Thursday, June 25, 2009


On my very first visit to Japan I stayed at a small hotel in central Tokyo with a sign on the door warning: Swindlers dangling with our guests around our hotel at night have no relations with us. Beware and do not be cheated by their skillful enticement. This made me quite nervous when I ventured outside into the night. Especially when a group of noisy drunken men started shouting and waving.

I woke the next morning with a terrible hangover after spending half the night drinking with these guys. Perhaps Japan was not such a dangerous place after all. That warning sign now seemed funny rather frightening, giving advice about grime prevention rather than crime prevention. I wasn't worried in the least about the batter toast with harm that the breakfast menu offered me. I realised I had entered a world of Engrish – language that kind of looks like English but somehow is not.

Over the years I've often wondered if it is acceptable to make fun of the strange English I see all over Asia, from Burmese signs warning me against umbrellaring to Malaysian foodstalls selling bugger. After all, many English speakers don't even try to use another language. And should I tell my female student the meaning of the Boyaholic shirt that she wears? Before the Olympics, Beijing launched a campaign to correct mistakes on English signs. Several foreigners volunteered to help so that tourists wouldn't make fun of China's English. But some foreign residents of the city resented these attempts to spoil their amusement at advertisements for immorality pills or signs in restaurants warning of landslide areas.

Whether or not we think it is OK to laugh at Engrish, it can be instructive to work out how it occurs. Sometimes it is the result of a spelling error, such as fruits shoot ('fruit short cake', which is quite popular in Japan, though very different from what the Americans and British call 'shortcake').

Some Engrish needs a little more time to work out. The cream pain I see at my local bakery is not an instrument of torture but a kind of bread ('pain' in French, which sounds similar to the Japanese word pan).

One tyre-shop in Beijing invites customers to use a pick foetus machine. This seems completely bizarre until we realise that the Chinese character above "foetus" is 胎, which is used in combination with some characters to mean 'foetus' but with others to mean 'tyre'.
I was also puzzled by the sign on the side of a shuttle bus run by Ritsumeikan, a prestigious university in Kyoto, which said Univemeikan Ritsurisity. Until I realised that the sign-painter, who presumably did not speak any English, must have had four strips of print – Ritsu, meikan, Unive and rsity – and managed to paste them in the wrong order. Sometimes a simple error is all the more striking for being surrounded by overly formal or poetical language, such as a label on a box at Tabei Airport that says Unforceful discard box for dangerous items ('unforceful' usually means 'weak' or 'feeble', not 'voluntary') or a Tokyo boutique sign that raises our expectations about gifts that transcend man and woman only to let us down with basic grammatical errors.

Some people actually make money out of Engrish. The website, for example, not only collects pictures of Engrish from around Asia, but sells T-shirts with it printed on them. But Asians may be starting to get their own back now that so many English-speakers get themselves tattooed with 'Chinese' or 'Japanese' words that turn out to mean things like Girl Vegetable. Meanwhyile the fashion company Ichikoo ( has started selling shirts asking お電気ですか。 (Are you electricity?) and declaring自由の洗濯! (Freedom of washing!).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The killer language

Finnish linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas describes languages that spread at the expense of others as killer languages. She calls English "the biggest killer of them all". Languages by themselves cannot kill, but the people who learn and teach them can (usually unintentionally) kill off the culture and ideas of people who speak other languages.

According to UNESCO, one third of the world's 7000 languages are in danger. British linguist David Crystal estimates that one dies every two weeks. By the end of this century perhaps half of our current languages will have disappeared. While many languages are dying, English is growing. Another British linguist, David Graddol, claims that nearly a third of Asians already use it on a daily basis. But how strong is the link between the growth of English and the death of other languages?

On the one hand we have the example of the United States, where 53 local languages have disappeared since 1950. Another example is Australia, where hundreds of Aboriginal languages have been lost and many Aborigines speak only English. On the other hand, languages are disappearing in non-English-speaking countries too. Thousands of people are abandoning their traditional languages in Indonesia and India in favour of Indonesian and Hindi. In Japan, almost everyone speaks Japanese now and very few speak Ainu or Okinawan any longer. Nashi in southwest China, and Lisu in northern Thailand, are in danger from the spread of Chinese and Thai.

Another reason to question the idea of English as a killer language is the prevalence of bilingualism. If someone starts speaking English it does not mean they stop speaking other languages. However, while most of the world's people are indeed bilingual, in practice it is very difficult for small languages to compete with big ones.

Take Bidayuh. Spoken by 200,000 people in East Malaysia, where 140 primary schools have Bidayuh-speaking teachers, the language should not be in danger. But it is. It is neither a medium of instruction nor a school subject – partly because there are hardly any books in Bidayuh and there is no standard form that all its speakers understand. Children grow up studying in Malay and English. They may use Bidayuh in their village but have little need for it after moving to towns for work. When their grandparents die they often stop using it altogether.

For linguists, language death is tragic. Different languages give us different ways of describing the world. But most people are less interested in preserving their grandparents' language than in teaching their children languages that help them get jobs. History shows us that languages grow, change, recede and finally die. Few have lasted for more than a thousand years. Some dying languages undergo a process of revival, such as Israel's national language, Hebrew. But Bidayuh has no nation or religion behind it and is not used in newspapers or on television.

English may not be a cold-blooded killer, but it is not completely innocent. The main reason for the disappearance of so many languages nowadays is economic globalisation, and the main language of globalisation is English. Many English speakers themselves are monolingual and fail to understand the problems of people who speak small languages. Sri Lankans call English kadda (sword) because it is a useful and powerful weapon. But like many swords, it is double-edged.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Asian Languages in English

The many Asian loanwords in English can tell us a lot about economic and cultural links between English speakers and Asians. Mathematicians at Oxford University were studying the algebra developed by the Arabs hundreds of years before British technology had any impact on Asia. Oranges and lemons were bought from Persian and Turkish traders long before the latter were interested in buying British manufactures. But the journey of such loanwords has often been indirect or unclear.

Coffee comes from an Arabic name for a place in Africa but entered English via Turkish.

Tea comes not from Mandarin (although its own term, cha, is also used by some English people) but from the Amoy dialect of southern China. Rice comes from a Tamil word but probably entered English via Arabic. Coolie might be from Chinese or Gujarati. Ketchup might be Chinese or Malay. Some words go back and forth, such as anime, which was borrowed and shortened by the Japanese and then returned to English to describe a particular genre of animation.

Most Asian loanwords, such as sari and sushi, are closely associated with Asian culture. However, the association can fade away. When Americans describe remote areas of their country as boondocks, they don't think of the Philippines. Australians describing people who have gone crazy as running amok are not referring to Malays. Britons live in bungalows, use shampoo and complain about thugs without knowing anything about India.

As well as lending words to the English language, Asians have also invented new 'English-like' words. Walkman and discman were coined by Sony. Karaoke combines Japanese 'empty' with the first part of English 'orchestra'.

English speakers everywhere use Asian words, often unknowingly. But it is English speakers within Asia who use them most. Macquarie University's corpus of Asian English (Asiacorp) contains over four million words. The International Corpus of English (ICE) includes several Asian varieties of English, including Indian, Malaysian, Philippine and Singaporean. Asian Englishes include many words adopted from local languages, such as appa (a type of pancake in Sri Lanka and an 'elder sister' in Pakistan). They also use translations of local concepts, such as wet kitchen – an area for preparing raw food in Malaysian homes. Often, existing English words get new meanings: Singaporeans eat steamboat (a kind of stew) with their powerful (cool) friends before sending (driving) them home.

Asians born in America and Britain are yet another important influence on English. Kiss my chuddies! (kiss my underpants) became a popular (and mostly friendly) insult in the UK when Britons of Indian origin started saying it. And people all over Britain enjoy balti – a kind of cooking named after a Panjabi word for 'pot', but invented quite recently in the city of Birmingham.