My Pidgin Does Not Signify Lack Of Intellect

I recently received in my inbox an email from my father, who likes to forward me a lot of things that he thinks will interest me. Except of course, he never really realizes just how easily antsy I can get, and how willing I am to pick apart an article. (I used to hit Reply to All whenever he'd send me an email to let all and sundry know what I thought and all the problems with whatever he sent me, so now he wisely BCCs people instead.)

This article was about Miss Singapore, and I can't find the original article, but hree's another one about the same issue. While at the Miss World pageant in South Africa, she inadvertently slipped into speaking Singlish, the Singaporean creole that mixes English, Malay, Chinese and god knows what else. And this was a huge fucking deal because apparently, all beauty queens must be able to speak perfect English, the standard of which is probably set by the English-speaking world that is the UK and North America, I guess. And because Miss Singapore slipped up and showed her real linguistic roots, she is suddenly a shame of the nation!


I've flipped out at people for making typos in advertisements before (made her cry, even, because I took the flyers too seriously), and I've purposefully avoided people whose writing consists of run-on sentences. The former was  freakout and no one took me seriously (as they well should not have). The latter is simply a choice I make in order to limit interactions with strangers that might tax me.

I have also been a Writing Assistant for three years. It means I've read and reviewed, helped edit essays of students, who have all levels of language ability. It was probably where I learned to have a great deal of tolerance for international students, whose problem isn't so much linguistic as it is cultural.

As I grow older and more curmudgeonly, I find my tolerance level for a vast number of things going up. One of them - pidgin dialects.

I had a student once who was worried about not being able to speak English properly. He had a thick accent, sounded like he had razors on his tongue preventing him from enunciating certain words. I told him, it doesn't matter as long as you are understood. Part of being understood definitely depends on the speaker to ensure they have the necessary words out, but otherwise? It's also the listener's job to, well, listen. A person can use flawless English, multi-syllabic words, and still not be understood (you think anybody understands me when I speak academia?).

But with this case, though, I caught a strong whiff of classism in the air. Because as we know, it is only going to be those who are mostly English-educated, Western-educated types who are going to consistently speak flawless English, and have standard English as their mother tongue. Chances are, these people who get Western education in standard English, are the upper middle-class, rich elite. Most Singaporeans speak Singlish. Hell, they're even proud of it. It's a wonderful syncretized form of language. Just like Malaysians have their Manglish (which sounds less pretty, is subject to more variations, and is, I am told, counts as a basilect, which is kinda like creole except not stable).

Part of my changes also comes from acknowledging the hard work that beauty queens have to go through just to get to where they are, and stay there - how many people are willing to go up on stage to be judged not just on looks but also on things like how one walks and talks and what one will say?

Either way, I just think it's ridiculously mean to rag, continuously, and shame someone just for slipping up - once! There is nothing which justifies the shaming she's undergoing just because she slips into the language that she is most comfortable with.

I'm quite sure sexism factors into this somewhere, as well as some weird hero-worship of the English language as if it were the gold standard for communication, but that's another rant for another day.


  1. I tutor for a living, and I've had many of the same thoughts. It IS indicative of classism, but it's hard to combat from that position - as a tutor, I'm there to help the student meet their instructor's expectations, and most of the time, that means conforming to said standards.

  2. When I read this, I remember Patrick Teoh.

    Dunno if you know this, but that fella may be well known for his impeccable-la-di-dah-di-Received-Pronounciation-English work, but according to the people who work with him, almost every other time apart from that he talks in Manglish.

    And not even minor Manglish -- Old Uncle PCK Manglish.

    I figure if Patrick Teoh can do that, there really is no shame in using your local *lect to communicate.

  3. There are heaps of videos of how "bad" she sounds on Youtube, saying things like "boomz" ("y'know, it's very boomz") or going on in sentences like "I'm studying steel (still)" and so forth. Not exactly how you'd expect a beauty queen (and ultimately a role model and ambassador to her country) to say.

    That coupled with her past history just makes her a not-so-suitable candidate for the crown. Unfortunately, there are standards to live up to and when you fail, there will always be people who will judge and call you out on it.

  4. I think Ris Low did not go to South Africa. She slipped into Singlish in the Singaporean leg of the Miss World pageant.

  5. What is expected of Miss Singapore? A posh English accent? Okay, that was hyperbolic, but really, why can't people be allowed to sound/speak the way they do?

    Seriously, that is patronising and classist. *How* she sounds matters little compared to what she has to say. There are too many people out there easily fooled by posh/educated/native or first language English accents out there but do not study the content of their words.

  6. @Cycads:

    Ohhhh godddddd I know right? That's a pet peeve I've got with the corporate world.

    No, three-syllable Latinate words do not make you sound erudite, they make you sound like a verbose moron.

  7. I am a local Hawaiian living in Hawaii. Growing up, my father used to scold us kids for speaking pidgin (mixture of Hawaiian, English, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese) because we would sound stupid and never get anywhere in life. As a graduate student majoring in English, I have started integrating pidgin into my pieces, to much of the disappointment of my professors. I however, find that speaking pidgin gives me a voice as well as an identity. I just wish that more people would realize that just because you speak pidgin, doesn't mean that you aren't as smart as them. This Miss Singapore should not be ashamed for "slipping" up, because that is who she is. This is such a shame.


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