Catch No Ball*: Understanding Languages, Varieties and Dialects

It might seem redundant to define the features of a language, but languages are rarely so easy. We can define English, French and German, but what about Swedish and Norwegian? Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible; people from Sweden and Norway can talk to each other and understand each other with little difficulty.

(Here it’s worth pointing out that this is a necessary simplification: like any other language, Norwegian and Swedish have their own dialects and varieties, and the intelligibility between the two languages varies depending on who is talking to whom. The wider point is that defining languages is not as easy as we think.)

Some people would suggest that Swedish and Norwegian are more mutually intelligible than the Geordie dialect or Scottish varieties are to English. This is often — but not always — facetious. But it raises a relevant question: If some English speakers have more trouble understanding English dialects than Swedes have understanding Norwegians, why are Swedish and Norwegian defined as languages and Geordie and Scottish only as dialects or varieties?

The answer is in only. To make Swedish or Norwegian only a variety would be to reduce its status and its prestige. Swedish would become Swedish-Norwegian or Norwegian would become Norwegian-Swedish. There’s no semantic argument which would convince Swedes or Norwegians that this would be a good thing, and no convincing argument to favour the prestige of one language over the other. The definitive difference between languages, varieties and dialects, then, is that languages are more prestigious than varieties, and varieties are more prestigious than dialects. Which makes language distinctions political.

Language distinctions might be political, but that does not mean they can be changed by government initiatives or by passing laws. ‘Politics’ in language means ‘public will’. This is why efforts to formalise a variety of ‘Black English’ in the 1960s fell flat, and it’s why gender-neutral pronouns like Mx and hir (for Mr/Mrs and him/her respectively) have met with resistance: change cannot happen unless enough people want change. Even today, when African American Vernacular English has been recognised by linguists as a variety of American English (which is itself a variety of English), your average AAVE speaker neither knows nor cares. And even though the campaign for gender-neutral pronouns is gaining some sort of traction, acceptance by the general public will most likely only happen if there’s also a big change in the perception and acceptance of transgendered people.

A large reason for this is that we think of language and of existing language distinctions as fixed and inflexible. We think of language as something which exists independently of human will. So public will has the power to change language, but most of the change happens at a subconscious level. Linguists and language experts can argue the technical distinctions of languages, varieties and dialects, but people who don’t care will not start to care; and people who do care will still care, because people who care believe that language distinctions belong to a natural hierarchy. An attempt to reconfigure English dialects as English varieties, for example, would be met with hostility by those who consider that English dialects are not prestigious enough to be varieties; and it would make such little difference to English dialect speakers that the traditional definition would, in a short space of time, inevitably re-establish itself.

Which inevitably leads us to Singapore, where Singlish is an unofficial Singaporean language and an official variety of English. Singlish is composed of English, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, and Tamil. For many Singaporeans it’s a part of Singapore’s identity and culture. But to the Singaporean Government and to Singapore’s upper-classes Singlish corrupts standard English and it harms the Singaporean economy. This is because of the prestige that English enjoys as the world’s lingua franca, and because of the status that English enjoys as the language of science, technology and business. Countries which rely on foreign trade therefore have an economic interest in English, and Singapore — which very much relies on foreign trade — has an economic interest in encouraging its citizens to speak English. If it needs be said, English-speaking business leaders are not going to learn Singlish.

It’s perhaps closer to say that the Singaporean Government tries to force rather than encourage its citizens to speak English. It has done this in various ways: by banning Singlish in classrooms, by putting pressure on Singlish-speaking TV stars like Phua Chu Kang to learn English, and by creating campaigns like the Speak Good English Movement. These efforts are of course futile: schoolchildren speak Singlish in the schoolyard if not in the classroom, Phua Chu Kang’s Singlish is so integral to his popularity that attempts to make him speak English were abandoned under public protest, and the Speak Good English campaigns have been largely ignored. It calls to mind the futility of English prescriptivists condemning the corruption of the English language: English prescriptivists can’t preserve the English language, and the Singaporean Government can’t stop the Singaporean people using Singlish.

spge-jpgIf the Singaporean Government is to realise that language cannot be manufactured, it will be in the manner of the woman who accepts the fact of her pregnancy only when she goes into labour. That is to say it will happen only when (not if) the ubiquity of Singlish becomes overwhelming. It will happen after the popularity of many more Singlish-speaking TV characters and many more Singlish TV shows. It will happen after the failure of many more English campaigns. And just like the UK’s annual outcry over English neologisms in the OED, it will be accompanied by the anger of people who can’t grasp that language is organic and changeable and beyond our individual control — people who can’t grasp that the differences between languages, varieties and dialects are really just arbitrary traditions.


*’Catch no ball’ is a Singlish phrase you can use if you don’t understand something. It’s translated from the Hokkien ‘liak bo kiu’. For more Singlish phrases, take a look at the Coxford Dictionary.

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