Languages, dialects and accents: why our voices matter

You see then, macam difficult you know. Skarly you fail then how?

Zou ye da lan ye. Aiyah, why you so clumsy?

Ni hao, wo shi Zhuang Xiao Wei.

You must be scratching your head at these sentences. Spoken, these words would probably confound you. Singaporeans will call the first sentence “Singlish”, while the other two are a) a mixture of Cantonese and English, and b) Mandarin Chinese. I hear the second a lot when I was younger, when I tried helping my mom in the kitchen. I tended to break things, like a lot. My mom is Shanghainese, but grew up in a Cantonese-speaking household, because of my Popo (maternal grandmother). I grew up using Cantonese more reflexively than Hokkien, my dad’s dialect. So, as a result, I found myself unable to communicate with my ah-ma, my dad’s mother and my paternal grandmother. I could understand basic Hokkien words, but ask me to hold a full conversation and I would scramble for a translator.

Now, why am I writing this?

As any observer in the SFF community, you will notice the powerful discussion/conversation/dialogue that has arisen after the Strange Horizon’s review on Long Hidden, an anthology edited by Daniel Jose Older and Rose Fox. The reviewer commented that the use of dialect in Troy L Wiggins’s story was a “literary trick”. Indeed we needed this discussion, painful as it is, as a whole plethora of essays arose from it. Sofia Samatar spoke eloquently about it. Troy L Wiggins also spoke about it. Likewise, the thought-provoking editorial by Tonya Liburd and the poignant “Name Calling” by Celeste Rita Baker triggered further conversation.

You see, by saying that using dialect is a “literary trick”, you are telling a marginalized person not to use his or her dialect. Dialects are a lie. Dialects detract from the purity that is English. You shouldn’t use dialect. Many marginalized people use dialect, because it is how we speak in daily life and we try to tone it down because – you know – English and its standards. Many of us end up code-switching, mainly because we have to and in our surroundings, a must, to survive. Many end up being told that using dialect is wrong. An example can be seen in Singapore’s context. The Speak Mandarin campaigns have had effectively destroyed the use of ‘dialects’ and dialects themselves were frowned upon. A few generations of Singaporean Chinese grew up not understanding their dialects, myself included. Instead, we adopted Mandarin Chinese and spoke it. Fortunately now, there is a new generation reclaiming what is lost and speaking their dialects again, because they are rightfully theirs.

As SFF writers, we have language(s) at our finger tips. However, the language imposed on Anglo-centric writers is after all an artificial tool. English is used as a medium by many writers, because well, the Anglo-centric SFF community understands it. Yet, SFF is also written in other languages too: Mandarin Chinese, Finnish, French, Italian, Bahasa, Tagalog. To restrict SFF to English is narrow-minded and macam stupid you know. Sorry, there I go… slipping into colloquial.

Of course, not to ignore the faction that is going “It’s my preference, so nyah nyah nyah!”, reading is a choice. Reading in the dominant language is a choice. By choosing not to read something because it is thick with colloquialism or slang or dialect is your choice. But never restrict a writer when he or she wants to write in his or her own language. For people who readily consume and speak Klingon, Rihannsu and Dothraki, we are strangely quite fussy when it comes to our own dialects and regional languages.

So, don’t anyhow blame people for using dialect hor? We speak like that because we speak like that lor.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Where are the songs of Trinidad? Being drowned out by ballads in Klingon… | Miss Fickle Reader
  2. Trackback: Languages Matter: Some Thoughts on Language and Dialect | The Skiffy and Fanty Show

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