Soon, I shall be on a plane flying back to Singapore for a brief visit. As in all my previous trips, I know I will feel a sense of instant familiarity the moment I disembark: from the Asian faces of the ground crew, the distinctive cadence of airport announcers, to the humidity, the pace, the sparkling new halls and white-washed walls, but most of all, the language.
You know how you often warned me against the indiscriminate lapsing into our vernacular, and how you ferociously chastised the use of extraneous expressions I (and almost all Singaporeans) suffixed to what you said were “otherwise” proper sentences like ‘I know what to do lah’, ‘I don’t know leh‘ or ‘You know hor’?
Well, you’d be pleased that I have since reluctantly weaned myself away from these (endearing) appendages, and I am also using a lot less of our pidgin English now than before — an
unfortunate adjustment I had had to make to be properly understood by my Aussie friends and working colleagues.
Yet, to tell you the truth, the special intonation and ingenious patois concocted in Singapore by Singaporeans for themselves are as inextricably close to my mind, and my mouth, as they were years ago. I sometimes find myself muttering, under my breath, exclamations of disbelief such as “Wah Lao!” (Far out!) that only my fellow Singaporeans would appreciate.
You might not like it; and I know many linguistic snobs – who worship the cultivated London speech, the delightful American accent, and, of course, the delicious Canadian inflection — don’t either. But, let’s face it, our less-than posh English is very much a part of our national character. There is something in its rhythmic lilt, if not poetic meter, that distinguishes us from the rest of the English-speaking world. So what if it makes us sound nothing like our former colonial rulers? So what if it is probably disgraceful on the global stage? It is, more than anything else, a part of our collective personality.
Besides, our language is utterly unique. Take, for example, one of our most illustrious self-coined words: kiasu – formulated based on the sound of the Hokkien dialect — that means for fear of losing out. (Used in context: ‘There will always be food waiting for you; there’s really no need to be kiasu and bust your guts trying to get here before everyone else.’) The word’s not in the English lexicon; and translating the phrase phonetically into alphabet might have also adulterated the dialect term and rendered it inauthentic. However, call my vocabulary uninspired, but I have not as yet been able to find another English word or words that can adequately replace it.
The same applies to the Malay-originated word marloo which loosely means embarrassed or embarrassing. But being simply embarrassed does not sufficiently convey the deep, profound sense of being disconcerted. And yet, shame seems too serious for a situation we would normally prefer just to use marloo. It depicts a space somewhere between embarrassed and shame.
And what is wrong with adding these invented words into our English verbal glossary anyway? English, is by far, the most generous when it comes to being adaptable, inclusive, and integrative.
If you think about it, has not a multitude of words from foreign languages already been made permanent residents in the house of the most widely used language in the world? From the German schadenfreude (pleasure at others’ misfortune), gemütlich (comfortable and at peace with oneself) to the French faux pax (social blunder) or fait accompli (a done deal). And what about the latin ad nauseam (something repeated to the point of nausea), or coitus interruptus (interrupted ejaculation) and the Yiddish chutzpah (audacity) or schmaltzy (excessively sentimental)? Aren’t they all words we have been using as if they were part of what rose from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms?
So, why can’t our very own trademark brand of Singlish be elevated to the same stature, rather than be regarded as little more than a quivering asylum-seeker?
Until then, however, I know I will most likely have to continue to keep my ‘marloos’ and ‘wah laos’ under my breath in my adopted home, and look forward to a sense of liberation only when I step foot on our lilting land of the ‘kiasus‘. Hor?