The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Month: September, 2013

Linguistic superiority is bunk

Someone once said to me, “哎呀,你的中文那么不标准!”

That basically meant: Aiya, your Chinese is really substandard!

And that was in response to me telling them my Chinese name. That someone was from Beijing, China, and I am from Singapore. We both speak Chinese, but upon hearing my pronunciation of certain words different from the way they do it, they denounced it as being substandard, for not being the “Beijing standard.”

Thus, they claim linguistic superiority of Chinese over any other regional differences.

It’s not even the way Cockney differs from RP in England, or African American Vernacular differs from General American English — in Wikipedia, the Chinese spoken in Singapore and China are both called “Standard Chinese,” but inevitably there are bound to be phonological differences, that even Wikipedia cannot capture.

A very basic example is the way my name is pronounced.

A character in my name, 俊, is transcribed in pinyin as “jùn”. As many of my friends from China would pronounce it, and the way Wikipedia transcribes it, they say:


with a /voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate + high front rounded vowel + alveolar nasal/. There is a very audible “tch” sound at the onset of the word.

In Singapore, that character in my name would be pronounced:


with a /voiced palato-alveolar affricate + high front rounded vowel + alveolar nasal/. That means that the initial “j” sound in Singaporean Chinese is similar to the way “judge,” “gee,” and “job” is pronounced in English. There is no “ch” sound audible at the onset of the word.

Another difference would be the character 需, xū, as in “to need.” In China, it would be pronounced:


with a /voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant + high front rounded vowel/. There is a very audible, thin “sss” sound at the onset of the word.

In Singapore, that character would be pronounced:


with a /voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant + high front rounded vowel/. It is almost indistinguishable from the way “she” is pronounced in English.

Here is an example of how Standard Chinese sounds are generally pronounced by people from Mainland China:

Note the “j” “q” “x” sounds at the 41 second mark.

Compare with this Singaporean Chinese news clip:

Note at the 23 second mark, the news broadcaster even says a name that has my 俊 “jun” character in it, and the initial “j” is a lot softer than the Chinese from Mainland China. Also, the Chinese spoken by the interviewee immediately is closer to how most Singaporeans speak Chinese — with consonants closer to Taiwanese Chinese than Mainland China Chinese.

Another video clip of Singaporean Chinese, as spoken by kids, with a lot of usage of the “xue” word. Note that they all say /ʃyœ/ (sh-ü-eh).

A very simple reason why there is that difference is in the way we learn Chinese. Those in China learn Chinese via the “bopomofo” method (see video embedded above), where there is an emphasis on preserving the initial sounds (“ji-yu=ju” “xi-yu=xu”). In Singapore, Chinese is taught via the hanyu pinyin system, where its English letters are used as a springboard to understanding the sounds of Chinese. That makes sense in Singapore, given that its bilingual education system begins even in kindergarten, whereas English is only introduced in the Chinese education at a much later age in elementary school.

As such, there are some overlap between the consonants of English and Chinese in Singapore, where “xu” is pronounced “she” and “you” is pronounced “you/yew” (as in English), rather than “yo-uu” (as Mainland Chinese people would).

Furthermore, given that the influence of Chinese dialects such as Hokkien (Southern Min/Min-nan), Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka, all of which are southern Chinese dialects, you get pronunciations of certain consonants that mimic Taiwanese or Hong Kong Chinese, such as interchanging “chi” “shi” “zhi” with “ci” “si” zi” in casual speech sometimes (that is, people who are not broadcasters or taking exams). An example would be the first video of Singapore Chinese I embedded (about the iPhone 4), where the guy said “zè” instead of “zhè” (这).

Does this make any of the Chinese spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other parts of the world less “standard” than the Beijing standard?

Were that so, then wouldn’t all variants of English but British English, not even American, be the gold standard of English in the world? Languages change and adapt to the locale, and to insist that only one type of the language is proper and the rest substandard is arrogance in its linguistic superiority.

Better than perfect colour acuity?

On a whim, I took one of those online colour tests challenging one to see how well one can discriminate colour hues. This is what I got:


However, when I submitted my score, age, and gender to see how well I fared against those in my gender and age group, this is what they reported:


How does one get a score of -332? Does that mean a better-than-perfect colour acuity? Do they perhaps see more hues than human can? Maybe they’re secretly mantis shrimps.

Lord of the polyglots

What does it take for a language to become a language? Quite simply: grammar. Any constructed language in fiction has the potential to become functional languages, all it takes is a sound structure that is productive and consistent. It’s not the size of the lexicon but the ability to distill fundamental rules about how things such as plurals, tenses, cases, progressives, etc. can be consistently realised in the language.

Thus being able to speak Quenya or Sindarin, some of the most comprehensive constructed languages out there, shouldn’t be something of a shame. J.R.R. Tolkien has in fact said before, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.”

There are criticisms that constructed languages cannot be compared at the same level of languages that exist in real life, and that the ‘evolution’ that languages such as Quenya experiences in the literature isn’t the same as when real-life languages develop regional dialects and accents from contact with other people and isolation from geographical boundaries. Why should that be the case? Just simply because the change is the result of an author’s machinations doesn’t discredit any change ascribed to the constructed language from being any less real, if said constructed languages mimic real-life examples of language evolution.

There are several constructed languages in the world that experience little to no regional change, such as Esperanto or Lojban, but why should they be seen as more legit than Klingon, simply because people have had the opportunity to use them in real life?

So go forth and proudly claim your multilingualism!

We may not have floating cars but…

When one has only 710 km² of land space (274 sq miles), as Singapore does, trying to fit 6.9 million people by 2030, one is bound to run out of space. Even the most skilled of SimCity players will struggle to find land to fit everyone in. So what is Singapore, with its current 5.4 million population, to do?

They look not to the skies, but underground.

Science fiction and fantasy have long talked of underground cities and subterranean structures, from the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings to London Below in Neverwhere. Well Singapore is planning on “building underground to create an extensive, interconnected city, with shopping malls, transportation hubs, public spaces, pedestrian links and even cycling lanes,” as reported by the New York Times.

For all of Singapore’s flaws with trying to introduce creativity in its education system, one can’t deny that Singapore is hungry to establish itself as being at the forefront of architectural innovation, and have achieved a fair amount, usually by importing renowned architects from all over the world.

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For more of Singapore’s impressive architecture, click here!

Thoughts from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

charliefinCome with me, and you’ll be
in a world of pure imagination.
Take a look, and you’ll see
into your imagination.

Hope I may, cross my heart,
to fulfil my wildest expectations.
But I seem, yet to be,
only failing expectations.

Everyone has left me far behind
All I have are words to keep
“Anything you want to, do it.
There’s nothing to it.”

There is no life I know
to compare with pure imagination.
Living there, you’ll be free
if you truly wish to be.

The importance of posterity

In George Orwell writes in his book, 1984:

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

In Orwell’s book, the world is divided into three superstates, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Each superstate preserves itself by totalitarianism, changing the past as they see fit, ensuring their continued existence into tomorrow.

But if all life in the story were to ended the  next day, would the respective governments continue to censor and repress?

If life were to end tomorrow, would we bother to write anything beautiful and lasting, if we thought posterity to be pointless?

In a New York Times opinion piece, The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously., the author, Samuel Scheffler, writes:

If you were a cancer researcher, you might be less motivated to continue your work. (It would be unlikely, after all, that a cure would be found in your lifetime, and even it were, how much good would it do in the time remaining?) Likewise if you were an engineer working to improve the seismic safety of bridges, or an activist trying to reform our political or social institutions or a carpenter who cared about building things to last. What difference would these endeavors make, if the destruction of the human race was imminent?

If you were a novelist or playwright or composer, you might see little point in continuing to write or compose, since these creative activities are often undertaken with an imagined future audience or legacy in mind. And faced with the knowledge that humanity would cease to exist soon after your death, would you still be motivated to have children? Maybe not.

Time becomes meaningless when we stop living for the future — every moment we live up till the present is the result of time past, and we can control the path which the present will travel towards the future. This system pervades all aspects of our life: literature, science, relationships, etc. We are able to create and write things because we expect people in the future will at some point see it, and we are inspired by things that have come before us. But what comes before us is easily changed by those who gets to write the history books.

Why bother to control the past if the future is not worth changing? The Ingsoc government in 1984 most certainly wouldn’t if they knew that they would not exist past the next day. Our history is only as valuable as we have a tomorrow to live in.

So by that reckoning, the past and the present really isn’t that important, and what matters most is really tomorrow. Which is why those who can see no future for themselves find no point in living even in the present, and turn to suicide.

Tomorrow is the most important day of your life.

Getting it right until the future is now

Image taken from Epic 3D Printing Fail

The New York Times had an opinion article about the future of 3D-printing, and how the next stage is 3D-printed food. In the article, the author had 3D-printed pizza, pasta, and some frankenfood, all served on 3D-printed cutlery and utensils.

Of course, we don’t all have a meticulous scientist tinkering around with a 3D-printer, making sure that everything goes smoothly. More often than not, 3D-printing ends up in failure.

Beautiful failures, in fact.

Image taken from Epic 3D Printing Fail

In fact, this Gizmodo article shows us how easily 3D printing can go awry. There’s also a Flickr group dedicated to 3D printing fails.

Imagine if a 3D food printer went rogue, taking over the word, one shot of printed food at a time.