death by paper cut

{January 18, 2007}   linguistic heritage?

the straits times reports today

As it is, all the statistics point to the decline of Chinese dialects, for instance. According to the General Household Survey of 2005, 23.9 per cent of Chinese households predominantly use Chinese dialects, a significant drop from 30.7 per cent in 2000.

A cursory glance at any school register would corroborate this too. Many students now sport hanyu pinyin names (in lieu of the transliterations of their dialect names). Hanyu pinyin creates a certain uniformity but, at the same time, this neatness is achieved at the expense of these students’ varied ethnic histories.

Other dialects that Singapore should look at preserving – or at least, recording for posterity – are Baba Malay, used in the Peranakan community, and Kristang, spoken by the Eurasians of Portuguese descent. The speakers of these distinct dialects – or creoles as linguists prefer – are also on the decline. In another generation or two, they would probably be extinct.

being hyper efficient and result-oriented, once public policies in singapore are implemented, you can consider them done. perhaps the disappearing vernaculars are the result of such thorough policy making. in my younger days, the speaking of mandarin was highly promoted over the use of other dialects. it was thought that the use of a common language could be a unifying factor among diverse factions of the chinese society, not to be misconstrued as a tool to marginalise non-chinese people.

back then, and still smothering among the older generation, different dialect groups were highly territorial and hostile to each other. clans were formed according to dialect lines to take care of ‘kaki-nang’ (our own kind) as migrates arrived from various parts of china. mandarin was never the lingua franca of chinese people.

to futher unify the chinese people, dialects were not allowed to be used in public broadcasting like the radio or television. this was after the time of rediffusion where cantonese opera could still be heard. jack neo’s inclusion of dialects in his films was a hallmark softening of such public policies.

considering all the above poinst, it is therefore rather ironic that we should now feel the urge to preserve our linguistic heritage, to reverse the effects of what was considered necessary at a point of time.

i’ve never taken to the study and use mandarin, but after having lived with my grandmother for more than a decade now, i find myself drawn to and empowered by the ability to converse in simple teochew. i’ve recorded two short “interviews” with her on my mp3 player and her voice might probably be the lasting piece that i have of her in time to come.

we have all the technology at our fingertips to “preserve” linguistic heritage. It means that as self-motivated citizens who feel that we have a stake in our heritage, we do not need to wait for the next government policy to roll out.

perhaps “preserve” isn’t the right word because it usually refers to something that is already dead. i cannot speak on behalf of other languages like kristang, but i think for most chinese dialects like hokkien, teochew, hainanese and cantonese, it is still far from extinction at the moment. also, there are large populations of such speakers among mainlanders and overseas chinese.

but to ensure its continuing use and existence with a singaporean flavor, i would like see more public programmes conducted in such vernacular because that would elevate the perception of them as underground languages, once suppressed.


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