“Have you left your valuables behind?”

This warning from the Singapore Police, spotted in a toilet stall in Cineleisure at Orchard is semantically equivalent to “Have you left all of your valuables behind?”

Although it is a somewhat plausible question, I think a better question would be one that has a slightly different meaning, less like “Have you left everything behind?” and more like “Have you left anything behind?”

“Please Watch Out For Your Belongings!”

This warning, spotted in The Clementi Mall, makes it sound like the belongings themselves are dangerous, like a sign that says “Beware of Dog” or “Watch Out for Falling Rocks”, though admittedly neither of those warnings starts with ‘please’.

Of course the intent is something like ‘take care of’, and ‘watch out for’ sometimes has this meaning. “Watch out for your children” means ‘keep a lookout’ so that they come to no harm, but the meaning doesn’t transfer to inanimate objects as nicely.

While we’re nitpicking, we might as well point out that the exclamation mark seems extraneous. No final punctuation is needed since the words are all capitalized. Alternatively, only one capital letter is needed, since it’s a sentence with end punctuation.

Pesky ‘with’

Dumex advertisement
at Block 610 bus stop

When I read this:

Dumex, proudly nurturing Singapore babies with global expertise and experience.

I thought, Wow, Singapore babies have global expertise and experience?

The preposition ‘with’ is ambiguous. It could mean ‘having’ (which is what I thought at first) or it could mean ‘using’ (which is what was intended).

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

Signaling tense and aspect

Chinese does not have ‘grammar’ the way European languages do because words are not inflected. There are no plurals, noun cases or past tense. All the memorization of declensions you have to do when you study, say, Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages—that kind of stuff is absent from Chinese entirely (though you would of course be foolish to conclude that Chinese is therefore easy). So how are the relationships between words indicated? Context, adverbs and particles.

Let’s look at verb tense (specifically past tense) and aspect (specifically completed aspect) in Singlish as influenced by Chinese.

Continue reading Signaling tense and aspect

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.

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 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.