Of Singlish Infections

I was enjoying the view of Singapore’s city skyline, when a friend pointed to the Esplanade and asked, “By the way, is that really supposed to be pronounced espla-‘naid’ or espla-‘nard’ ?”

The question struck me initially as very odd. Granted, there was the fast and furious not-so-instant-messaging that took place over press forums over this very issue of pronunciation, when the cranes, screens were removed from the city centre and the durian emerged. It was not long, however, before everyone settled on that same single way of pronunciation. Espla-‘naid’ it was.

Then I paused. After all, episodes of baptism have often been riddled by unfortunate linguistic faux pas, with such tragedies perpetuated in name of convention. Surely, there’s a distinction to be drawn between what has come to be conventional, and what is right. Some cases simply fall squarely outside the confluence of the two circles of a venn diagram. Perhaps, this just happened to be one of them.

Then came the baffling question. What is right?

I began a non-committal reply with the convention in the pronunciation of english names, as one with a heavy penultimate accent. This seems consistent with espla-‘naid’, but not espla-‘nard’.

A split-second mental dissection conducted on our singlish language sent alarm bells ringing through my head. After all, our singlish convention of name pronunciation dictates, arguably mistakenly but with good reason, that all names ought to be pronounced with special relish placed on the ultimate syllable. (The ultimate syllable is after all, ultimate).

In the case of Singlish, things go a step further. The devil’s in the indivdual syllables. Not only have we all-but-patented a rather kitsch way of rendering our vowels, we have regretfully, as one united people, consistently opted to put our stressors on a rather embarrassing end of the syllable dipole – the apparently uncouth posterior, rather than the supposedly distinguished head. What results from this formula is a harsh, almost vulgar way of speech.

The effect of Singlish is a tad like this.

Instead of:

a sunday on la grande jatte by Georges Seurat

a slice of classic french laziness, resplendent with the golden hues accompanying afternoon tea

you get:

Families sitting under shade at the Esplanade to catch the late afternoon display of fireworks

a singaporean equivalent - pointedly stripped of romantic overtones... but charming, nevertheless. (SOURCE: Ministry of Information and the Arts, from a2o database)

I have to admit, however, that I am rather proud of my proficiencies as a native Singlish speaker. In our frank and candid rendition of the English language, inserting the anglicized (BBC newscaster) way of saying something into daily conversations always sounds odd, and more-than-slightly pretentious.

To-‘may’-to, to-‘mah’-to, espla-‘naid’, espla-‘nard’, it doesn’t really matter. However you say it, you won’t land very far off from that very telling trace of Singlish that rings through with each syllable. That’s okay, my fellow Singaporeans. It’s only humean to be slightly vulgar.

Ziwei is a native speaker of Singlish. She received her Mastery in Queen’s English through on-air courses by the BBC and Monty Python.

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3 comments
  1. Thomas said:

    “After all, episodes of baptism has often been riddled by unfortunate linguistic faux pas, with such tragedies perpetuated in name of convention.”

    Holy cow batman! This pharagragh of powderful engrish baffled beyond me. Not even our gahmen’s scholarship winners can write such good engrish! Steady leh, u!!

  2. Mooncookie said:

    I love the contrast between the pictures!

    To-may-to is American, to-mah-to is British 🙂

    • 😀 you’re right! either way though, there’s a singlish way of saying ‘to-may-to’ and ‘to-mah’to’. try it! 😀

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