Saturday, January 24, 2009


LANSELL TAUDEVIN reflects on the world’s most confusing language

LAST TUESDAY I was chatting with an American bookseller over the Internet.

She: “You live in Malaysia?”
Me: “Yes!”
She: “But you speak English?”
Me: “Yes.”
She: “Well, that is a surprise!”
Me: “Why?”
She: “I thought most South Americans spoke Spanish.”
Me: (Silence.)

We moved on to other topics. Why would she not stock my books? Come to think of it, that’s a topic I touch on with most booksellers, including MPH Bookstores! I mean, you have these recently de-nappied Malaysian writers like Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng writing books that are nominated for literary prizes—and all because they are alleged to have some literary merit. Since when has literary merit been a criteria for best-sellers? Just ask Dan Brown or Barbara Cartland.

But I digress. From its writers to (most of) its taxi drivers, many Malaysians speak good English. Of course side splitters occur, but after 40 years in Asia, Malaysians—India, selectively, aside—speak the best English in Asia. Of course, the Brits gave it a head start. Thailand and Cambodia had no chance. Indonesians? Apa? Singaporeans? What talking you? Vietnam was bombarded by the French and the Americans. I love the French touch, but ...

Amongst the exceptions in Malaysia, even literary circles sometimes sin. Are bookshops bastions of bibliophilic propriety? Consider this in a bookshop at The Summit in Subang Jaya: “Childrens Book’s.” But the exception proves the rule. After all, I have seen similar signs in Australia. I am a member of the CIA—Crush Incorrect Apostrophes.

Foreigners often speak English better than the English. Go to a cocktail party in Delhi and you will know what I mean. Then go to one in Brixton, or Brisbane’s southern suburbs. You expect better where it is supposed to be spoken real good! Come to Asia, and prepare to be pleased and surprised, if you are prepared to see language as a living and growing thing that seeks to simplify and sensify. (You see ... a new word. Is it wrong? Strictly speaking, yes. Can you understand it? Yes! I’ll bet Scrabulous accepts it, but it accepts anything, except zen!)

Every language adapts and is adapted. Singlish, now legitimised in the downloadable Coxford Dictionary of Singlish, is a case in point. But even in Malaysia where its sister dialect Manglish shines, expressions which are not ‘the Queen’s English’ jar at first. You think about them and realise they make sense.

Consider: “on the light,” “stupid driver, horn him!”, and the best of all: “how can? Can, can,” which is not actually a French dance. Concise. Understandable.

If you speak English fluently as a second language, I take my hat off to you. Consider these snippets and tell me that English is not confusing.

The case of the sewer who fell into a sewer
The sewer fell into a sewer. In one fell blow, he fell on a saw and saw that he was sore. He did object to the object he found there. In the mist, he almost missed it. He felt bolder after climbing out on a boulder. As he kneaded his knee, he knew he needed new treatment. In dire straits, he staggered straight home. Round the wound he wound a bandage. His stepfather took his ward towards the ward. The doctor show great patience with his patients. He had to subject the subject to tests. After a number of injections his leg got number. The doctor had to pare off some skin, then offered him a pair of pears for being brave. The hospital suite was sweet as he considered whether it would suit him to take a suit action. It took time for his heel to heal. He sought some sort of insurance, but for some reason, the sum of it was that as an invalid his claim was considered invalid. He became a sceptic, his wounds turned septic, and after he dyed his hair, he died. His friends spent the morning mourning.

Where the beans had been
Farmer Jones was known to produce fine produce. He and his heir erred ere they e’er aired their concerns over goings-on in their are. Jones would readily cite the sights on his site. When he and his son rose with the sun, by its rays he would raise his eyes and check what had been razed. Due to the dew, there was often lots to do. He took a bale and a bail to his sow who helped sow the fields. He tried training the boar, but it was a boor and soon got bored. The sow worked for four years before Jones realised that a lot of refuse resulted but he would refuse to dump it. Pest damage? Troublesome hares made his hairs rise. It does not matter that the does did most damage while he dozed, and ate eight acres despite the caws caused by the crows. Each gnu knew new pasture when they saw it. Daily, where they could find it, they would wear away his wares. They would beat him to his beet.  He would cede them some seed, but where the beans had been, he would patch up the patch they destroyed. Following their scent, he had sense and sent them away without a cent. Whenever Jones’s sheep break in, he put a brake on it! What to do? He sent the ewe back under the ewe tree. He needed bait to bate their attacks. He needed peace so he took a piece of timber to make a scarecrow.  He scared birds off to the highest peek where they would peek back in a fit of pique. When they made a tear in his clothes he shed a tear. It was a new phase that fazed him.

The dove who dove into the bushes
John was in love. He was far from idle in creating an idyll for his idol. Since there was no time like the present, it was time to present a present of a dove to his fiancée, He went to fetch it, but it waived a wave, and the dove dove into a beech on the beach opposite. John knew he needed a new strategy. He decided to row over but had a row with his friend. The wind was too strong for the two men to wind up the sail too. He jumped into a dingy dinghy. He pulled on the oar and was in awe at the speed he reached. The oars creaked across the creek. John, suffering flu from a draught in the flue, was annoyed when the dove flew further away. How could he intimate this loss to his most intimate friend? Despite his pleas he could not please her. He joined the foreign legion, which, of course, was a coarse course to follow. He decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

Let’s face it: English is confusing. How make easy? Can! Turn the English language over to those Malaysians whose malaise is not too overpowering. Make it more logical. Like Malay. Then we’ll sell more books. Maybe even one of mine?

LANSELL TAUDEVIN is an Australian composer and writer who visits Kuala Lumpur regularly, having decided after almost 40 years of living in Asia that Malaysia is a top spot! An author of several children’s books under the pseudonym Arfa King, he is now working on a series of children’s books with a Malaysian flavour. Taudevin, who also has several nonfiction books to his credit, is now semi-retired and spends his time travelling.

Reproduced from the January-March 2009 issue of Quill magazine


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very entertaining piece, Lansell!

Friday, January 23, 2009 1:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've known people who should know better refer to Redang island as Rendang!

A good, funny piece of writing. More from him, please.

Sunday, January 25, 2009 12:12:00 AM  
Blogger Buddhaphish said...

Hmmmm.... I don't think Malaysians speak the best English in Asia - has Lansell ever venture out of the main cities, or even expat neighbourhoods like Bangsar, etc.? I've worked with interns coming out of local universities and their command of English is atrocious. A lot of Malaysians in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, and Kuching, speak English well, yes but not most of the country.

Most Filipinos however speak English reasonably well, despite their economic class.

Sunday, January 25, 2009 6:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the Filipinos speak English reasonably well, much better than Malaysians or Singaporeans. I believe they are excellent writers as well. I have read many short stories by Filipinos and the best of them are usually outstanding.

Sunday, January 25, 2009 9:06:00 PM  
Blogger Damyanti said...

Hilarious piece, especially loved the paras on confusing English.

I like this writer's voice.

Thursday, January 29, 2009 6:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I have lived in KL for the past 7 years and before that taught English & Business Communication in Bangkok. I find the educated Malaysians speak good English although the Thais are catching up. But one thing which has been lost in Peninsular Malaysia only is the British sense of humour which I believe is vital in really knowing any language.

Monday, July 11, 2011 7:09:00 PM  

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