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Singlish, Once Again… September 29, 2011

Posted by The Truth in Im Allgemeinen.
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Here’s a post which appeared as an opinion piece on the Catholic News. It was, however, so full of bombast that I had to reply to what seemed an article which was posted because the bombastic writing seemed to lend it depth which it didn’t have. Here it is: English vs Singlish as our Language. (EDIT: Catholic News removed the post. Thanks to Google, here’s a cached version.)

Since I don’t know whether my reply will be published or not (generally people don’t like polemic drenched in sarcasm), so here is my reply:

Bravo, bravo!

So bombastic was your argument that I was left nearly speechless, not knowing what to say. But then I remembered why I was here, which is to say the following:

your article is full of big words but is rather poor in content. Let’s see why.

Firstly what do you mean by ‘for the purpose of dialectic’? I assume that you must mean ‘argument from received opinion’, which would explain your dichotomous division of English into standard and non-standard. OK.

Second, what is linguistic etiquette? you mean the prescriptive rules of standard English which may assert status?  There is no such thing as linguistic etiquette. Your usage of the word ‘etiquette’ suggests that it is per se correct to use Standard English, which is not always the case. Try speaking Standard English to someone who only speaks a non-standard variety. In that case, you may have broken with your so-called ‘linguistic etiquette’.

Third, if Singapore does not give us the luxury of choice (which in fact it does), then how can you say that our indulgence in it will lead us to losing? Can you indulge in a non-existant luxury? Don’t you think that Singapore SHOULD give us the luxury of choice by making sure we know what Singlish is and what Standard English is and when to use both?

Fourth, what do you mean by ‘we are faced with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?’ You mean that we will not be able to understand Standard English, because Singlish has ‘polluted our thinking’? So what about, say, a dialect speaker from England? Would his English dialect too have polluted his thinking, making him unable to understand Standard English, and making him a loser?

You make a crass overgeneralization here, and since you are so fond of naming Latin forms of refutation, here’s yours: secundum quid. The refutation is as follows: Standard English  is utilized by America and England for communication. Therefore, only Standard English is spoken in America and England. Which is a fallacy.

by the way: Standard English in England is known as Received Pronunciation, and Standard English in America is yet another variety. You seem to see THE Standard English, which may be..?

Fifth, you say that “It is not a question of etymology but of prescriptive tendentiousness where for us it is a universal means of communication with the English-speaking world.” I’m afraid that your ideailzed Standard English speaker wouldn’t understand what you mean. Especially: what is prescriptive tendentiousness? you mean a prescriptive bias? Towards what? Who or what is exerting the bias? Singlish? Standard English?

I mean, perhaps I may have misunderstood you, considering that your brilliance in writing this article must have led many to misread some of your core points. I apologize for my audacity to challenge your authority. But still the questions come!

Sixth, how can a set of prescriptive rules with their minute variations, like “the noun being primary to the adjective” (which is, as a linguist [did I just out myself there?] a highly unsatisfactory description) indicate a deductive and inductive mindset?

Let’s take a stab at that. Deduction means that you deduce certain propositions from a general proposition. For example, if all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal. Induction menas that you deduce from a multitude of particular propositions a general one. For example, if Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. are capable of laughing, then it is possible that all men are capable of laughing.

Nowhere do your so-called “minute variations” appear, and I am tempted to say that once again, I must have misunderstood your brilliance in argumentation. Would you care to show me where these variations may be and how exactly they indicate such a mindset?

Your last paragraph smacks of a false dichotomy (maybe the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been getting to you.) You say that to survive, we should give up Singlish and instead all become Standard English speakers. Can’t you have both? It is the KNOWLEDGE that one should use the one under these circumstances and the other under those which makes the difference. Or perhaps you have seen a truth which none of us have?

Lastly: I didn’t know it was possible to semantically classify languages along the connotative/denotative division. I thought that ALL languages are connotative and denotative? Example: If someone says in Singlish that ‘my car spoil already’, he is DENOTING the status of his car, namely, out of service. If someone says in Standard English that ‘x is an idiot’, he is CONNOTING the notion that x is dumb, stupid, etc. Or is there yet another greater truth that you have seen and we haven’t?

O, please enlighten us!

Streit der Fakultäten – Philosophie vs. Jura September 7, 2011

Posted by The Truth in Im Allgemeinen.
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NB: This post has its roots in a discussion with a friend of mine. Thank you, Liesel.

Once upon a time, I posted about the problem of legality vs. morality. A discussion with a law student has reawakened this train of thought, especially enough for me to bring this blog out of dormancy.

The question is: Are morals objective? Is morality as a concept objective?

Many of you will be tempted to say yes. Morals are objective. For without a standard of what is right and wrong, what justifies the choices we make and the actions we do? But, I will attempt to argue that morals are not objective. First, we have to look at the definition of “objective”. What is “objective”?

Objective is something which truth-value does NOT vary under any circumstance. For example, the statement that “all bachelors are single” is objective. For under no circumstances will you find a bachelor that is married.

Now, in a second step, let’s transfer this definition of “objective” to morals. Are morals “objective” in the sense given? Obviously not. Morals are “objective” when they are codified by the law – but what does this mean? Let’s look at a law, e.g. Clause 377A. Is it “objective” that gay sex is immoral? No. Alex Au will testify to that. If gay sex was “objectively” immoral, then many gays would be spit upon on the streets in any society you see. Germany, Switzerland, the USA, the UK, and so on. Because if gay sex was “objectively” immoral, then gay sex is wrong. Period. Under any circumstances.

But one may argue that the West has a decayed set of morals. Is it right to say so? Probably not – for one tends to project his world-view upon the entire world. Things which are wrong in one culture may be accepted in another, and that is what one misses.

So what, then, is morality?

I define morality as “behavioural rules which members of a collective agree upon, in order for the collective to further thrive as such.” In doing so, there is no such thing as “objective morality” per se. The Ancient Greeks believed that you should love those who love you, and harm those which give you trouble (λυποῦντα λύπει καὶ φιλοῦνθ᾽ ὑπερφίλει). Is that still true today? Patently, no. Morality only becomes “objective” when they are codified by laws. Since laws are definitory by nature, and since definitions are per se “objective”, they appear to display “morality” as “objective”. Why do such laws come into effect? Well, one could say that over time, this collective of individuals saw that a particular principle of action seemed to work, and therefore set it in law, to ensure that society further thrives as it was for them.

But wait! the lawyer will say. So do you mean that “convention is that men may incarcerate women, then you would accept that as moral conduct?” Well, here is the clincher: At that point in time and given the particular context, you must say that it was moral for the people then under those circumstances that women be incarcerated. Naturally, no one would say that today. I don’t subscribe to that belief too. But if you want to be descriptive, then you must say that that was moral, given the circumstances then.

Our lawyer could then say that you were immoral to make such statements. But that is an oversimplification (to be precise, secundum quid – the leaving out of qualifications.) Morals are always tied to a certain context. The problem is that we, as humans, are not subjects per se – in a sense we may be, but in our time on this world, we exist always in a given context – what we are, what we believe in are given in a certain context. We think that a particular action is good, which a person 300 years ago would have turned his nose on. Homosexual paedophilia? It was considered good practice in Antiquity! What about ‘eye for an eye’? It’s in the Old Testament!

It should suffice to show that morals are only “objective” when they are codified by law and shown to be universally valid, albeit in a given context. Is it, then, absurd to say that you believe in what is per se moral? Again, the answer is no. I have developed a weaker sense of what it means to be “objective”. As a subject in a given context, you must believe in what is “objectively” moral to even have a sense of direction in your life. If you truly subscribed to the fact that morals are only valid in a given context, then everything collapses into relativism, once the context changes – nothing is moral nor immoral. So what guides you then?

I would, personally, rather face the charge of inconsistency at this point than the possibility of being a totally amoral subject. If I am amoral, what is the meaning of life?

So what is the problem? The problem is that many people tend to equate morality with legality. What is legal is what is moral. Therefore, people who break the law are immoral. Wait a second! Is that true? Is it immoral to drink on the MRT, knowing that you will be caught and be fined? If consistency is so important to the lawyer, then it must be immoral. But what about the sick person who is thirsty? Should he be fined? Yes? No? Maybe?

I’m not disputing that people who break the law are mostly immoral. But the keyword is mostly. Because we grow up in a society, our views of what is moral tend strongly to converge. For example, it is wrong to kill. It is wrong to steal. Because you would not wish that upon yourself. But there are laws which are so banal to be laughable. It may be illegal to stage a demonstration – but is it immoral to? It may be immoral to people of a different age – but is it immoral to people today?

The key to all this is understanding what it means to be a subject within a given context with given values. Law is black and white – either it is right, or it is wrong, and law must assume an “objective” morality, without which it would have no standing. But understanding that this “objectivity” is only given due to the codification of morals, which take place at a certain time under certain circumstances, would help to separate the concepts “legality” and “morality”. What is “moral” may be “illegal”. A well-meaning German in WWII who decided to tell the SS that he didn’t see the Jew living his in cellar was moral, although it was very, very illegal to do so.