Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fighting back as accents run amok

Poor Sonny must be confused as all-heck.

This morning, when Pa dropped him off at the infant care centre, the strains of a kiddy-song were playing. It was 'Mary had a little lamb', which is as innocuous as it gets, but what struck Pa was the heavy Australian or Kiwi accent of whoever recorded the ditty.

"Meery had a leedle laymb, his fleece wuz wyde as sna-ow", chorused the youthful singers charmingly. Ah well, it was just another element in the already confusing vocal environment that Sonny, and his contemporaries in Singapore, must adjust to. His care-givers, of course, will be retailing radically different, thoroughly-Southeast Asian accents in their interaction with him. Meanwhile, the television blares out yet another welter of differing ways of pronouncing and speaking what is ostensibly the same language: American, British and other localised inflections compete with Pa's horrifying 'Scottish Papa' tendencies (click here for enlightenment).

What sort of all-in-one creature will emerge from this primordial soup of speech patterns? Oddly enough, most youngsters exposed to the melange of accents emerge speaking recognisably 'Singaporean' (or 'Malaysian') English. There will be little traction for the Singapore government's half-hearted efforts to impose 'proper' pronunciation, which aim to limit both usage of 'lahs' or 'lehs' and the garbled grammar of the local patois ("Where can like that one?"). Fleeting campaigns from on high cannot withstand the crushing weight of day-to-day usage and social reinforcement.

So do we have a preference for how Sonny will sound? Well, we want to say this: So far, his crying rhythms have shown no proclivity towards being of a British, American, 'local' or any other variety. We expect the trend to continue. But there is a certain attraction in the idea of encouraging a wildly crazy-quilt English, where some phrases and sentences attract a 'US-style' colouring while others come across sounding 'British-like' - all of it salted with strategic applications of 'lahs'. We're told that it is a good thing for youngsters not to be sheep, that they should not simply follow the crowd instead of thinking for themselves. Well, if a child could fearlessly sound different, that would surely be a start.

Of course, the ideal these days seems to be code-switching, whereby one is able to modulate smoothly between different accents depending on the crowd one is currently with. Useful as this sounds (if Sonny could acquire the skill, it should also make him mentally more supple and able to perform other forms of intellectual gymnastics), it isn't what we're talking about here. We'll let Sonny be as original as he likes in borrowing from the various linguistic currents. Perhaps he'll even develop a crazy logic to his unique strain of Sonnyish: The proportion of US-sounding, British-sounding and other regional-sounding phraseology will vary according to the shares of the world economy commanded by the source nations. Indian English, for instance, would claim a larger slice as that country booms, while Sonny would have to splice in a Chinese influence. In this way, as we listen to Sonny speak, we would be able to grasp the latest economic trends.

Crazy? Just blame the way the English language has taken firm root in so many lands.