A Vietnamese, an American and a Singaporean are sitting in a hostel common room having dinner. The American girl had recently bought an enormous jar of Nutella (which she pronounces as “n-oo-tell-ah”) to share and was looking for something to spread it on.
“There’s sandwich in the fridge.” The Vietnamese girl tells her.
“No, we have sandwich!”
“What kind of sandwich?”
“Just plain sandwich! The same type you put Nutella on yesterday.”
“Oh, plain bread!”
“No!” The Vietnamese girl refutes her, drawing a large cross with her hands animatedly. “It’s sandwich, not bread.”
Now the American girl is confused again. “So, what’s in the sandwich?”
“It’s just plain sandwich, there’s nothing in it,” replies the Vietnamese.
“Wait, what? A plain sandwich?” The Singaporean girl finally chimes in (that’s me btw, in case I hadn’t made it obvious enough). “Isn’t that just bread then???”
“No!! In Vietnam, bread is the stuff you use in banh mi. Sandwich is the one that’s cut into squares. And baguette is the really long roll of bread,” the Vietnamese girl informs us. The American and I, finally enlightened, let out a synchronous “ohhhhhh”. Essentially, the term “sandwich” is to the Vietnamese what everyone else in the world would call “sliced bread”. The three of us burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of our little debate.
Even though all of us claim speak the same language, the way that each culture co-opts and modifies English to incorporate local flavour is just so fascinating. Like how “pants” or “biscuits” can mean different things in the UK and the US. Or how in Singapore, “Can?” is perfectly able to encapsulate any request one might have, its meaning completely dependent on the situation.
It is ironic that pidgin English are often denounced as bastardised and inferior versions of the language, when in fact the ‘standard’ English spoken bears little resemblance at all to its original form. Language evolves and we can always expect change over time, whether it be thousands of years or merely a few decades. After all, if the human race is driven to pursue progress and push boundaries in science and technology, the tools we adopt to communicate new ideas must progress accordingly. Similarly, in different cultures, certain concepts are more salient than others (due to environment or tradition). The configuration and hierarchical importance of different ideas varies from culture to culture, and people outside of the UK who have adopted English must adapt the lexicon to fit their culture’s unique conceptual map, often resulting in deviation from the original usage of certain words.
There are a lot of words that undergo this kind of ‘semantic re-appropriation’ in Singlish. A relatively current example is the word “step”.
That’s the intended meaning. But try to apply that definition in the following sentence:
“Eh, don’t step ang moh (slang for white person).”
As Singaporeans, we’re familiar with this phrase and we understand that “step” in this context refers to “acting like” or “trying to be”. Some people speculate that this figure of speech took its inspiration from step-sibling and step-parent relationships, while others theorise that it might have something to do with stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Whatever the case, a foreigner would be floored.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something about the way we as a nation were able to maim and mangle the language of our colonial rulers en masse and reassemble the fragments into something almost unrecognisable to the untrained ear, that is unmatched in its efficiency (a single word “sian” can convey a hundred and one emotions) and absurdity (who would ever guess that the term “imba” was a derivative of “imbalanced”?) that I find wickedly clever and even advantageous. Why try to import a formula that doesn’t work so well in this country, when you can innovate and make it even better for your people?
Alright, I concede that it comes at the cost of communicating effectively with an international audience. But most of us can still be proud of Singlish as part of our cultural heritage, without letting it spill into our day-to-day interactions with the rest of the world. I would argue that young Singaporeans these days code-switch between Singlish and ‘standard’ English even more seamlessly than they do between English and their mother tongues.
What I’ve come to realise from my semester on exchange in Mexico, and the few travel experiences I’ve had, is that Singaporeans have a really good grasp of English, contrary to what many of us might believe. We are native speakers, just like the Australians and the Americans and Canadians. Just like them, we too have our own slang words and phrases and even grammatical structure (perhaps to a greater degree than those other places, but that only makes our language more nuanced and intriguing) that reflect our nation’s idiosyncrasies- just as the Vietnamese use of English reflects their expertise in sandwich-making (bless their souls). That’s why our version of English, and every other version in cultures all over the world, matters and should be celebrated- every word has been infused with so much character drawn from the body of people who contribute to it.
A.N.: Hi guys, I’m finally back from Vietnam after a good break and (not at all) ready to start work tomorrow. Wish me luck!!!