Thursday, June 2, 2016

Gurkha Cup 2016

This past week I've been in London and a friend of mine, Premila, invited me to join her at the annual Gurkha Cup day celebrations out in the town of Aldershot, a military town close to Guildford. The Gurkha Cup is an all-day soccer tournament that's been organized by the Tamu Dhee Association and held every year on the Sunday of the May Day bank holiday long weekend.

Gurkha Cup 2016, Aldershot

The event draws huge crowds. The vast majority of attendees are Gurkhas (both active and retired) and their families live around Aldershot, as well as in neighbouring towns such as Farnborough. Actress Joana Lumley was instrumental in fighting for the rights of retired Gurkha soldiers to settle in the UK, though this has not been without controversy.

Gurkha Cup 2016, Aldershot

Gurkha Cup 2016, Aldershot

During the half-time show for the final game of the day between QGS Red and B13, we got to see the military band in action, as well as a demonstration of prowess with the traditional khurkuri knife. We didn't actually stay to watch the final, but I did see that Kent FC beat Ilam FC to win the Veterans tournament.

Khukuri knife display, Gurkha Cup 2016, Aldershot

Khukuri knife display, Gurkha Cup 2016, Aldershot

We spent of the time stuffing ourselves with food, especially momos (dumplings) from the Momo Station stall. This looked like the most popular food stall at the fair - the queue never seemed to disappear the whole time we were there! Owner Amit, whom Premila knew, was kind enough to pose for a picture.

Momo Station's owner Amit

Check out the momos here!
Momo Station momos, Gurkha Cup 2016

Premila was also busy pointing out things like the fact that a disproportionate number of Gurkhas and their families come from the indigenous or janajati groups of Nepal, e.g. Gurung, Magar, Rai (FYI, when I'm in Nepal, many people think I'm Rai). For example, in the census data cited in a handbook chapter by David Gellner titled "Warriors, Workers, Traders, and Peasants: The Nepali/Gorkhali Diaspora since the Nineteenth Century", it is estimated that Gurungs make up 22.2% of the Nepali population living in the UK, whereas back in Nepal they only represent 2.4% of the total population. It is also important to note that although Gurkhas speak Nepali, Nepali is not necessarily their first language, nor the main language used at home.

As a reminder of this, a poster we spotted (see below) features the figures Paruhang and Sumnima, who are pretty important to Kirat groups, but not to the dominant groups of the Kathmandu valley. In fact, you're probably more likely to spot this type of poster at an overseas Gurkha event, than in the shops of Kathmandu!

Kiranti poster

It was a great learning experience going to the Gurkha Cup with Premila. She's doing a PhD at the London College of Fashion on Nepali youth fashion in Britain and she's pretty familiar with the Nepalese community in and around London (her mother is also from Nepal). She was also able to highlight some of the fashion trends she'd seen over the years across the board, especially the UK Nepali obsession with Korean fashion (similar to NE India's embracing of all things Korean), Scottish tartans and long cardigans that can be worn over traditional lungis.

To find out more about such trends, check out the awesome PhD proposal video she made!

NEPALI STYLE | PHD PROPOSAL from Premila van Ommen on Vimeo.

One thing we did note was the lack of posters around Aldershot advertising the event. On our way back to the train station, a man curiously asked us what was happening in town. Maybe it would help if the organisers put up more posters, especially close to the railway station, so that more local residents knew what was going on.

And on a final note, I'm heading back to the States in a few days, but if you're around London at the end of August and interested in Nepal, the next big Nepali event will be the Nepali Mela 2016 at Kempton Park!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Singlish: Creole, creoloid, creolized language?

Today's post is brought to you by "ongoing problems with terminology in linguistics".

As my newsfeed this week has filled up with reblogged and retweeted articles about Singlish, often the first thing that gets mentioned is that Singlish is an English-based "creole". But what exactly does the term creole mean?

In many introductory linguistics textbooks, dictionaries and the Wikipedia entry (at the time of writing), the term creole (or creole language) is mostly commonly defined as a stable natural language that has developed from a pidgin, while pidgin is typically defined as a simplified contact language developed to enable speakers of different languages to communicate.

In other words, a pidgin is said to become a creole when children learn it as their first language and the new language develops its own set of rules and conventions - its own grammar. That means that languages which have "Pidgin" in their names, such as Hawaiian Pidgin, are by this definition actually creoles.

Pidgin on the street?

The issue with this particular definition of creole, when applied to Singlish, is that there is no attested "pidgin" state for Singlish. I've seen a few sources (including the Wikipedia article) that claim that Singlish arose from a pidgin-like English as non-English speakers started to "pick up" the English that was filtering out "into the streets" from English-medium schools established by the British.

This story is problematic because, as most Singaporeans of my parents' generation will recall, prior to the implementation of post-independence language policies, the main lingua franca used between speakers of different languages was not English, but a simplified form of Malay known as Bazaar Malay. In a 1975 article (behind a paywall), John Platt, who was an Associate Professor at Monash University, noted that even at the time of the paper's writing, people with little education would speak a pidgin English only when communicating with tourists, and that outside of areas frequented by tourists, many older people spoke no English at all. Rather, he suggested that:
[Singapore Colloquiul English's] existence can be traced to the transference of certain features from the languages of local ethnic groups to the English acquired by school children in primary and secondary schools. These transferred features were then reinforced by the use of this variety (particularly its basilect, SCE) in informal situations at school and at home among siblings. 
Consequently, Platt used the term creoloid1 to describe a language variety that has not developed from a pidgin, but nevertheless shares a number of grammatical features with known creoles, such as fewer verbal inflections (or more generally, a loss of morphology). Specifically, he was applying this term to the basilectal form, or the most colloquial / informal register of Singapore English. For instance, in this form of Singlish, you don't need to have 3rd person agreement with most verbs: he say 'he says'.

Simplifying or making things more complicated?

Although the term creoloid hasn't gained a lot of currency in creole studies, it is worth noting that this may be because the term creole itself has expanded in meaning beyond "a language that comes from a pidgin". There is much more recognition that all languages are mixed to some extent, and that what we have been previously identified as creoles, may have been the result of speakers of a language shifting rapidly to another one. For instance, in their 1980 book Language Contact, Creolization and Genetic Linguistics, Thomason and Kaufman, distinguish creolized pidgins (creoles that have developed from pidgins), from languages that have undergone changes to their grammar and vocabulary as a result of different degrees of intensity in language contact. They use the term abrupt creolization to describe the outcome of one extreme of the continuum, where there has been intense contact that results in very rapid language shift.

(This leads to the potentially confusing situation where one might use the term creolization to either refer to: the process of a language gaining structure and complexity as it transitions from a pidgin to a creole; or the process of a language losing structure and complexity, when compared to the target language, as adult speakers rapidly shift to the language.)

In any case, we note the inclusion of Singlish in the online Atlas and Survey of Pidgin and Creole language structures (APiCS). However, the editors explicitly state in that in the absence of clear criteria to define pidgins and creoles, their approach was to try and include as many languages as they could which represented the kinds of contact languages that linguists were interested in.

So yes, Singlish is a creole, creoloid and creolized language. But that depends on how you define the terms creole and creolized. It is no longer fair to assume that a creole only refers to a language that came from a pidgin. And maybe that's something that needs to be addressed in textbooks and other sources of linguistic information.

Also, this is the tip of the terminological iceberg - there are other terms around like post-creoles and mixed languages that I don't have the time, energy or qualifications to talk about!

1Although the Platt article appears to be the first published use of the term creoloid, Loreto Todd presented a paper titled "Pidgins and creoles: The case for the creoloid" at the International Conference on Pidgins and Creole in Honolulu that same year.

Michaelis, Susanne Maria & Maurer, Philippe & Haspelmath, Martin & Huber, Magnus (eds.) 2013. Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at

Platt, John T. 1975. The Singapore English speech continuum and its basilect 'Singlish' as a 'creoloid'. Anthropological Linguistics 17(7): 363-374.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

More Singapore English words in Oxford English Dictionary

The BBC just covered this story: Singapore terms join Oxford English Dictionary, which is basically about how Singapore English words like wah and shiok get to join their linguistic compatriots lah and kiasu in the OED, the world's "definitive record of the English language".

There's even a little quiz at the bottom of article for those of you who want to flaunt your Singlish.

However, I was drawn to the opening line of the article, which I think continues to perpetuate the myth of how words end up in the OED (and many dictionaries in general):
Several Singaporean and Hong Kong English terms, including "wah", "shiok" and "yum cha", are now officially recognised as acceptable English.
By saying that these new words are "now officially recognised as acceptable English", the BBC article continues to perpetuate the myth that the job of the OED is to be the judge of what is acceptable or not acceptable English, and that it serves as the standard which English (or at least British English) speakers can fall back on to check if a word exists, and to see if they or other people are using it in the "correct" way. And while there are many languages that have organizations that regulate their use, English is not one of them.

A quick look at the OED FAQ site, where they answer the question "How does a word qualify for inclusion in the OED?" provides us with the following statement:
The OED requires several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time. The exact time-span and number of examples may vary: for instance, one word may be included on the evidence of only a few examples, spread out over a long period of time, while another may gather momentum very quickly, resulting in a wide range of evidence in a shorter space of time. We also look for the word to reach a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood: that is, we look for examples of uses of a word that are not immediately followed by an explanation of its meaning for the benefit of the reader. We have a large range of words under constant review, and as items are assessed for inclusion in the dictionary, words which have not yet accumulated enough evidence are kept on file, so that we can refer back to them if further evidence comes to light. (bold emphasis added)
Vague as the statement is, the criteria for entry are more or less about the frequency of use of a word and its intelligibility. Nowhere do we see the term "acceptable" - although the notion of "general currency" implies that there has to be some kind of social agreement to use a word in a particular way.  The BBC's use of the word "acceptable", in conjunction with "officially recognised", also makes it very difficult to ignore the connotations of social prestige, formality and flaunting one's class and education - all of which have little to do with how a word gets into the OED.

Rather, the OED is a descriptive dictionary that serves as a repository of the words (past and present) that are or used to be in circulation within the different pockets of the English speaking world, much like the Coxford Singlish dictionary (pictured below) is a repository for all kinds of Singlish terms used at the time of publication (and earlier) in Singapore. Of course, the OED is also historical in that it maintains a list of obsolete words, as well as obsolete meanings of words.

The Coxford Singlish Dictionary (edited by Colin Goh and Y. Y. Woo) 

Of course, just as people may assume prisoners are guilty simply because they are in prison, once a word enters the OED, it may eventually gain the kind of acceptability or prestige that people assumed it needed to get in there in the first place.

(Addendum: as much as this post was about the descriptive nature of the OED, and how it isn't intended to be used as a prescriptive tool, I cannot ignore the power that is often ascribed to dictionaries. For speakers of non-prestigious minority languages and language varieties, the very existence of a dictionary in their language or variety is a mark of status: the dictionary not only validates the words they speak, it validates their entire language as something worthy of speaking and studying.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A phonological and phonetic description of Sumi, a Tibeto-Burman language of Nagaland

So I should probably apologise / apologize for my lack of updates the past year or so. It's been pretty crazy since I started grad school - I'd have to spend many a blog post explaining all the wonderful things I've been able to do since I started in the linguistics PhD programme here at the University of Oregon.

In the meantime, in the 'American' spirit of self-promotion, I thought I should mention that I finally finished revising my University of Melbourne MA thesis A phonological and phonetic description of Sumi, a Tibeto-Burman language of Nagaland and got it published with Asia-Pacific Linguistics in Canberra.
It's an open access ebook (print on demand), and you can download it right here at the ANU digital collections page here.

I have too many people to thank for this, especially my family who've supported me all through this crazy journey, as well as the Sumi community / my Sumi family. I'm so thankful for all the amazing people I've met along the way, and all the help I've received in making this possible. Noshikimithi va na!

Monday, December 2, 2013

The examples linguists use

My apologies to all my readers, I just haven't had all that much time to blog since I started grad school, though I have a lot of things I'd like to blog about! (I'll be making time after finals week next week to catch up on my posting.)

Thanks to the Nom Nom Linguistics Facebook page, I just found out about this Tumblr site called
Linguistics Sample Sentences:

Here you can see a selection of the weirdest / funniest / slightly more obscene examples that linguists use to illustrate various points about the grammars of other languages. Sometimes linguists need these 'weird' examples to see how a language performs a certain function. Sometimes these examples highlight how creative the speakers of a language can be.

And sometimes linguists just choose the weirdest examples for comic relief. (Because talking about grammar.)

In general, I'm told we sound like a violent bunch. If we're trying to study something like transitivity -simply put, the ways in which languages describe an event that involves more than 1 participant- the most common examples you see tend to involve a verb like hit, e.g. John hit Mary or Mary hit John. However, I've even been told that hit is not always the best example of a transitive verb (for the linguists: this is because in some languages, the verb hit may take an argument with locative marking instead of patient marking), so what you really need is a verb like kill to illustrate the point!

Great, even more violence.

I think the weirdest sentence I've had to elicit from a language consultant was "The man cooked me for the chicken." But I'm sure there'll be weirder ones to come!

[Note: the point of such examples is not and should not be to make fun of a language or speakers of a language - if anything, we're both showing appreciation and poking fun at the nature of the science  for (a) making linguists ask speakers of a language to say a particularly unnatural utterance; and/or the linguist themself for (b) choosing that particular example to put in a publication just to illustrate a certain point, when another (though less humorous) example would have sufficed. But it's what you have to do if you're trying to work out the genius and creativity underlying any spoken language.]

Saturday, October 26, 2013

On Not Having a Mother Tongue

At the moment, I'm TA-ing for a course called Language and Power here at the University of Oregon, and I've been recounting the following story to my students.

It happened more than 10 years ago after I'd just moved from Singapore to Melbourne. I was at my university orientation, where I met a number of people, including a guy from Sweden. We got to talking, and he eventually asked me what languages I spoke. I told him that I spoke English and some Chinese (Mandarin), but that my Chinese wasn't very good.

The very next thing he said to me was, "Oh, so you don't speak any language well!"

Before I could recover from the shock of what he'd just said, he quickly proceeded to 'correct' my English. I remember we were talking about purchasing textbooks for our courses at a particular bookshop. I said something like: "You can get them cheap over there." He told me that it should be: "You can get them cheaply over there." because you need an adverb with the verb 'get'. At that point, I said something like, "No, I'm using it as an adjective to describe the thing I'm getting." But it was clear that I had little say in what was 'right' or what was 'wrong'.

Now this was before I'd started any formal study in linguistics, but I had had 'English grammar' lessons in school in Singapore, with explanations given for many 'grammatical rules'. Of course, people like me were a pain for our English teachers because they'd give us a particular phrase or sentence, and ask us why it was 'correct' or 'grammatical'.

We'd just say, "Because it sounds right."

And that's the thing about your 'mother tongue' - you don't need to be formally taught the rules of the language in school. Through enough exposure as a child, you just know what 'sounds' right and what doesn't. That knowledge is what linguists usually think of as 'grammar' - it's not the rules that you are explicitly taught in a classroom (unless the language is not your native language), it's knowing how to say things that don't sound odd to either you or the people from the community you grew up with.

To be repeatedly confronted and told that my mother tongue - the language I used at home and in daily life, and the language I knew best (let's not even go into what Singapore calls one's 'mother tongue') was 'incorrect' or defective has had a few effects on me. On the downside, I find it difficult to claim 'ownership' or 'expertise' in English. Even now I am quick to get defensive about my own linguistic knowledge, sometimes justifiably so, but sometimes I perhaps get a little too defensive. On the upside, I've often felt motivated me to learn more languages (to varying degrees of fluency). Most importantly, this insecurity has made me delve deeper into the field of linguistics.

Jacques Derrida, in his book Monolingualism of the Other, wrote, "I have but one language - yet that language is not mine." While his words can be interpreted on many different levels (his central thesis was that we are all alienated from our 'mother tongue'), I can think of no better quote to apply to the linguistic situation I find myself in. I also imagine that this is something many people in the modern world whose 'languages' or 'dialects' are looked down upon and vilified can relate to.

(Yes, I ended that last sentence with a preposition. And yes, it's perfectly grammatical to do so in English.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fun with tone sandhi - The solution!

Okay, I apologise for the long delay, but finally(!), I present you with the solution to the problem set I posted in my last blog post, many months ago (see here).

(Right click the image below and select 'Open Image in New Tab'.
Or click here for an image you can magnify.
The language is Singaporean Teochew, as spoken by an aunt of mine who lives in Singapore. It's part of the Min Nan group of languages, but Singaporean Teochew is said to have undergone dialect leveling with Singaporean Hokkien - the two are much more mutually intelligible than their counterparts still spoken in China today. Also, although most descriptions of Teochew give 8 tones, I've only been able to find 7 contrastive ones - but there might still be an 8th one that I've missed!

I know I was supposed to post this in mid-June, but a lot of stuff came up, including a move to the United States (via Australia). As some of you may already know, I've just started grad school at the University of Oregon, where I am pursuing a PhD in Linguistics. It's a really exciting time for me. I'll be heading back to India at some point during my course, but unfortunately not this year.

Looking forward to posting about all the cool linguistics topics I'll be looking at during the next year!