Sunday, July 11, 2010

Broken Words

It has been roughly a week since one of the Singapore Government's Ministers made his un-English speech. For those who missed it (though, by now, nobody in Singapore would have missed it), here is Channel News Asia's report of what he said:

"If you're the best today, strive to be better. If you're better today, strive to be betterer and if you're betterer today, strive to be betterest so that overtime, Singapore's service standards can just keep getting better, betterer and betterest."

- Mr Lim Swee Say, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office &
Secretary-General (NTUC) (2nd July 10)

Yes, the language is pretty mangled, and for many, this is a gaffe of the highest order, certainly something unbecoming of a highly educated Singapore Government Minister. The people in the Speak Good English movement must be groaning how a Minister just destroyed all the effort they had undertaken or plan to undertake to get Singaporeans to speak good English

But wait, did he do this on purpose, or at least made use of his inimitable style to get the message across? If he did (and even if he hadn't), he has succeeded marvelously. There was no stopping the ridiculing of how a $4 million dollar man could be so broken in his English. Yet in doing so, attention was brought to his message. That was how I heard about it. And I told other people who otherwise did not know about the latest joke on the island.

Let's be honest, no matter how broken the language is, all of us understood what he said and what he meant. There wasn't any ambiguity. He didn't use any word which will cause us to run to our Cobuild or Oxford Dictionaries. And better yet, the man in the street, who may not have had a lot of education, could understand what he said. They may even speak like him, So what if he gets an "F" for English Language? He gets a thumb-up for communication. In this sense, he is in the haloed company of Lewis Carroll, who created nonsense words that have entered the English dictionary. Perhaps the editors of the major Dictionaries should take another look at words such as betterer, betterest and rethink whether better must necessarily come before best.


Anonymous said...

I think you should only make comments on linguistics if you have studied linguistics for a period of time.

In the first place, your idea doesn't make sense because a more logical formulation of the adjective would be "good, gooder, goodest".

(I'm still trying to find out why this form wasn't adopted and the irregular form i.e. "good, better, best" has been used instead.)

Second, the English language usually evolves in a way that makes communication more efficient. This usually entails adopting shorter words, truncating pronunciation, etc.

In this case, "betterer" and "betterest" will never make it into the standard form of the language because they involve more syllables (3 each) than "better" and "best" (2 and 1 syllable respectively).

Now do you understand why it's important to be well-informed before you make a comment on anything?

Gary said...

I think what LSS was trying to do was getting himself identified by that segment of the population that he is one of them - for election reason. Why do you think he was picked to handle NTUC. It's all part and parcel of the act, the masquerade. and I have heard from some quarters that he is quite an attention seeker. Likes the limelight.

Epilogos said...

Well, I did do 2 years of English Language when I was in the National University of Singapore, and that included linguistic as well as psycholinguistics (Noam Chomsky, etc.). Perhaps that was ages ago and I could have lost touch.

In any case, my teachers always insisted that there is never ever only one answer where language is concerned. I take your point, but really, there is no reason to run someone down without taking care to ascertain the facts first.

Epilogos said...

Anyone who thinks there is logic to language should read Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.

Helluo Librorum said...

I got it. The progression is "best, better, betterer, betterest". (all words begin with b. That makes sense.)

To be the "best in the world" is therefore but a modest achievement. Let's strive to be the "the betterest" in the world.

Anonymous said...