Books on Singapore English

I’ve been collecting observations of my own about the features of English here in Singapore, but others have published books on the subject (some more serious than others).

I have these four books. They are all a bit silly.

  • English as it is Broken
    Panpac (2007) ISBN: 9789812730497
  • English as it is Broken 2
    Panpac (2008) ISBN: 9789812802859
  • The Coxford Singlish Dictionary
    Angsana (2009) ISBN: 9789814193689
  • An Essential Guide to Singlish
    Samantha Hanna (2003) ISBN: 9789810467081

I would like to have some books written more for linguistic purposes than for mere entertainment.

  • Singapore English: Structure, Variation, and Usage
    by Jakob R. E. Leimgruber (2013) ISBN: 9781107027305
  • Singapore English: A Grammatical Description
    edited by Lisa Lim (2004) ISBN: 9781588115768
  • English in Singapore: Modernity and Management (Asian Englishes Today)
     edited by Lisa Lim (2010) ISBN: 9789888028436

What’s a ‘yard’?

Why? Because in Singapore, there are no yards.*

There aren’t any sticks measuring 36″, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about that area around your house where there’s grass and plants and trees. Maybe you have a fence, a driveway, a mailbox at the end of the driveway, and a doghouse or a swing set or a vegetable garden in the back behind the patio where you keep your grill.

Nope. Not in Singapore you don’t. Nobody has a yard here.

Nobody grills on his own grill in his own backyard; nobody owns a swing set; nobody’s dog has half an acre to run around in; nobody rakes leaves from the yard in the autumn; nobody’s mailbox sits on a stick among some rocks and plants; nobody’s teenage son gets paid to mow the grass with the lawnmower in the garage.

There’s no autumn, and the mailboxes are all little metal bins built into the wall in sets of ten or twenty in the lobby, and you park your cars— where else?—in the car park (assuming you can afford a car in the first place). In Singapore, you have to bid to buy the right to buy a car because the island has quotas on how many of each size vehicle there are.

Edit: On the other hand, maybe not having a yard is a good thing!


*This is an exaggeration. But to understand how rare ‘landed properties’ are, read about good-class bungalows.

Life in Singapore

In October 2008, my husband successfully defended his PhD thesis in computer science. He was awarded a three-year fellowship at the National University of Singapore. His new job (along with a strong interest in foreign cultures) has brought us to the opposite side of the globe. We moved from New Jersey to Singapore, arriving October 22, 2008.

Singapore basics

If you’re scratching your head wondering, among other things, where Singapore is, read on. Or, go read the Wikipedia article on Singapore.

Continue reading Life in Singapore

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.

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

Redundanancy

Today at Parkway Parade I saw a sign on a cosmetics store that said “powerful-strength line-reducing concentrate”.

I read it as an advertisement for a reducer of ‘strength lines’ and momentarily wondered what a ‘strength line’ was and why it was bad. Then I realized there was a hyphen. The advertisement was for something that reduces lines (i.e., wrinkles). If you write ‘powerful’, though, you don’t need the word ‘strength’.

This strikes me as a very Singlish bit of syntax, though the company that makes this bizarrely named product is American.

In Singapore I keep hearing people here say things like “I like the red-color one.” They should just say “I like the red one,” because ‘red’ is already a color, same way ‘powerful’ is already a strength.

I also hear ‘large size’. The phrase ‘medium size’ makes sense, because all kinds of things can be medium in ways that have nothing to do with size. Things can be medium temperature, or medium cooked, etc. But ‘large’ is always a size, so we don’t say “I would like a large-size coffee, please.” Sometimes we say “I need a size large,” though probably not “I need a size large t-shirt.”

Of course, it’s not just Singlish that is subject to redundancy: don’t we all say ‘ATM machine’ and ‘PIN number’?

And Kiehls wasn’t using Singlish. I just thought they were.

Guan Yu aka Guan Gong

This is Guan Yu. I saw this Guan Yu statue at Just Anthony (a Chinese furniture and antique shop) a few months after arriving in Singapore, though I didn’t know who he was.

I took the photo because I though it was exceedingly strange for a warrior to be shown in a pose reading a book. Warriors, I thought, were shown on prancing horses, holding swords or spears, or surveying the landscape. They’re not shown reading.

Ah, but you see, he’s a legendary Chinese general, and he’s reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War. That makes sense!

Figurines and statues of Guan Yu are common, since Guan Yu is commonly worshipped as a deity, or at least displayed as a kind of lucky charm. Most of the time, Guan Yu is shown riding his horse like a boss, wielding his special weapon like a boss, or just scowling and holding his very dignified beard, but some of the time, he’s shown seated, reading a book like a boss.

Hats off to you, Guan Yu, for choosing to fight with your brains and not just your brawn.

Absolutely. No. Durians.

Singapore has a reputation for strict laws that stipulate fines for mildly annoying misdeeds. It’s also known as a place where people enjoy durians, which are a particularly stinky kind of fruit with spiky skin.

What cracks me up every time I see a sign like this one (on the wall of the Chinatown MRT station) is that when you look at it, you naturally expect the punishment for the offense on the bottom right to be the worst, and… there’s nothing there!

Not listing any penalty on the sign leaves the imagination free to invent something maximally terrible. Like… execution.

What exactly do they do to you if you bring a durian on the MRT?

Better never find out.