Déjà vu

A few weeks ago I was looking for a book on my language shelves. I noticed a book called A Study of Writing by I. J. Gelb. Separated from it by two or three books was another book (of a slightly different age and color, but identical size) called A Study of Writing by I. J. Gelb.

I had never before noticed that there were two copies of that book, not even when I arranged the language book shelves roughly by topic.

My immediate response was to remove the older copy. And to then insert it next to its duplicate on the shelf.

Wear your shoe

Singlish:

“You need to go toilet? Okay, wear your shoe first.”

English:

“You need to go to the toilet? Okay, put on your shoes first.”

‘Wear’ is really not the same as ‘put on’, if you ask me.

Oh, and the whole reason this conversation happens is that kids don’t wear shoes inside schools and enrichment centres, much like nobody wears shoes inside houses here.

Why Chinese is hard

This is an articulate, entertaining, informative essay about Mandarin Chinese. You should read it if you are a Westerner living in Asia, if you are considering studying Chinese, if you liked the TV show Firefly, or if you have ever had any contact with one or more Chinese people from China. It will give you perspective.

Pinyin.info:
Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character , as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment.

In other words, the difficulty of the Chinese writing system makes the language hard for native speakers, too. Remember that next time you’re complaining about how ‘arbitrary’ English spelling is.

Object dropping

Singlish:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“I don’t like.”

The object is obvious, therefore there’s no need to express it.

Sometimes you even get subject dropping, too:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“Don’t like.”

English:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“No, I don’t like them.”

English (more concise alternative):

“Do you like horror movies?”
“No, I don’t.”

Here’s a rare case where English is actually more efficient than Singlish. Singlish needs at least two words, while English, arguably, only needs one:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“Nope.”

This emphasis on repeating the verb in the question comes from Chinese. There’s no universal word for ‘no’ in Chinese, though sometimes you can sensibly answer questions with “not be”, which gives the sense of “whatever you just said is not the case”.

I can read!

My current job is with one branch of a network of literacy centers called “I Can Read”. We teach phonics, reading, spelling, and eventually, grammar, including parts of speech.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. An adjective describes a noun.

A verb is something you can do. Here’s how you test to see whether something is a verb:

I can… jump.

I can… think.

I can… window?

For some reason, “I can window” struck me as hilarious. What would that even mean, do you think?

Beware! Beware! A bottomless __________!

Once upon a time many years ago, my mom and I were doing Mad Libs.

Mad Libs is a game where there’s a story printed on a notebook, but some words are missing. One person tells the other person what type of word to supply. (A color, a plural noun, a profession, a verb.) Then the first person reads back the whole story using the second person’s words.

On the occasion that will live forever in memory, the story was about some kind of bad guy who kidnapped two friends. It had a line of dialogue that said something like:

“Look out! He’s pushing you towards the bottomless ______________!”

I had supplied ‘chair’, which resulted in a surprisingly sensible utterance. Yet a bottomless chair is not exactly threatening.

We laughed for ten minutes.

English spelling is crazy.

It’s been done to death, but here it is again.

Someone (though probably not the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote Pygmalion, which later became a musical named My Fair Lady) joked that the word ‘fish’ can be spelled ‘ghoti’.

  1. Take the ‘gh’ from ‘laugh’
  2. Add the ‘o’ from ‘women’
  3. Add the ‘ti’ from ‘nation’

And you get ‘ghoti’, pronounced ‘fish’.

More details at the wikipedia page for ‘ghoti’.

Business hours

Common messages relating to business hours are often distorted here in Singapore.

Sometimes the sign says ‘business hours’, sometimes it says ‘operating hours’, sometimes it says ‘operation hours’, sometimes it says ‘opening hours’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘open hours’ but that would be bad, too.

I’ve had native speakers say ‘operating hours’ isn’t so bad, but I think it sounds almost as much like a hospital as ‘operation hours’. I think ‘hours’ should suffice, but ‘business hours’ is probably better.

‘Hours of operation’ is okay, I guess, though it sounds a bit formal, or as if it only applies to something automated. It would be weird for a knitting store to have ‘hours of operation’, no? Sounds like a bank or an ATM vestibule.

There’s a restaurant we like (Song Fa Bak Kut Teh) on the sidewalk across from The Central. I think it says that it is “Closed on every Monday.” Gah. (This message is especially frustrating if you’re standing in front of it on a Monday and you want to eat Bak Kut Teh.)

Today I saw a sign that says ‘opens daily’. Please, no.

I can’t really think why someone who doesn’t already know would care about the subtle yet vast difference in between ‘open daily’ and ‘opens daily’. How do you sell someone on the idea that this matters? All they want is to label something that’s already pretty obvious: the times when you can do business with them. Even if the text on the door just said “Monday to Friday 9–5” and nothing more, people would understand. So if they say “Operation Hours Monday to Friday 9–5”, there’s really no harm done, right? Right?

operation-hours
at Tanglin Shopping Centre

I is for… igloo?

It always cracks me up to see the picture of the igloo in representations of the alphabet in Singapore. I suppose it must be practically the only noun that starts with a short i sound, because it’s not an obvious vocabulary word at all, especially here. American kids have never seen an igloo in person, but they have typically seen snow, which Singaporean kids may never have done.

‘Insect’ is perhaps a better concrete noun to represent short ‘i’.

What else starts with short ‘i’?

Interview, interesting, intermission, interstate highway (there aren’t any of those in Singapore either), ignorant, illness, id, it, idiom, insecurity, inception, illusion, irritation, irritant, incubator, intermittent, itsy-bitsy, intern, inner, intimate, invalid, incomplete, inadvertent, incapacitate, interpolation, indigo.

There must be dozens with in-/il-/ir- (which are all the same underlying latin prefix). And dozens more with inter- and intra-. Putting latinate words in a kid’s alphabet is maybe not a great idea, but Latin stuff is more authentically English than igloo, for crying out loud.

Meanwhile, ‘j’ is for ‘jack-in-the box’. It’s an old-fashioned toy. I’ve seen some, but I imagine that people younger than me increasingly haven’t.

Hm. What else starts with ‘j’?

Jelly, jam, jail, jig, Jell-o, Japan, junk, jellyfish, jeans, judge, jalopy, jinx.

I don’t think I even knew what a jalopy was until someone tried to teach me the Spanish word for jalopy (‘cacharro’). I suppose whoever it was succeeded, since apparently I still remember.

Now I’m thinking of churrascaria, a Portuguese word for Brazilian barbecue.