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.

Must Chinese be visual?

It is hard to understate the importance of the Chinese characters to the Chinese language.

It is claimed by Chinese speakers that the Pinyin system (the official system for using the Roman alphabet to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese) is not enough to convey meaning because so many words sounds the same. They need the visual elements in the characters to distinguish words.

This may seem like nonsense. People don’t use characters when they talk on the phone in Chinese. Context is enough to distinguish the meanings of homophones. And yet, Chinese speakers imagine the characters when they’re listening.

Kids who don’t know the characters yet could, theoretically, just learn to read Pinyin and associate the meanings to the sounds and to the Pinyin representations of the sounds, which is similar to what every kid with an alphabetic language does.

Adult Chinese speakers read faster with characters than with Pinyin because they already know the meanings of the characters, whereas if they try to read Pinyin, they have to translate the Pinyin into sounds before they can understand the words. They would need to practice reading Pinyin a lot to be able to read as fast without characters.

Furthermore, the characters provide intelligibility between types of speech that the Chinese tend to call dialects but that are sometimes considered separate languages.

Chinese pride in Chinese characters may seem like sheer masochism. Non-phonetic writing systems are an undeniably heavy cognitive burden. But if China abandons characters, it’s also abandoning centuries of its own history, poetry, and art. How could anyone really be in favor of that?

I also don’t know.

In Singapore, the answer to a question will often be “I also don’t know.” The implication is that the asker doesn’t know and that the answerer is thus the second person who doesn’t know.

We Americans don’t say ‘also’ in English when we don’t know unless at least one person has already failed to answer the question.

In Singapore:

“Where can I get some good Italian food?” asked Amelia.
“I also don’t know,” said Bob.

In the US:

“Where can I get some good Italian food?” asked Amelia.
“I don’t know,” said Bob.
“I also don’t know,” said Cindy.

Cindy is the second person to say the phrase “I don’t know.” The word ‘also’ is just there to emphasize the echo. But probably Cindy wouldn’t even use ‘also’. She’d probably say “me neither” or “I don’t know either.”

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.

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

I enjoyed The Rational Optimist. Pessimism is more attention-getting than optimism, but sometimes we need calm, happy stuff.

No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely. Good news is no news. (295)

Ridley is a welcome candle in the dark. Hear more about what he has to say below.

Continue reading The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley