Kopi, Coffee talk and Singlish

nytsinglish 2 If we were having coffee … we’d be talking about a recent New York Times article on Singlish.  It gives context to a website I stumbled on a while ago.  Sponsored by the Speak Good English movement, it is  a government initiative to  “… en­cour­age Sin­ga­pore­ans to speak gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect Eng­lish that is uni­ver­sally un­der­stood.”

On the site are dry and humorless pages that describe grammar rules and proper pronunciation. Reading it, my eyes glaze over at the ponderous distinction between countable and noncountable nouns.  I wonder who could learn from this.  It seems a pointless endeavor.

Besides for what reason should Singaporeans change the way they speak?

Mid-thought I realize the hypocrisy of my words. I grew up in another post-colonial society where status was tied to the way of speaking. On the highest rung were the modulated tones of upper crust British. At the lowest was the idiom rich language of the common man.

In primary school (then called Prep school)  we had weekly lessons in diction. Mrs. H was a battle-axe of a teacher who led us through pronunciation drills describing ‘Billy Button buying Buttered Biscuits’ and ‘She Sells Sea shells by the Sea Shore’.  Class drills were not so bad but once a month we had individual tests on elocution.

This was my introduction to the fear of public speaking. One by one we’d stand by our desk, nervously awaiting our turn.  Once, I’d worked myself into such a state, I fainted from anxiety (it happens). According to Mrs H, I collapsed in an apoplectic fit, twitching and foaming at the mouth. Mrs H was also the drama teacher, so maybe her description was a tad theatrical.

I’ve subsequently found that I have an ear for accents. It doesn’t translate into a talent for languages (I don’t have the memory for vocabulary) but I can mimic English in a range of  intonations. Maybe that’s why I don’t mind hearing the lyrical tones of  Singlish.

True, because the language is idiom rich it can be hard to understand. Funny thing though, with context and Singaporeans’ flare for dramatic expression, whatever they say it makes sense.

Consider this.

When  a person is overly conceited and tremendously arrogant, is there a better way to describe him than  yaya papaya? 

When a young man ‘talks cock’ with his buddies, can you not guess what it means?

… and could anything be more right and obviously correct than corright?

Hear these phrases once and you’ll remember them forever.

Singapore. June 2016

For the full New York Times article see Do You Speak Singlish? by Gwee Li Sui



If We Were Having Coffee … Kopi

Kopi-CIf we were having coffee we’d be sitting in my favorite kopitiam where they serve local Singaporean coffee in tiny earthenware cups and saucers. Singaporean coffee is a dark brew made from coffee beans roasted in margarine and sugar. It is filter dripped through muslin socks which look like the wind socks flying in airport strips, except that these are suspended over long necked coffee drip cans.

There’s a whole ritual of making kopi (kow-pee), starting with pouring hot water over the cups to warm them up, adding milk and sugar and then streaming a long strand of brew from a coffee can held high above the cups. The coffee is thick, rich and surprisingly mellow.

There’s a code to ordering kopi: kopi-o (black), kopi-C (with Carnation evaporated milk and sugar), kopi kosong (with less sugar) and kopi peng (on ice). If you don’t say the words right the auntie behind the counter will look at you funny and stop mid stream to interpret your order. You feel guilty about interrupting her rhythm and holding up the line, so the next time you order in English and say “Kopi-C but not too sweet, lah.”

My favorite kopitiam is called Kaki Cafe. Hubby says “kaki” means buddy and is an army term from enlisted men wearing khaki uniforms. He knows this through his tennis buddies where he’s learned the lingo through the sometime indecipherable texts that come through his cell phone. Once after a long absence, we puzzled over this message from a tennis kaki “OK. This few days I not fever will Friday c u D.”

Singapore is a multi ethnic country with four official languages – English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. The lingua franca is English and everyone learns the language in school. But mostly, they speak their family tongue at home. Spoken English is a lyrical, idiom rich patois of Chinese and Malay inspired English, affectionately called Singlish.

Hubby teaches at the Lycee Francais. It’s a high school for French speaking students taught by French speaking nationals. They have a French chef in charge of the cafeteria and they serve authentically prepared French food. The cafeteria staff are all Singaporean who are mostly Chinese with zero understanding of French and a rudimentary fluency in English. Misunderstandings are frequent. One day at lunch hubby asked for a tuna sandwich. The Chinese lady behind the counter looked at him strangely, reached back and handed him two sandwiches.

I have even more problems with communicating. The issue is that I look Singaporean. The illusion quickly disappears when I open my mouth and speak with my ‘American’ accent. Then I look like a Singaporean who’s studied abroad. To compensate I’ve taken to speaking slower, slightly louder and with longer vowels.

The other day I strolled into a bakery cafe anticipating a morning treat of pastry and hot coffee. Familiar now with the mode of ordering regular brewed coffee, I asked for “a long black with cold milk.”

The barista looked blankly at me.

I repeated my order, slower and slightly louder to make it clear.

“Looong black. Cooold milk,” I said.

She nodded brightly and said “OK!”

Shortly after I received my coffee – ice cold with warm foamed milk on the side.


Singapore. April 2016