Book Review: Singapore English: Structure, Variation and Usage, written by Jakob R. E. Leimgruber

In: Journal of Language Contact

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Cambridge University Press, Studies in English Language. 2013, 164 pp. ISBN 9781107027305.

Jakob Leimgruber’s monograph on Singapore English is a noteworthy addition to the already rich research literature on the sociolinguistics of Singapore English. Its most important contribution is the introduction of a new framework of description of the variation found in contemporary Singapore English. The framework that Leimgruber proposes is that of indexicality, founded on Eckert’s work in explaining how the use of particular linguistic features is symbolic of social identity as well as discoursal stances.

In this short monograph of 145 pages including references, Leimgruber manages to pack in quite a number of topics. Chapter 1 begins with a historical account of the development of English followed by a brief mention of the range of theoretical models used to describe Singapore English - a subset of which Leimgruber then revisits in Chapter 2 in greater detail. Chapter 1 also provides information about the data and methodology of the study. Chapter 2 has roughly two parts. In the first, Leimgruber details the three most important ‘early’ models used in the description of Singapore English, namely, the continuum hypothesis, polyglossia and diglossia. In the second part, the discussion moves to a discussion of Alsagoff's (2007) cultural orientation model (COM), after which Leimgruber discusses Eckert’s (2008) use of the concept of an indexical field to describe variation. He then offers a short introduction of how he sees indexicality being applied to a description of Singapore English. Readers, however, need to wait till Chapter 5 to read further details of this model as this chapter serves only to introduce it. Following the brief introduction to the indexicality model in Chapter 2 are descriptions of a range of the key phonological, morphological, lexical, grammatical, semantic and pragmatic features of Singapore English in Chapters 3 and 4. The two chapters are primarily descriptive, presenting Leimgruber's extremely rich data from his doctoral research. It is only in the fifth and penultimate chapter that we are given a more detailed treatise of the indexicality model. Here, Leimgruber makes a case for the use of indexicality in explaining the variation in Singapore English. The monograph ends with Chapter 6 which basically argues against the use of the variety as a structural unit, taking us through a discussion that ranges from a theoretical one about codes and code-switching to an account of Singapore’s language policies, the role of English in South East Asia.

The book, as the author states in the acknowledgements, builds on his D.Phil thesis. What is not clear, however, are the aims of the revised monograph, which are unfortunately not stated, even in the first chapters. In one respect, the book reads like a general introduction to Singapore English, offering a comprehensive survey of the salient points about the English in Singapore, with a historical account of the genesis and development of Singapore English, a review of past research about Singapore English and a presentation of the structural features that distinguish colloquial Singapore English from the standard variety. One of the key strengths of the book is the author's ability to condense a great deal of information into readable and well-structured prose. This is particularly evident in Chapter 1, where in 6 short pages, Leimgruber presents a well-spun historical account of the development of English in Singapore, especially of colonial Singapore. Although much of the information in this account has in fact been described in a number of previous studies, Leimgruber nevertheless adds to the literature, drawing on research by both linguists and historians, weaving an engaging narrative that presents his perspective of how Singapore’s linguistic landscape is a complex one wrought from unique historical circumstances. The account is understandably condensed and primarily descriptive, with little room for a discursive exploration of issues.

While brevity and a lack of discussion are understandable, it is the lack of appropriate references to the literature that mar the otherwise well-presented account. While Leimgruber’s critique of COM is to be appreciated for its attention to detail, one rather odd omission is Leimgruber’s lack of inclusion of the development of COM in further publications by Alsagoff (e.g. 2010a, 2010b). Of concern are also those instances where Leimgruber fails to substantiate his statements with appropriate references to the literature. On page 8, for example, Leimgruber makes the very bold claim that Malay and Tamil, two of Singapore’s official languages, have received little encouragement from the government but offers no evidence to back his statement. Further on, he makes another bold claim that Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign has been a success and for this, cites, as evidence, the increased number of speakers indicating Mandarin as their home language in the 2010 Singapore Census, but without reference to well-cited discussions of this campaign in the research literature (e.g. Bokhorst-Heng, 1999). In fact, Leimgruber himself appears to contradict his own claim by stating at a later point in this short discussion that although there is an increased use of Mandarin as a language, there is no equivalent shift towards Mandarin culture. In addition to not citing appropriate research, Leimgruber also uses anecdotal evidence to substantiate some of his statements. On page 8, Leimgruber writes that young Chinese tend to ‘overlook differences between dialects with which they are no longer familiar, using instead Mandarin and English’ – this statement is not corroborated by analysis or reference to the rich research literature on language policy of Singapore but is instead weakly supported by reference to two letters to the Straits Times, Singapore’s local newspaper, written by two members of the public.

Such practices might not even be taken as a lapse in academic rigor if they were simply construed as being in the service of creating a compelling narrative more easily appreciated by a wider readership, as would be expected of a general introduction. Yet, many aspects of the book present it not as a broad exposition of Singapore English, but rather as a theoretically-inclined treatise whose intent is ostensibly to argue for a new framework, or at least, a new theoretical perspective, for the study of Singapore English. Chapters 2 and 5 are clear demonstrations of this latter intent – the discussion in Chapter 2 is a detailed review of the literature on the development of the notion of indexicality within the field of variationist sociolinguistics followed by a discussion of the theoretical merits of indexicality as an analytic tool for the study of Singapore English. Chapter 5 offers a discussion, revisiting and elaborating on many of the points touched upon in Chapter 2, arguing for the merits of indexicality over previously postulated models. However, in trying to serve both as a general introduction to Singapore English and a thesis arguing for a new theoretical model, both of which are very different and contrary aims, Leimgruber somewhat curtails his ability in presenting a richer and more convincing account of how indexicality can be applied to the study of variation in Singapore English.

In wanting perhaps to present a comprehensive description of the features of Singapore English, Leimgruber chooses to present the linguistic data on Singapore English in Chapters 3 and 4 more or less descriptively. So although indexicality is introduced in the final ten or so pages of Chapter 2, it is oddly not used as a framework of description of the features of Singapore English presented in these chapters. In fact, at times, the two chapters give the impression that the book is in fact advocating diglossia rather than arguing against it – in particular, Leimgruber uses the concepts of H and L varieties to frame his discussions of the grammatical features of Singapore English. Yet, in Chapter 5, Leimgruber claims that indexicality ‘refut[es] the ideas of codes and code-switching between H and L’ (p108). And although diglossia is in fact argued to be lacking in explanatory power in Chapters 3 and 4, the discussions do not go on to provide the reader with an account of how indexicality can instead explain these examples of variation. Chapter 5, unfortunately, does not fully address this shortcoming as it includes a discussion of only four examples of Singapore English, offering, at best, a weak exemplification of the explanatory power of indexicality. Leimgruber’s arguments are nonetheless compelling.

Leimgruber claims that indexicality has two advantages over previous models (pp. 107–108). The first is that the model emphasizes speaker agency – this is already present in both the diglossia and COM models. The second is much more interesting, and is perhaps what distinguishes indexicality from previous models. Leimgruber suggests that indexicality, in conceptualizing variation at the level of a linguistic variable, obviates the major problem of existing models: that of formulating variation in terms of the ill-defined concept of variety. Hence, instead of viewing variation as a switch from one code or sub-variety to another, the indexicality model postulates that it is through the use of linguistic features that speakers index social types, permanent qualities or particular stances, i.e. what Eckert (2008) refers to as an indexical field. The use (or lack of use) of these linguistic features, e.g. the absence of past tense marking, does not serve to mark that particular utterance as conforming to a particular sub-variety, such as H (Standard Singapore English) or L (Singlish or colloquial Singapore English). Clearly, this is meant to be a critique of Gupta’s use of key linguistic features to mark utterances as either H or L in the diglossia model. Leimgruber also claims, albeit not in the same chapter, that even though COM refers to the use of features to index stances, it too is concerned about a continuum between the two varieties of local and international Singapore English (p. 58).

Leimgruber argues convincingly in Chapters 2, 5 and 6 for the modelling of variation at the level of the linguistic feature (rather than of registers or sub-varieties), arguing how this is particularly useful for the description of Singapore English where features normally associated with the L variety are used in what should be standard English. He gives a number of examples of such usage, where the Singlish features (lack of subject-verb agreement) are used alongside features associated with Standard English (e.g. subject-verb inversion in questions), underscoring the need to re-think the unit of variation. In this respect, Leimgruber very much echoes the concerns raised by Alsagoff (2007) in her argument for COM. However, unlike COM which constrains variation through the use of dyadic contrasts such as distance versus closeness, or authority vs camaraderie, the indexical field drawn for Singapore English extends beyond COM’s (p. 50)to include stances such as ‘mocking’, ‘rude’, and ‘pretentious’ which have no equivalent contrasting index (p. 106). While this expanded set of indices is certainly an area of consideration and the use of dyadic contrastive indices is a possible weakness of COM, Leimgruber does not actually demonstrate how he arrives at this set of additional features. While COM’s indices such as ‘authority’ or ‘distance’ can always be consistently associated with the use of features associated with the standard variety (e.g. presence of plural marking, use of explicit subjects and objects, etc.), it is not clear what features would consistently index the much more fluid stances of ‘mocking’ or ‘rude’ or ‘pretentious’.

And even more curiously, while Leimgruber goes to great lengths to explain why it is necessary to move away from codes to linguistic features as the unit of variation, his presentation of an indexical field for Singapore English (p. 106) is in stark contrast to Eckert’s (2008) indexical field (p. 55). The indexical field that Eckert presents is of the variation of a single linguistic feature, that of /t/ release, as is typical of studies within the field of variationist sociolinguistics. In contrast, however, Leimgruber’s ‘indexical field’ is that of the entire variety of Singapore English (note that he titles the diagram ‘Indexical field of SgE [Singapore English]) – making it unclear what he is attempting to model. More critically, it clearly contradicts his own thesis that one should abandon ‘ill-defined concept of the “variety” as the basic unit of analyses’ (p. 125).

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Leimgruber’s monograph on Singapore English is an extremely interesting read. Its wide-ranging ideas are thought-provoking and serve to challenge the reader to take new perspectives of Singapore English. The monograph is a promising start to much richer research into the ways in which the study of the variation in Singapore English can lend insights into the theorization of more dynamic and fluid models that can capture the variation and fluidity of contemporary language use.

References

  • AlsagoffLubna. 2010a. English in Singapore: Culture, capital and identity in linguistic variation. World Englishes 29–3: 336–348.

  • AlsagoffLubna. 2010b. Glocalization of Singapore English: Hybridity in ways of speaking. In LisaLim, PakirAnne, and WeeLionel (eds.), English in Singapore: Modernity and Management. Asian Englishes Today. (pp. 109–130). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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  • Bokhorst-HengWendy. 1999. Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign: Language ideological debates and the imagining of the nation. In JanBlommaert (ed.) Language ideological debates, pp. 235–265. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

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  • EckertPenelope. 2008. Variation and the indexical field. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12: 453–76.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • AlsagoffLubna. 2010a. English in Singapore: Culture, capital and identity in linguistic variation. World Englishes 29–3: 336–348.

  • AlsagoffLubna. 2010b. Glocalization of Singapore English: Hybridity in ways of speaking. In LisaLim, PakirAnne, and WeeLionel (eds.), English in Singapore: Modernity and Management. Asian Englishes Today. (pp. 109–130). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bokhorst-HengWendy. 1999. Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign: Language ideological debates and the imagining of the nation. In JanBlommaert (ed.) Language ideological debates, pp. 235–265. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • EckertPenelope. 2008. Variation and the indexical field. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12: 453–76.

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