES SINGLISH NEED TO CLAIM LINEAGE TO ENGLISH?
There is nothing intrinsically problematic with this view except to say that Singlish is a colloquial variety of Singapore English presupposes that Singlish is some variant or offspring of English.
And for some linguists, to accommodate Singlish on the same cline as Singapore English is a victory as Singlish can now claim to share a genetic relationship to this thing called English.
According to prominent evolutionary linguist Salikoko Mufwene, to deny language varieties like African American Vernacular English, Gullah English, or Old Amish English the status of English is itself a disenfranchising treatment.
To say that Singlish is not English therefore, to follow Mufwene’s line of argument, is tantamount to saying that Singlish is an illegitimate child who has no right to claim lineage from the parent language.
I think it is important for Singlish to claim lineage because it will then allow us to understand the evolution of Singlish, and this is a particularly exciting research exercise.
Understanding the development of Singlish can also give us some insights into the ways in which the languages and cultures in Singapore have come together.
But I do not think it is particularly useful for Singlish to stake a strong genetic relationship to English. All languages evolve and develop on the basis on language contact – some more, some less.
No language is the outcome of a single parent, or as Salikoko Mufwene put it more evocatively, one cannot assume that no intercourse was necessary with other languages prior to the production of offspring.
We certainly do not expect a child to be exactly like one of their parents.
Singlish may or may not have English as one of her parents, but we should not expect Singlish to be English. In fact, to place such a strong genetic relationship between English and Singlish is problematic because it places an unnecessary premium on English.
It is as if English is the superior authority, and that it is only by having a claim of lineage to English can Singlish gain legitimacy as a language. And it is precisely the refusal to delink Singlish from English that the Singaporean government as well as many others has had trouble conceptualising and accepting Singlish as a legitimate language.
If Singlish is not a variant of Singapore English, then Singlish is not English, good or bad.
My solution to this conundrum is really quite straightforward. We have two very distinctive “Singaporean” linguistic products here, namely Singapore English, and Singlish.
Singapore English is English spoken with a Singaporean accent, and when written, is formal and not unlike other standard varieties of English around the world.
To build on the family tree metaphor, Singapore English is a sibling of other Englishes around the world.
Singlish, on the other hand, is a completely different language whose DNA we can discuss in other forums and avenues.
Singlish is not a type of English, nor Chinese, nor Malay. It is simply Singlish.
Dr Tan Ying Ying is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at the School of Humanities in Nanyang Technological University. She is a Singaporean linguist working on languages in Singapore and is a native speaker of Singlish.