Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cooking up imaginary language rules.

I have always wondered if it’s a peculiarity found only in Singaporeans or whether I am the only one who seems to attract their attention but I'm sure you too have been told by someone in a serious tone that your sentence is ungrammatical or you have used a wrong word. Yes, this is a strange State that tells its citizens to speak the Queen’s English and holds official campaigns organised by a Government-backed committee to stamp out Singlish, a distinctive and colourful variant of English, and to promote the sort of language that Fowler would have approved.

But are the campaigns successful and are the people of Singapore more correct in their use of English? I’m afraid all they have done is to make the people less imaginative and what is worse, they come up with imaginary rules that hamper normal speech. And all the hype about the importance of speaking good English has made the average Singaporean watch like a hawk for “incorrect” and “ungrammatical” use of English but alas, they usually get it wrong.

Years ago, I accompanied my wife to a dinner hosted by her superior and during conversation, I mentioned how a friend of mine was “talked into having surgery” by a surgeon in private practice. “You can’t talk a person into having surgery”, said my wife’s colleague. I readily agreed. Naturally, that would not be ethical, particularly if the surgery was not essential but purely cosmetic. “No,” he insisted, “you cannot SAY that. You PERSUADE a person to have surgery. You don’t TALK HIM INTO having surgery.” I was confused. What’s the difference? Seeing my confusion, his wife clarified, “It’s just my husband. He’s very particular about the proper use of language.” I still didn’t get it – was he objecting to my use of a colloquial phrasal verb but then, I was speaking and you can’t get more colloquial than that! A lot of witty retorts came to my head but I let it pass.

That was a long time ago but it was by no means an isolated incident. My memory isn’t good and I can’t recall many similar incidents but something happened quite recently – just a week ago, in fact – which I shall now recount. I was in church to play my clarinet in an ensemble at an ordination service – that’s the service that turns a few lay persons into clergymen. I happened to see the Senior Pastor of my church walking by as I was tuning my instrument and I casually asked him if the bishop was “giving the sermon”. I remarked further that I found the bishop a little long-winded. He looked at me disapprovingly and I thought he was going to give me a piece of his mind because of my indiscreet remarks about the bishop’s sermon but he had weightier matters on his mind. “You don’t say GIVE a sermon”, he said solemnly.

“You prefer DELIVER a sermon?” I asked, thinking that he wanted something more than a monosyllabic verb for something as important as a sermon.

“No, you don’t say that either. You PREACH a sermon.” Despite my many experiences with Singaporeans, I still didn’t get it, so obtuse was I. He had to clarify further that I had used the “wrong” verb.

I have just done a simple google search and even the BBC talks about the Archbishop of Canterbury “giving a sermon”. See:

My policy is to allow everyone to express himself in whatever way he pleases without telling him he is wrong even when I am absolutely certain that all grammarians today will say he is grammatically wrong. Should I have told my wife's colleague and the pastor that they were wrong in attempting to correct me? Let me tell you another story of what happened to me when I was a student in the National University of Singapore and you can decide for yourself if it’s all right to tell them that they are wrong to make up imaginary rules for the English language.

I was queuing up for dinner one evening at the university hostel and I was talking to a friend. Apparently, I had used the word “perceptiveness” in my conversation and a student who was ahead of us in the queue turned to me and said that the noun was “perception” and not “perceptiveness”. I knew her slightly and she majored in what was then called “Double English”, ie she read both English Language and English Literature. Thinking that she had not been listening to the context of my conversation, I clarified that the noun of “perceive” was “perception” but the noun of “perceptive” was “perceptiveness” and my sentence could only allow for “perceptiveness” and not “perception”.

You would have thought mine was a harmless reply. After all, she interrupted my conversation with a friend and all I did was to tell her the context of my conversation. But no, her reaction was one of outrage. She stormed out of the dining hall and she avoided me like the plague throughout my stay in the hostel. Why such a small and insignificant matter should affect her so badly is something I really cannot understand. After all, English isn’t our native language and I can think of a string of expletives for her attitude that I can only express in Hokkien, my native tongue. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have thanked her and continued talking to my friend.

It doesn’t surprise me that Singapore isn’t featured in the international literary scene. Two writers from Malaysia have been long-listed for the Booker but in spite of all the good-English campaigns, Singaporean novelists have only won awards from the Singaporean Government and they seem unable to do any better.

The beauty of the English language lies in the diversity of its vocabulary. It’s got more words in its entire vocabulary than any other languages in the world. And it does not outstrip French (that’s the second language in the world with the most number of words) by just a small margin. English has more than twice the number of words found in French.

It makes good sense if Singaporeans could learn to use a wider range of words and not stick to merely PERSUADE, PREACH and PERCEPTION and mind you, I’m only confining myself to words beginning with the letter P.