Saturday, August 19, 2006

Some remarks on spoken Singaporean English

For those who interact extensively with native English speakers (e.g. Americans, Australians and Britons) and may have noticed, Singaporean English has a very distinct character in terms of phonology. Singaporeans speak English in a manner dissimilar to that of Americans or Australians. Of course, Australians don't speak English like Americans but if one compares the speech of Singaporeans against that of Americans or of Australians, one perceives that spoken American English, British English and Australian English to be more similar to one another than to spoken Singaporean English.

Here, by Singaporean English, we mean standard English (also known as Standard Singaporean English or SSE) as spoken by Singaporeans who can speak it. In other words, it should be understood that it is the standard spoken variety to which we refer and not the written variety or Singlish. By native speakers, we mean English-speaking Americans, Australians, Britons, etc. An immediate question that a Singaporean may have is: do we consider English-speaking Singaporeans (ESS) to be native speakers? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that English is their mother tongue/first language, and no, in the sense that the term 'native speakers' is usually used in linguistics to refer to Americans, Britons, Australians, etc. Thus, we stick to the more common usage, which may be outdated. It should be noted that this usage of 'native speakers' would generally exclude English-speaking Jamaicans and Indians.

Also, by spoken American English and British English, we will simplify things and take them to mean 'General American' (GA) English and 'Received Pronunciation' (RP) or BBC English respectively. In other words, we will approximate the speech of English-speaking newscasters in these countries to be representative of the general population although the case is certainly not true for Singapore. Newscasters in Singapore don't sound at all like the average English speaker in Singapore. The former don't speak SSE but rather a RP-esque English.

Before we go on, it should be stated that Fox has no formal training in English linguistics or the teaching of the English language.

From personal experience, there exists some Singaporeans who have trouble speaking to native English speakers. One common cause of miscommunication, especially between Americans and Singaporeans, is that the pronunciation of words. Another cause is lexical (i.e. Singaporeans use words with different meanings in Singaporean English and American English). It is easy to understand the two aforementioned causes of communication - SSE is derived from RP while Americans use GA for obvious reasons. These two problems are not unique to SSE speakers. Indians and Britons would also encounter the same problem since their varieties of English are essentially based on RP.

In terms of pronunciation, SSE, like RP, is non-rhotic while present day GA is largely rhotic although if one listens to old American films and radio broadcasts (stoneage podcasts), the degree of rhoticity is less marked. Rhotic is just a fancy word used by linguists to indicate the pronunciation of 'r' in words. A rhotic pronunciation does not have a silent r's.

For example, a SSE or RP speaker would pronounce words like 'port' without the 'r' sound i.e. in a non-rhotic way. In RP, the presence of the 'r' usually serves to lengthen the syllable, if the syllable is not the final syllable, and is not meant to be pronounced. If one listens carefully, the words 'pot' and 'port' can be distinguished in terms of the length of the vowel. However, in SSE, the 'r' stays silent but does not lengthen the vowel. Hence, 'pot' and 'port' are homonyms in SSE although they certainly are not in RP. In GA, rhoticity is fully preserved and the 'r' is always pronounced. The rhotic syllable is also lengthened slightly although less so than in RP. RP and GA have different devices to prevent what would otherwise be homonyms in SSE. For RP, the loss of rhoticity is words like 'port' and 'person' is generally compensated by the (exaggerated) lengthening of vowels. Of course, there are exceptions but I think the point has been made. Hence, SSE would sound strange to native Americans because of the greater number of homonyms in SSE (e.g. pot/port, course/cause).

This brings us to another point. Unlike native English varieties, vowel lengths in SSE are usually not distinct. Try pronouncing the words 'put' and 'choose'. The 'u' sound in 'put' and the 'oo' sound in 'choose' are not the same in RP or GA whereas in SSE, most speakers do not distinguish between these two vowel sounds. It is difficult to guess the length of the vowel from the spelling of the word in general. Hence, for economy of speech, SSE speakers simply shorten all vowels.

One very great difference between SSE and native varieties of English is the timing. English, like all Germanic languages (Swedish, German, Dutch, etc) is a stress-timed language while SSE is a syllable-timed language. In English, one or two syllables in a multi-syllable word are stressed while remaining ones are unstressed. For example, take the word 'remarkable'. In RP, the stress falls on the second syllable (which is also lengthened). Hence, it should sound something like re-MAAAH-kuh-bl with a strong stress on the second syllable and the following syllables sounding as if they are being swallowed. In SSE, every syllable have roughly the same length. This gives SSE a 'machine-gun' feel.

Take as another example the word 'project'. In SSE, the two syllables are given the same stress whereas in native varieties, such as GA, the stress falls on the first syllable and the second syllable is unstressed. Consider the related word 'projected'. In SSE, you simply tag on another syllable '-ed' and the three syllables remain roughly the same in terms of stress whereas in RP or GA, the stress actually shifts to the second syllable so that it sounds like pro-JEC-ted. Again, SSE simplifies matters and retains the 'machine-gun' pronunication scheme.

To be continued...

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