Last week, the New York Times published an opinion essay by Mr. Gwee Li Sui. In it, he suggested the Singapore govenment’s “war on Singlish,” had some problems. Singlish (Singapore English), he argued, represents Singapore well, bringing together many of the languages of that nation. Mr. G even asserted that Singlish has the power to “connect speakers across ethnic and socioeconomic divides like no other tongue could.”
He included a short glossary, illuminating Singlish’s internal variety (see sidebar).
Mr. G also pointed out that the more restrictions placed on Singlish, the more it seems to flourish: “In the eyes of the young, continued criticism by the state made it the language of cool.”
And, as his essay illustrated, individuals needn’t choose between Singlish or Standard English, as many people are aware of both (and other languages) and fluently switch between the two.
A few days later, the New York times published a letter from Li Lin Chang, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.
This letter emphasized that the type of creative language use that Mr.G praised was only the purview of highly educated people, not everyday people in Singapore who need “standard English” to get ahead:
Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English.
This statement piqued my curiosity. Using Singlish does seem complicated—as it combines so many languages and grammatical systems. But I know many code-switchers in the United States who do not have PhDs—even some toddlers! Is code-switching between Singlish and Standard English different? Something only PhD educated people can handle?
In Citizen Sociolinguistic mode, I started searching the Internet to see who (in addition to Mr G, PhD) was facile with this type of “code-switching”. It appears there are many non-PhDs who, like Mr. G, capably code-switch between Singlish and other forms of English, as illustrated (and discussed) in this YouTube Video :
In about ten minutes’ more poking through the Internet, I also learned about the “Speak Good English” campaign in Singapore and spied this logo:
The Speak Good English movement also includes post-it note style signs like this, emphasizing the edits needed to “get it right”:I also started finding quite a few signs suggesting an underground “Speak Good Singlish” movement, and even a counter logo:
This movement also counters the official post-it notes with deftly edited signs translating “Standard English” into “Singlish”. Here are a few Pinterest posts to illustrate:
This Pinterest user seems to have a good grasp of “code-switching” between Standard and Singlish.
A Google image search illustrated many more playful post-it style notes like the following English/Singlish translations:
And this sign even merges Singlish with Shakespearean diction (lah!):
“Lah” seems important:
Long before Mr. G wrote his New York Times editorial, the Speak Good Singlish movement seems to have grasped the import of Singlish for Singaporean Citizens.
Who was behind this “Speak Good Singlish” counter-punch? Does their language awareness and ability to code-switch entail PhDs?
No. They are Citizen Sociolinguists, illustrating—with humor and creativity—how language connects to social value in everyday lives. In the process, they are building everyone’s repertoire, rather than holding up one “standard” as the only functional way to succeed.
Of course, some readers may still feel that proud Singlish speaking citizen sociolinguists are missing out on something that a more rigid “Speak Good English” regime might provide them. What’s your opinion on Singlish? Or the “Speak Good Si/English” movement? Please add your comment below!!!
2 thoughts on “Speak Good Singlish: A Form of Citizen Sociolinguistics”
Dr. Rymes, thanks for sharing.
The use of the language that is transformed bringing new senses, new directions, new uses by the community or specific communities find it always valid, legitimate and interesting. Beyond the performance however the empowerment of a generation which is able to dominate the game between grammars and enrich the culture. I am always for the new uses not constrained by dogmatic forms; however that language emerge as an strong ontological recognition of a generation in a context.
In Mexico something similar happens when Words in English evolve into new expression. For example Sister which means hermana, e evolves to the word “sisterna” which means “water tank” when young people ask: how is your sister? they say Cómo esta tu sisterna?
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