Predictive linguistics: Singaporeanese

by on December 2, 2014

I’ve been studying linguistics at undergraduate level for about three semesters now, and one thing I notice we don’t do a lot of in class is try and predict the future. I guess it could be because a lot of work in the discipline is still very much focused on figuring out the mechanics of language, and to try and predict what might happen next would be rather difficult when you don’t really know what’s going on in the first place.

Since we’re not in class, though, I figured I might as well give it a shot. We predict all kinds of things, so why not linguistics?

Which language will lead the world in a hundred years—the world’s lingua franca? Will English still drive global business and communication in 2114, or will international magazines like Unravel be written primarily in español or 华文? Nicholas Ostler tackles these questions in his book The Last Lingua Franca, and they’re a little heavy-going for a blog post. (Without spoiling the book I can tell you that Ostler and I differ quite radically about where we think language is headed, so go ahead and pick up a copy of The Last Lingua Franca if you’re still interested in this topic.)

(Also, allow your mind to say here: spoilers for a book on linguistics! Wow!)

I’d like to talk more about something closer to home: Singlish, our dear, oft-maligned Singaporean variety of English, which I could evolve, eventually, into a language of its own: Singaporeanese.

Singlish today: Meh

You’d think Singaporeans would be proud of our creation, but no—long was Singlish derided as a vernacular, corrupted version of standard English by politicians and common people, even within recent memory. One of my closest friends recently advised me that his (predicted) children would learn nothing but standard English from his lips—“because Singlish is just bad, lah.”

In recent years, however, I would say we have made great strides toward fully embracing Singlish. It is explicitly used in newspaper headlines and political speeches, and it even showed up as the star of a panel discussion at the recent Singapore Writer’s Festival titled “Singling Out Singlish”.

I would say that Singlish will continue to remain a dispreferred variety of English for quite some time (and if you’re wondering about that word dispreferred, it’s not Singlish; linguists use it to talk about something that is not entirely not preferred, but far less preferable to a superior option). There’s no question that ideologies change slowly, and especially linguistic ones; this also means that the use of Singlish in other domains will also take some time to evolve. Characters speak Singlish in many, if not the vast majority of Singaporean novels, for example; however, rare indeed is the novel that chooses to tell the story itself in Singlish. Imagine picking up a children’s storybook from Singapore that began with “Got one time, hor…”

Singaporeanese: Really ah? Next time become own language?

But speed is precisely my point. If a change does happen, we won’t see it coming because it will take place over hundreds of years, as English grows old and dissolves into mutually unintelligible varieties of itself. Two hundred years from now, we may start seeing stories written entirely in Singlish; news programmes delivered wholly in Singlish. Three hundred years from now, there may be dictionaries of Singlish for speakers of other Englishes who can’t quite understand what Singlish speakers are saying.

Five hundred years from now, and a future Unravel issue might just feature a language profile on Singaporeanese, once just another vernacular variety of English used on a tiny island in Southeast Asia.

Historically, there seems to be a strong basis for this future rise of Singlish and the other varieties of English as distinct languages in their own right. The world saw it happen with the break-up of Latin into French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese; Spanish, for example, began life as a common variety of Latin used in the Iberian provinces of the Roman Empire, much as Singlish is a common variety of English used in Singapore.

We’re also currently seeing this process happen with Arabic, where modern Arabic speakers from Morocco and Jordan often cannot understand each other because they essentially speak two very different varieties of Arabic that were once one variety—almost different languages, one might say. When we were deciding on a new language to pick up, my assistant editor Anirudh and I recently had to make the very difficult (don’t mock us) decision between learning Eastern and Egyptian Arabic, because no longer is there one single, readily understood common variety of Arabic spoken across the Arab world. Yes, there’s Modern Standard Arabic, but no one actually speaks that. (For the record, we chose Eastern Arabic, because it’s less mainstream.)

No lah, won’t happen one

However, there is one major new factor at play here that previously was not—the arrival of the Internet and other forms of instantaneous communication that have made the solidification of a single, unified form of ‘Standard Online English’ possible, and, some argue, permanent. In this view, divergence from the Standard English norm will be much reduced because communities will never truly be divided from the Internet in the way that the early Spanish speakers were divided from the rest of the Latin-speaking world when the Iberian provinces fell to Germanic tribes in the fifth century.

Moreover, a multiplicity of lesser factors may also affect where Singlish goes from here. Even assuming that no dramatic changes happen to the political landscape of the region in the next few hundred years (and history tells us that we should certainly be prepared to see at least one or two of these changes) many other things such as individual speaker preference, demographic change and state language planning and policy could change the course of our predicted history. As I have already highlighted, any sort of major linguistic change takes time—and time is sometimes not what varieties and even entire languages have.

Change, change, everything also change

One thing we can be certain of is that Singlish will definitely change in some form. No language remains static—the English language we know today is not the English language used by Johnson and Webster, and is certainly not the language used by Shakespeare. Reading this article, you probably cringed noticeably at the Singlish section headers (I know my assistant editors did)—but future generations may very well read on without a second thought, having long been used to Singaporeanese.

The other thing that we can be certain of is that if all languages change, most, if not all languages must also eventually die and fade from use. Thousands of tongues have come and gone in the course of human history, and ultimately, it will be Singlish’s turn to move on someday.

But hopefully, I’ve made you a little more aware of what Singlish might just become, given time. It’s only a prediction, really, but it’s also a hope that someday, everyone will react the way my lecturer did at the end of our Languages in Contact course two weeks ago:

“Singlish is great! It’s true because I’m telling you. People can beat me and stalk me and I will not stop talking about Singapore English.”

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