April 9th, 2007

So many pieces have been written about the idiosyncrasies of [tag]Southeast Asian English[/tag] that I’ve resisted writing another one. But today I saw a T-shirt that wins the newly-established award for Largest Number of Words Strung Together In An Absolutely Meaningless Way. For ten hair-raising blocks, I clung for dear life to the back of a moto driver whose shirt read; DON’T TELL ME I’M A SKATEBOARD. I’M A JANITOR. When I got off the moto, I decided to write this blog anyway.

First, an apology and some criteria.

The apology: It’s wonderful that people all over Southeast Asia attempt to speak English (or “[tag]Inglit[/tag],” as it’s pronounced). Most English speakers never bother to learn anything more than “yes,” “no,” and “hello” in any language other than their own. So I admire people here who dive into the complexities of English. English, as [tag]George Bernard Shaw[/tag] pointed out, is a language in which FISH can be spelled GHOTI. Just pronounce the “gh” as in “enough,” the “o” as in “women,” and the “ti” as in “nation.” What you’ve got is “fish.” Not the world’s most intuitive language. So nothing that follows is intended to make fun of anyone who tries to learn it.

The criteria: Although I started with words printed on a T-shirt, this blog is about spoken Inglit. While there’s lots to talk about, I’m going to choose two examples. The first is the verb “to have.”

HAVE is the Southeast Asian [tag]Swiss Army knife[/tag] of verbs, employed for a dazzling number of purposes. I’m certain right now, somebody out in the countryside is trying to figure out how to use it to crack open a coconut. Let’s say your waitress sneezes on your salad. You think immediately about Avian Flu and say, “Are you sick?”

She replies “Have.”

In this case, “have” can be translated at least three ways. It could mean, “Yes, I have the flu.” It could mean, “No, I had it a few days ago but I’m better now, and thanks for asking.” It could also mean, “I don’t know what you asked me, but I know how to pronounce ‘have,’ and nobody ever yells at me when I say it.”

You go into a barber shop and announce you’d like a haircut. The young lady at the door, whose job is to welcome you and then disappear forever, says, “Have.” In this case, it means that the shop has haircuts, possibly stored in boxes in a back room, and they’ll be happy to sell you one. There is also an unspoken implication: the haircut they sell you won’t be the one you wanted. (Unless you’re in [tag]China[/tag], as noted in the blog called [tag]The Only Beard in Shenzhen[/tag].)

Here’s another all-purpose piece of Inglit: TOO MUTT, which is Southeast Asian for “too much.” It’s endlessly useful, especially when paired with HAVE. Back to the lunch where your salad got sneezed on. The waitress presents the bill, and you pull out a few twenties. She says, “Have money too mutt.”

This is not a criticism, so don’t immediately feel guilty about being a bloated, over-privileged Westerner who has fattened on the world’s misery and doesn’t deserve anything he/she possesses. That may be entirely true, but that’s not what she means. In this case, TOO MUTT just means “a lot.” She’s just happy for you. You’re rich. You can afford lunch.

As you can see from “Englit” and “too mutt,” the “sh” and “ch” sounds are issues here. The first of these led to one of the few really uncomfortable Southeast Asian moments I’ve experienced. I was eating in a very nice Riverside restaurant, where most of the other patrons were Western women. My waitress, having exhausted the possibilities of “have” and “too mutt,” leaned casually on the table and asked, “You like butt?”

I said the only thing in the world I could think of. I said, “What?”

She did what we all do when faced with some idiot who doesn’t understand what we’re saying. She raised her voice. She had a remarkable voice, a voice with Wagnerian potential. “BUTT,” she bellowed, loudly enough to rattle the windows. “YOU LIKE BUTT?”

The women in the restaurant turned my way in unison. Several of them whispered to each other. They were looking at an actual, live sex tourist. Every appalling thing they’d heard was true, and I was it.

Hiding under the table didn’t seem like a viable option, so I said, “Not understand.”

The waitress grabbed a deep breath, upped the volume to the death-ray range, and yelled, “DORD BUTT. YOU LIKE DORD BUTT?” And, thank God, the penny dropped.

“BUSH?” I shouted, sending her back a step. “[tag]PRESIDENT[/tag] [tag]GEORGE BUSH[/tag]? DO I LIKE PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH?”

“Yet,” she said, Camblish for yes. “You like?”

“NO,” I said, aiming for the back rows. Women turned back to their salads, except for a couple of [tag]Republicans[/tag], who continued to glare at me.

“Me, too,” said the waitress, happy that we’d communicated so successfully. “Me not like too mutt.”

[tags]Timothy Hallinan, Poke Rafferty, The Million Dollar Minute, A Nail Through The Heart[/tags]

One Response to “Inglit”

  1. Stepehn Cohn Says:

    This is great. I’ve been waiting for the perfect nickname for our president. From now on I will think of him and refer to him as “Butt.”

    Coincidentally, the following story came to my attention recently:
    The Sermon I think this Mom will never forget.. This particular Sunday sermon… “Dear Lord,” the minister began, with arms extended toward heaven and a rapturous look on his upturned face. “Without you, we are but dust.” He would have continued but at that moment my very obedient daughter (who was listening!) leaned over to me and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice, “Mom, what is butt dust?”

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