YAWNING BREAD AND GEYLANG.

Yawning Bread is an interesting website run by Au Waipang, a Singaporean of Chinese descent, who in his about page explains:

As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.
So, regardless of the Singapore government’s silly notion that one’s mother tongue is determined by one’s race or ethnicity, I have always maintained that my mother tongue is English. I think in English, I dream in English, and as is apparent from this site, I write in English.

I love people who confuse those who think in stereotypes, and this guy is a funny, acerbic writer to boot. I got a kick out of his rant about Chinese who “perceive Singapore as an extension of the Chinese world”; it includes, among much else, a discussion of a “unique habit” of Singaporeans:

We first draw some conclusion about a person’s race before we decide what language to use. A Singaporean would not speak to someone who looks Indian in Chinese. Generally, we would use English to him without a moment’s thought.
In most other places, people use the lingua franca of their country or province regardless of the colour of the person they’re speaking to, unless the person is very evidently a foreigner (e.g. a Caucasian man in Thailand). In Thailand, the Siamese use Thai when addressing people of Punjabi, Chinese or Burmese ancestry. In France, they use French to everyone, whether you’re white, yellow, brown or black.
In China too, if you look Han Chinese (or East Asian), people will mostly speak to you in the provincial language first, e.g. Shanghainese or the Sichuan dialect, and if that fails, they will switch to Putonghua. If you don’t look Han Chinese (e.g. if you’re Egyptian or Uighur), then they will assume you’re not from the locality, and they’ll speak to you in Putonghua from the start. Putonghua is the lingua franca, the link language for communication across ethnic groups.

And a fascinating excursus on the name of an area of Singapore called Geylang:

It’s an old name, predating the arrival of the British in 1819. This means its origin was almost surely from the Orang Laut people who inhabited this island before the empire-builders came ashore.
The Chinese immigrants, of whom a plurality were Hokkien (from the Xiamen region of Fujien province) [1], learnt the name of the area from the original inhabitants and they too pronounced it as “geylang”. In written form, the Chinese found two ideograms, which in the Hokkien pronunication sound like “gay lahng”. Thus, so long as one pronounced the Chinese ideograms using the Hokkien dialect, it came out right.
Then we decided to get rid of Chinese dialects insisting that all Chinese characters should be pronounced the putonghua way. Thus, those same two ideograms had to be pronounced as “ya long” (“yah” + “long”, where the second syllable is a long “oh”).
Meanwhile, Singaporeans continued to know the place as Geylang, and even when we speak Mandarin, we insert the place name into our sentences without mutating its pre-existing pronunciation. It doesn’t have to be a Chinese name to fit into a Chinese sentence, just like how Australians might say, “we’re off to Joondalup”, knowing full well that “joondalup” is from a native language.
The result is that some Singaporeans, otherwise fluent in Mandarin, do not know that Yalong is Geylang, since they never say “Yalong”.

(He has a box showing the characters, but they’re images rather than Unicode, so I can’t reproduce them here.)
I have to correct him on one point. He says:

In Bangkok, the road names Witthayu and Silom mean, respectively “wireless” and “windmill”. But we’d be a fool to get on board a taxi and say, “take me to Windmill Road”, or “take me to Wireless Road”, using the translation of the meaning of the Thai words. We’d say “Silom” or “Witthayu” as close as possible to the way Thais say it. We’d think it useless to have a map in hand that marks the roads as Windmill Road and Wireless Road.

But in fact they do say “Wireless Road” in Bangkok (where I used to live), and it is so marked on English-language maps.
Thanks for the link, Charles!

Comments

  1. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    His parents capitulate to Western language aggression, and he now accepts that as part of his identity instead of seeing it as immensely regrettable. How sad.

  2. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    His parents were forced or convinced to learn English and he has made the conscious decision to profit from that. What a positive person.

  3. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    He speaks the language his parents used at home. How normal.

  4. Heh. Linguistic Rorschach test! (For what it’s worth, I agree with the last two comments.)

  5. Taeyoung says:

    “In most other places, people use the lingua franca of their country or province regardless of the colour of the person they’re speaking to, unless the person is very evidently a foreigner (e.g. a Caucasian man in Thailand).”
    Oddly enough, this is no longer true in parts of the United States. I’m a half-caste Asian-White, and I look vaguely Hispanic, with the result that strangers — often beggars — in LA have sometimes addressed me in Spanish (a language I do not know).
    I have had a similar experience in other countries. When visiting Constantinople with my White father, the Turkish youths sometimes thought I was one of them, and tried to address me in Turkish (another language I don’t know). They were asking, as I discovered when one finally switched to English, why I was “so cold” to them, and didn’t share my tourist with them, so they could, I suppose, take him to rug shops and get commissions, or however that works.

  6. michael farris says:

    I agree with the first three comments, more the first and third rather than the second but that’s my particular bias. Siding with economic and political power over cultural considerations may be many things, it is not however particularly praiseworthy or courageous IMHO.

  7. dearieme says:

    I once went to a night class in Italian; one of the other students was a Scots-Italian who wanted to learn his grandma’s tongue because people in the street had been so rude to him when he was on holiday in Italy. He looked so Italian that they refused to believe that he couldn’t speak Italian. He gave up when he was told that nouns had genders.

  8. What is interesting is how people can make such minute distinctions when they are stereotyping. When I was stationed in Germany, people often would address me in English without much to go on. But when my parents came to vist, my mother found that people always, always addressed her in German – this was in the Rhineland so there was basically no physical differnece to speak of – and seemed confused when she didn’t answer. We decided that people were concluding that she was not of military or military spouse age.

  9. “His parents were forced or convinced to learn English ”
    Question – do you mean forced by cruel colonialists or forced by circumstances? Why would anyone expect to be able to get by in Chinese in what is after all a very mixed place? Sounds like he lucked out. He could have been stuck with Malay.
    “His parents capitulate to Western language aggression”
    I guess it’s the price you pay for committing Chinese commercial aggression.

  10. sredni vashtar says:

    Actually, for Singapore (although not for this guy) the Chinese (and their tongue) are as “cruelly colonial” as English, and just as eager to impose cultural dominance.

  11. Interesting variation on the theme, starting from similar sentiment is in Paul Theroux’ book; even if the premise is HK. At least in the love/hate relationship with the British: yes, imperialists, yes, colonizers – but look at all the good it brought to us and – what’s the alternative, China?

  12. Taeyoung: a friend of mine is half white, half Indian (East, that is). She is likewise frequently mistaken for Hispanic, and what’s worse, when she tells people that she doesn’t speak Spanish they’re indignant that she would be so ashamed of her herritage ;)
    When I’m in Europe people can frequently tell I’m American (actually in Italy they tend to assume I’m from the UK, but close enough for me). But more than once i have been mistaken for German.

  13. michael farris says:

    I’m often mistaken for being German or Czech(!) in Poland. I can sort of understand the first as anglophone and germanophone difficulties in Polish are often similar and there’s a current Polish tv star who’s German (no Polish family IIRC, learned the language as an adult like me, and I’m told I sound a little like him). I don’t get the Czech thing at all (and when I’m in the Czech republic my not-so-elegant attempts at Czech are met with piteous pseudo-Polish or English).

  14. One day this past week, I took my 78-year-old mother-in-law and 48-year-old sister-in-law visiting from Minnesota on a railpass jaunt to Nagano, Japan. As we got into the elevator to come down from the rooftop of a department store (where we gawked at the surrounding mountains), a lady already on board exclaimed to us about how wonderfully warm the weather was that day. I said no more than “soo, desu nee” before she asked if we were troubled by the high pollen counts in the spring air.
    It was an absolutely normal conversation if we had been in an English-speaking country, but it was all in Japanese, initiated by someone who apparently assumed that an elderly foreign lady and her middle-aged daughter and son-in-law (of unmitigated German-Irish and English stock, respectively) knew Japanese well enough to talk about pollen counts and hay fever. My best guess is that she assumed from our age and humdrum appearance that we were missionaries, and thus likely to know the language. Either that, or she was a member of the worldwide conspiracy of linguistic imperialists who expect everyone to know the national language of any country they find themselves in.

  15. John Emerson says:

    I used to know Pacific Islanders who actually had fairly serious problems because they didn’t know Spanish. They just seemed Mexican to everyone, including Mexicans.
    Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans I knew in Taiwan caused confusion, not only because they were monolingual in English, but because their body language and physical type were American. Their genes were perfect, but they weren’t.

  16. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    English is his native language. Probably 90% of those who speak English natively has fairly recent ancestors who spoke another language. Most people don’t see any reason to wish their native language anything but what it is. How … normal.

  17. I’m biracial. My father’s native language was Jamaican Creole. My mother’s are Castilian and Galician. My native language is English, and that is a central part of my identity, though I speak all the others to varying degrees. Am I the victim of cultural imperialism? Or does Christopher Culver get to decide what identity and culture I should have? And what gives him the right to do that?
    I’m frequently addressed in bad Spanish by white Americans, asked if I can speak English by black Americans, and panhandled in Spanish by Central Americans. Should I conclude anything from that?

  18. John Emerson says:

    I have met Swedish-Americans, born about 1930, whose immigrant parents forbade them to learn Swedish. The parents felt intense anger against Sweden, which was a highly stratified, unequal society in the old days. “We’re Americans now”, said the parents.
    The Swedes are very, very white and not third world at all, but maybe this anecdote can serve as an innocuous example of a general principle — free human beings sometimes do want to reject their native culture, and sometimes with good reason.

  19. caffeind says:

    It’s interesting that Singapore has both widespread use of English, and the Speak Mandarin movement, as well as Malay still on the books as the national language but a dead letter.
    Compare Hong Kong, which speaks Cantonese, creates and exports media in Cantonese, expects people to understand Cantonese unless obviously from outside Guangdong, and had little interest or widespread education in Mandarin before 1997. Actually large proportions of the HK population are or are recently descended from speakers of Teochew or Hakka, but I have not yet heard any complaint from them about the dominance of Cantonese.

  20. caffeind says:

    English speakers can also distort names by using their expected English pronunciation. In “Geylang”, “G” can be a j, “ey” or “ei” can be as in “guy”, the “a” in “lang” will probably be pronounced as in “language”, not with the Spanish/Italian/Malay a. The Mandarin speaker may not be doing much worse than a monolingual English speaker. For many words, the English speaker will do worse.
    Signs are multilingual in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, so a Chinese visitor who doesn’t ignore the English or Malay text entirely will have some clue of other pronunciations to try if “Yalong” isn’t understood. By the way, the Tamil on signs is a fun way to pick up the Tamil alphabet.
    Singapore seems similar to the US in that it’s consciously multicultural with lots of multilingual signage, but in fact the majority are pretty comfortable with just using their own language(s). The opposite approach is possible. In many places in Europe or Africa, it’s likely that many people can speak several languages, but there is not so much multilingual signage. In Las Vegas, there no multilingual text in order to not put off Anglo customers, but a customer is never far from Spanish-bilingual personnel who can help out.

  21. You’re welcome, Mr. Language Hat. I’m pleased to see this engendered so much comment. For the record, I’ve been (rarely) approached in San Francisco and addressed in Russian (my ancestry is Eastern European) and once in San Jose, CA, and addressed in Spanish.

  22. Go for aesthetic appeal says:

    “Compare Hong Kong, which speaks Cantonese, creates and exports media in Cantonese, expects people to understand Cantonese unless obviously from outside Guangdong, and had little interest or widespread education in Mandarin before 1997. ”

    Media export in cantonese from Hong Kong lasted only short term, probably for 2-3 decades since late1970s. This has a lot to do with the political situation in both the communist mainland and the nationalist Taiwan. Such export has been in sharp decline in the past decade. Mandarin has been asserting more and more influence in Hong Kong well before the 1997 handover.

    Hk was only a small fishing village 160years ago when being ceded to the British after the opium war. With much credit to the British’s rule, hk developed into international prominence for its commercial and financial success in last few decades. However such prominence was also a result of direct benefit from the political misfortune in mainland china. Hk’s population sharply increased with influx of immigrants from the war torn china during 1940-50s. These new immigrants were the driving force behind hk’s economic take off in 1960s-70s. The take off benefited directly from China’s 30years close door policy (1949-1979) and the cross strait tension between the mainland and Taiwan since change of power in china in 1949 with the defeated party retreating to settle in Taiwan. Hk became the only channel between china and the west for any trading exchanges legally or illegally. The economic take off set the stage for later entertainment business boom. While hk went into booming, behind the close door China went into 30years of ideology pursuit which later only to be proved a failure and the country ended up backward and poor after 30 years of almost stagnant economic development. China adopted open door policy in 1980 and started economic reform since. The last 30years has seen a twist in media influence between hk and china. That’s back on the track of norm.

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