Thursday, May 9, 2013

Our Language Watchdog's Bark

A watchdog will bark at anyone who enters the house it is guarding and all the long hours spent at the dog trainer's can't put a stop to this instinctive reaction of the dog, however annoying its bark may be to your guests.  While I can see the need for a watchdog and I do love dogs, I do not look so fondly at a bunch of people acting as the nation's language watchdog and telling the rest of us how we should speak and write particularly when they seem not to know what I would consider the rudiments of English grammar. 

I know very little about the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore but the occasional encounters I've had with them over the course of many years have not endeared them to me.

The first time I heard of the movement was when I was walking along Orchard Road when suddenly the face of the then Chairman of the movement appeared on a huge screen on the wall of a shopping centre. He spoke on the importance of proper pronunciation and recounted how he once went to England on business and he wanted to tell his English listeners something about "cement" and they heard it as "semen" because of his mispronunciation. The moral of his story was Singaporeans needed to learn to pronounce their words carefully so as not to confuse their foreign listeners.

Naturally everyone around me laughed on hearing his story including quite a few tourists. This was right in the middle of Orchard Road, Singapore's busiest shopping district. I remember standing at the junction of Orchard Road and Scott's Road thinking to myself how the Chairman of the movement had wronged Singaporeans because that was not how most Singaporeans spoke!

I need to explain further to those who are not familiar with Singaporean and Malaysian English users. Singaporeans and Malaysians can roughly be divided into two groups of English speakers: the natural and the pretentious. The majority of English speakers are natural. Of course within this category of natural speakers we have smaller groups which are banded according to the person's level of education, family background and so on but these minor differences do not concern us here. What I'm saying (and I firmly stand by what I say) is that all the natural speakers can pronounce "cement" perfectly well. If you don't believe me, go ahead and ask anyone around you. I just tried it on my renovation contractor whose hair is permed and dyed red  (the unmistakeable insignia of a genuine Ah Beng) and even though he speaks no English, he pronounced "cement" almost as well as the corgi-hugging queen. At least nobody will mistake it for "semen".

It's the pretentious English speakers who alter the stress placed on a word so as to accord with what they think should sound less Singaporean.  They get some words right but alas, English is not a language with fixed and inflexible rules and for some words such as "cement", they replace the usual Singaporean pronunciation which happens to be correct with their erroneous one and this mistake can be downright embarrassing. But it's wrong to term this a Singlish error. It's an error limited only to a small group of pretentious English speakers and it's not representative of the rest of us.

That was a long time ago and just when I thought this Speak Good English campaign had been rightly put to sleep and forgotten, I saw this article in yesterday's Straits Times.

MINDEF staff have been sent a list of common English errors. The article says "Some of these common errors include the use of redundant words in phrases like 'emphasise on' and 'still remain'".

Let's take a good look at "still remain" which the Speak Good English Movement says is an error.  Is it really an error due to the use of redundant words?  Is it an error at all?   No, says the Oxford English Dictionary.

To illustrate how the word "remain" may be used, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a quotation from R. Rendell's novel: "When he left Olson ten minutes on the meter still remained to run".

Even the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible which is used consistently by grammarians throughout the centuries as the ultimate bastion of correct English does not view "still remain" as tautologous.  See Jeremiah 27:11 in the KJV which reads, "But the nations that bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him, those will I let remain still in their own land, saith the Lord; and they shall till it, and dwell therein".

Just in case objections are raised that the KJV is outdated, the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible which uses current English does not view "still remains" as incorrect.  Hebrews 4:6 of the NIV reads, "Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience..."

Just to give a more balanced picture, I have included these two quotations from the Douay-Rheims Bible used by Roman Catholics:

2 Kings 13:6 -"But yet they departed not from the sins of Jeroboam, who made Israel to sin, but walked in them: and there still remained a grove also in Samaria".

John 11:6 - "When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he still remained in the same place two days".

I hope I have shown quite clearly that the Speak Good English Movement is wrong to denounce "still remain" as a language error.

Why, you may ask, is the Speak Good English Movement so disgracefully wrong? I really don't know. But I do know that what some grammarians have declared erroneous is not "still remain" but the phrase "continue to remain".  In 1926, Fowler calls it a "ridiculous tautology".   But nobody today uses the phrase "continue to remain".  There was a time when you signed off a letter with the ludicrously servile "I remain, Sir, your obedient servant" and in the early 1920s, a trend was emerging to end a letter with "I continue to remain, Sir, your obedient servant" probably because it was perceived as emphasizing the continuation of the writer's submission to his reader.  But this CANNOT be a common error in Singapore or for that matter any part of the world today! In any event, it's the phrase "still remain" that the Speak Good English Movement claims to be wrong when it isn't.

Let us look at the second example the newspaper article gave of what the Speak Good English Movement terms a common language error because of the use of redundant words - "emphasise on".  Everyone knows that "emphasise on" is incorrect simply because "emphasise" is a transitive verb.  This has nothing to do with tautology.  To say that it is an "error due to the use of redundant words" is incorrect. 

You may very well ask what it was that possessed the Speak Good English Movement to say categorically that "still remain" is an error and what made them categorise "emphasise on" as a tautologous error when it clearly is not.  One shudders to think what other errors they have made in their pamphlet purporting to correct Singaporeans' errors.  The Straits Times has only given two examples and they got both wrong.  Statistically, that's a 100% failure.

Those who insist on being the nation's language watchdog must first have sufficient knowledge of English grammar.  They must also keep abreast of the latest developments in the language because the English language is a vibrant language that undergoes many changes.  What was ungrammatical or incorrect usage or "unacceptable Americanism" when I was a boy might very well be perfectly acceptable today.   Almost 3 years ago, I wrote here about Singaporeans who love to make up their own grammatical rules.  But these were mere individuals who spoke in their personal capacity.  The Speak Good English Campaign has less excuse to blunder when they pontificate to the nation on what good English is.

What is the function of the Speak Good English Movement?   Why have them at all?  Presumably, public funds would be used for some of their activities.  David Crystal whom I once met at a literary conference told me that he didn't like the idea of prescriptive grammar.  Gone are the days of Fowler when grammarians would cudgel students with all kinds of grammar rules.  Some of us no doubt recall the days when we had to parse a sentence and today, I don't think I can pick out an adverbial clause from a sentence.  What need can there be for such a Movement in Singapore?  If indeed Singapore wants to have such a movement, we should at least make sure that the committee members are fully knowledgeable about the language and are perfectly suitable for the job and they should not make errors which I would have thought ought to have been made only by half-baked, ill-qualified grammarian wannabes.

The same newspaper article says that "The Speak Good English Movement started in 2000 amid concern that the colloquial use of the language was catching on, and may harm Singapore's efforts to be a First World economy."  Now, this is absolutely priceless - that sentence uses a colloquialism while deprecating the use of colloquialism in the same breath.  Either the Speak Good English Movement (or perhaps the Straits Times journalist) does not know what "colloquial" means or it does not know that "catching on" is a colloquialism.

But surely if the aim of the Speak Good English Campaign watchdog is to stop the "colloquial use of the language", it must be barking up the wrong tree?

For more posts on the many errors of the Speak Good English Movement, please click here.

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