Tuesday November 27, 2012
By ALISTAIR KING
Do we feel that Malaysian English is 'sub-standard'? It takes a Mat Salleh linguist to tell us why it's OK to speak (but not write) this way!
I was interested in a recent contribution to the Mind Our English (MOE) section by Peggy Tan entitled Malaysian Oddities, in which she listed certain words and phrases under "Local use" or "Wrong" (i.e. Malaysian English) and a corresponding list entitled "Standard English" or "Right", the implication being that Malaysian English is sub-standard, or, in some way, non-standard. Thus, the term Standard Malaysian English would be considered an anomaly.
Yet, in countries as different as India and Jamaica, the respective terms Standard Indian English and Standard Jamaican English are fully recognized. Malaysia is also home to indigenized versions of English, but no doubt Peggy Tan and many other Malaysians would not consider it to be up to "standard".
What is Standard English anyway? Queen's English? Hardly! Almost nobody, other than the Queen herself, speaks like the Queen, if one is referring to accent, that is (and over the past 60 years, even the monarch's accent has become less "cut glass" and more "common", as the MOE article More Democratic English on Nov 20 pointed out).
Standard British English?
The vast number of varieties of English, even among native speakers, is legendary. I am from Scotland, where, as everyone knows, the best English is spoken, notwithstanding Henry Higgins' defamatory quip in My Fair Lady: Oh, Why can't the English learn to set,
A good example to people whose English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely disappears.
In America, they haven't used it for years!
Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
I am sometimes seriously challenged when seeking to communicate with my fellow Britons in other regions of the UK. Please don't think of British English as being of one variety; there are many. Which is "standard"?
The main differences here are in pronunciation; accent rather than vocabulary, but, even at this level, differences are great. The differences are greater when we consider the varieties of mother-tongue English throughout the world.
I remember a bizarre experience when I lived in Vienna. I was in the company of a Texan, whom I had immense difficulty to understand. He told me that my accent was "too British" for him.
We then abandoned the mother tongue and spent the rest of the evening communicating in Austrian German, which, fortunately, we both knew well!
Back to Peggy's lists of non-standard Malaysian English terms. Perhaps the list should be entitled Not Fully Recognized Internationally.
In Malaysia, when we go "marketing" (one of the terms which Peggy notes to be Wrong), it means we go to the pasar malam to buy uncooked food, often to last the family several days.
Yet in the world of business, marketing means something different and Malaysians know the difference. A native speaker would probably work it out too, so there's no big issue.
Sociolinguistics has three terms: Acrolect (high language), Mesolect (middle language) and Basilect (low language).
These terms are used greatly by linguists studying the linguistic kaleidoscope of the Caribbean, with its standard and creole (rojak) versions of English (and also French, Spanish and Dutch).
While some linguists see the Standard-Creole spectrum as a continuum, others like Wardhaugh and Devonish (both writing in 1986) see each level of language as having its particular function.
Let's look at Malaysian English. At one end, there is Acrolect and at the other Basilect, with Mesolect somewhere in between. This might be seen as a continuum from "slightly Malaysian" to "very Malaysian".
I prefer to see each as distinct, with its respective role. That is, Acrolect, Mesolect and Basilect forms of Malaysian English are functionally separate and distinct.
Fake American accents
How do we recognize Acrolect? This variety is internationally comprehensible, the main distinguishing feature being (a more native form of) pronunciation.
How pathetic it is to hear Malaysians faking an accent (in the case of radio DJs, it is almost invariably a phony caricature of an American accent, with listeners frequently being addressed as "you guys out there" or even "y'all") because they erroneously believe that is more acceptable than sounding "local".
But there's nothing "wrong" at all when Acrolect speakers sound Malaysian; they can express themselves articulately with proper grammar and can even confidently present a paper at an international conference, despite not having an American accent.
In addition, they walk on the five-foot-way because that means something different from pavement or sidewalk.
They code-switch to pay at the pondok, play football on the padang and tah pau from the stalls, but they also know when they should say kiosk, playing field and take-away.
They probably also do the weekly marketing, since they do it at the market rather than a shop. Many Acrolect speakers have English as their primary means of communication.
Mesolect speakers use a form of English which displays particular features. There is some grammatical reduction, which is occasioned more by mother-tongue influence than by lack of awareness.
Complexities of tense are dispensed with, thus He arrive(d) already. Redundancy of prepositions is rife, thus I want to request for a replacement; Can you repeat again? Certain words are used differently from native speaker usage, thus Can I follow you home?; I'll send you to the hotel; Please pass up your homework.
Mesolect is freely used by people in their offices, at meetings, on the phone, but should not be used in formal documents in business presentations or in international correspondence.
And then we come to Basilect, which is REAL Malaysian English! On my first visit to Malaysia, I enquired at an office whether a course of action could be followed.
Several people in the office enthusiastically chorused "Can-Can! Can-Can!" For a moment, I had visions of the Moulin Rouge and high-flying skirts! It took me a moment to realize that this was an emphatic assertion of possibility!
During the Kuala Lumpur International Marathon a few years ago, a runner suddenly streaked past me and then overtook his friend, who was running directly in front of me. The friend exclaimed, "Aiyaaa, you one-kind-one! What for you run so fast-fast one? Only want to cut me, is it?"
My all-time prize-winner Basilect example is one that I always share with my participants when I conduct our Speak Like a Professional training. It goes like this:
I was once seeking to purchase shoes in a shop in Petaling Jaya. I am a vegetarian out of compassion, so prefer not to wear leather, but since plastic shoes don't last long, I do buy leather shoes, always asking first what kind of leather it is. I had selected two potential purchases and asked of what they were made.
The sales lady indicated the cheap pair: "This one cow" and the expensive pair: "This one deer". Sometimes compassion is selective; emotionally I can handle wearing a piece of bovine skin better than deer. So I told the sales lady that I couldn't wear the deer but could wear the cow. Evidently, she did not discern much integrity in my reasoning and asked: "Deer cannot-ah? How come cow can?"
Now that is REAL Malaysian English! Don't tell me that it is bad English! That lady communicated in a way that left me speechless with admiration! "HOW COME COW CAN?" – the alliteration and the economy of the utterance ... so Malaysian and so communicative!
Basilect is wonderful in its colour and precision. But it should be used only in the most informal of oral situations and never with an uninitiated foreigner!
To see Malaysian English in terms of good or bad, right or wrong is to miss the realities of expediency and the extensive process of assimilation and adaptation.
In a society where there is little that might be termed indigenous, Malaysian English, though not home-sown, is certainly home-cultivated, indigenized, though not indigenous.
Thus, any evaluative statement about Malaysian English must be guarded from being over-simplistic. The good-bad, right-wrong, standard-deviant paradigm should give way to the appropriate-inappropriate spectrum.
Sometimes a term is used for Malaysian English, as if it were a definable and recognized term – Manglish, a ghastly word that makes me, as a Linguist, cringe.
If you seek this word in Wikipedia, you will read that Manglish is a creole. It is not. The term pidgin or pidginized version may be applied to Basilect Malaysian English, but not creole.
A pidgin and a creole share certain characteristics, since the former is generally the forerunner of the latter; but a creole is a stable variety which may be claimed as the/a mother tongue of a community, as is the case in Haiti (creole of French), Guyana and Jamaica (creole of English), parts of the Austronesian archipelago (creole of Malay), Malacca and Goa (creole of Portuguese).
Basilect is the only form of Malaysian English which may be termed pidgin due to the idiosyncratic usage of English words and the simplification and reduction of grammar, so that the syntax of Basilect has more in common with Cantonese, Hokkien or Malay than with native-speaker English.
Frequently thrown in are lexical items from the contributing local languages, as in:
"You know ah, she very kay poh one. Always look-look in other people house. No wonder she got fall inside longkang!"
"No lah! Don't talk bad lah! Where got kay poh? She always wish so nicely." (as overheard near Kajang, Selangor).
Sometimes, as a mark of intimacy or common identity, Acrolect speakers choose to lapse into Basilect as it is more colourful and meaningful to say that someone is sombong rather than proud, kay poh rather than nosey, pandai rather than smart! And, of course, even Acrolect speakers fall into the longkang rather than the drain!
None of this, however, establishes Basilect as a creole. While Basilect has come into being through a process of indigenization or localization it has not reached the point of nativization, which would render it a creole. That is, Malaysian children are reared principally with a mother tongue or with Acrolect/Mesolect English. Basilect exposure is secondary.
I am frequently approached by parents anxious that their children should learn "correct" English, doubtful that the present school system can deliver. They want their children to be competitive as globalisation becomes less of an option and more of a reality.
To effect this, the methodological emphasis should not be on somehow stamping out (bad/wrong) Malaysian English, but recognizing the place and the usefulness of Basilect and Mesolect, while extending the repertoire to include Acrolect, a standard variety which is internationally accepted and still Malaysian.
Malaysian English should not be seen as one single entity, intrinsically sub-standard, as opposed to some vaguely defined and barely attainable Standard English.