Crafted By – Singapore Accent English | S2E3
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a pangram, a sentence with all 26 letters of the alphabet. Font sellers love this sentence since it showcases all 26 letters in one go. This is a podcast, so how things look don’t matter as much as how things sound, and we became curious about the Singapore accent for English. We got some of the best voice talents to read that sentence out loud – one phrase, 20 voices.
In this episode, we use the monomyth template, commonly known as “A Hero’s Journey”
Act 1 – I Get No Respect: Singapore English in the mid-90s was a local use-only accent for English
Act 2 – The Mentor: we sit down with Assoc Prof Tan Ying Ying, who works on Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University and talk about the wonderfully unique accent here in Singapore.
Act 3 – Nativeness: Lim Yu Beng helps us hear the subtle differences in the range of local Singaporean accents
Act 4 – The Prodigal Son. Or Bastard Son: we go Singlish, with Naomi Yeo demonstrating the local hybrid of English with Malay, Indian and Chinese Dialects
Act 5 – The Triumphant Return: Singapore undergoes a huge makeover, which turns Singapore English into a regional superstar. Legendary creative director Robert Gaxiola, who has worked on pan-Asian campaigns for mega brands, talks about the accent that works across the region
This is a fun one!
https://voiceovers.asia – Asia’s no.1 Voice Over Database
“The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
That’s Dan Hurst, one of the top voice over talents I work with.
“The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
This is Teresa Lim TL Pangram This is me – same sentence.
“The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
And now, Sharon Chen, one of the most recognizable voice over talents in Singapore.
“The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
The sentence they’re all reading is a pangram: a single sentence that includes all 26 letters of the alphabet. Did you notice the change in the accent each time? Deciphering an accent is something we do subconsciously: our brains identify accents to help us to get a general understanding of the person we’re listening to. You don’t have to be Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady to correctly identify the 4 accents you’ve just heard. They were an American accent, an Australian accent, my British accent, and finally a Singaporean accent. Here is the Singapore accent read again “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
Singapore is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural melting pot 1.3 degrees north of the equator. In a population of just under 6 million, there are 3.5 million Singapore citizens. They’re all bilingual, and one of the 2 languages will be English. After 54 years of independence, in a country only 50 km wide from east to west, you might think that the local accent for English is easy to define, right? Actually, No. Not even close. On this show, we’re going down a linguistic rabbit hole, and I’m going to use a monomyth to explain why. I’m Kenn Delbridge, this is the Know or Not? Podcast. “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
A Hero’s Journey, aka a monomyth, is a classic storytelling template that involves a protagonist, who embarks on an adventure and is stopped because of a setback. He regroups, takes a new approach and emerges victorious, and is a changed person as a result. A hero’s journey has been used in a diverse range of movies, from Star Wars to Iron Man. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is literally a journey of the hero, Froddo, to destroy a ring. Not everyone is a fan of this template; film critics complain that it results in movies with the same narrative, only with different words, different actors and different sets. The one thing that’s common to all of these, is a protagonist, and typically it’s a he. There have been movies where the protagonist is not human – it can be an animal, a robot, a car, a monster, a talking toy, even an emotion – woah. I’ve just described all of the Pixar movies without a human lead. In this episode, I am going to take you on a hero’s journey, but this hero is none of the above. Instead, our hero is the Singaporean English accent. Here it is, once more, to refresh your memory. “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”
ACT 1 – I GET NO RESPECT When I’m not hosting this podcast, I’m a sound designer at an audio post studio that provides voice recording services for a diverse range of clients. Advertising agencies, broadcasters, corporations – if someone wants text recorded by a human, I can find the perfect voice over talent for the job. When I first came to Singapore in 1995, I ran the audio post suite for the relaunch of MTV Asia. Every broadcaster has a channel voice, someone who is the voice over on key imaging spots. Before 1995, MTV used Rob Middleton. Rob sample When they relaunched in 1995, MTV Asia used their on-screen hosts, the VJs, to voice their English language promos. Mike Kasem, son of US radio legend Casey Kasem, voiced many of the promos. Mike Sample After the relaunch in March of 1995, the on-air promos team received unsolicited demo tapes from several local DJs, angling for the channel voice gig – being the voice of MTV would be a huge career boost. Back then, the promo team decided that the Singapore accent couldn’t work across Asia. It was too local, for too small a market. It would take another 7 years before MTV added an English-speaking Singaporean VJ, Denise Keller. Quint spread of Brown Fox Singapore had grown to become a regional hub for broadcasters like HBO, Discovery Channel, Disney and many more, but their English language channel voices were typically from the US, UK and Australia. There was little love for the Singapore accent. While I record voices every working day, I’m no authority on accents. It was time to get an expert’s opinion.
ACT 2 – MEETING THE MENTOR
Prof Tan Ying Ying “Everyone has an accent”
Tan Ying Ying is an Associate Professor of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University. She’s the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Fung Global Fellowship from Princeton University, and has studied Singapore English extensively, analysing what makes up the Singapore accent.
Prof Tan Ying Ying “we have defined it in various ways one of causes just a look at the words that people use uniquely in the Singaporean context. That’s not terribly interesting, because there’s really just lexical analysis to other levels, which I think make up the melody of how we sound. And that’s in terms of pronunciation. So the specific sounds that we produce, and the prosody, which includes the melody, the intonation, the way we put stress on words, and also the rhythm. And these put together makes up the Singaporean accent.
Told ya she was a bona fide expert on this. In our monomyth template, on the Hero’s journey for Singapore English, she’s Yoda.
Prof Tan Ying Ying “Singapore English has developed for the last 15 years in a really fairly steady fashion. … it has reached a level of maturity that people are now beginning to sound almost like there’s a general level homogeneity .. across ethnic groups, you can’t really tell where they are, which ethnic group they are from, quite so easily in the younger population, as compared to say, our grandparents generation where someone will open his or her mouth and you can say, that is a Chinese Singaporean, or a la Singaporean. There are still certain characteristics of these ethnic differences. But I think, more and more so we’re moving towards a pan Singaporean accent. But there are course differences between the different groups, not ethnic, but perhaps the different kinds of schools that you go to different backgrounds, the type of languages that you already speak, they will influence the way you sound as well. But I think this is the right time to pin down the general characteristics…
In order to codify the national accent, to do a proper analysis of what makes the Singapore accent unique, you’d need serious resources: manpower, time, budget.
Prof Tan Ying Ying “The Singapore government has recently put in an initiative to collect Singapore’s voices. And it’s called national speech corpus, which consists of thousands of hours of Singaporeans, just of every single sector, you can think of speaking to each other. And the reason for this is for tech industries to come up with AI that can actually codify and understand Singaporean accent. … a lot of this involves actually going down to the specifics and understanding what is it about the sounds that Singaporeans make that make us sound the way sound?”
If humans could land men on the moon with computing power that we’ve since managed to stuff into mobile phones, its’ safe to assume it’s only a matter of time before this project is successful. The one thing they will have to contend with, is that accents, like language, are constantly evolving. Let’s have a listen to our pangram again.
Lim Yu Beng “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog“
That’s Lim Yu Beng, an actor with 3 decades of experience in the industry. He studied his craft in the US, and his resume includes work on in theatre, television and film. He helped break down the accent into several examples.
Lim Yu Beng “Slightly more Singaporean The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and even more Singaporean The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and it’s more specifically a Chinese Singaporean. Let me give you a slightly different version of The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. That’s a slightly more Malay Indian Singaporean. But it’s still very simple. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. So that’s still a little bit more Indian Singapore without going into Indian, it’s just more the way the English goes.
Yu Beng will now do the pangram in the Pan-Asian accent that Prof Tan mentioned
Lim Yu Beng “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog“
ACT 3 – GOING NATIVE
According to WIKIPEDIA, a native speaker is someone who learned to speak a language as part of their childhood development. Based on this, you might imagine that nativeness is clear cut, but in Singapore, it’s complicated. If you talk to Singapore’s Generation Z, with birth years from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, most will tell you that they’ve grown up with English as their primary language. So that should mean they’re native speakers, per Wikipedia’s definition. Can Singaporeans claim English as their native tongue?
Prof Tan “So what do you When do you make a claim that you own this language? Can anyone even own this language at all? And with English is really, really strange situation because all of the well everyone speaking English, but no one does come out and say, Hey, I’m a native speaker of English, except for the British, the Americans, the Australians and people in countries that have claimed to originally speak English. Singapore is a weird situation, in the sense that there is nothing about Singapore that allows us to claim that nativeness, except for the fact that in terms of us, and in terms of the way the policies have shaped us, we have no choice but have to use it. So whether we like it or not, it was a language that has been put on us and that we have internalized it in such a way that it has become native to us. But yet no one dares still claim, I’m a native speaker.”
Picture a map of East Asia in your mind; I’m talking about every country south or east of China. That means Japan, the 2 Koreas, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and Singapore. Ponder in which countries speak English natively. There’s only 2 – The Philippines, and Singapore.
ACT 4 – THE PRODIGAL SON. OR BASTARD SON.
This is slightly tangential to what we’re discussing here, but it’s something that we do have to cover. It’s the amalgamation of native languages with English. The country of origin of these hybrids are generally self-explanatory – Japlish is obviously from Japan; Chinglish is English mixed with Chinese. For Singapore, this hybrid is labelled Singlish.
Prof Tan Ying Ying “in the academic world, … we look at Singapore and English spoken in Singapore in two different ways. One is the more standard educated variety which we call Singapore English. …English spoken with a Singaporean accent. And the other … is Singlish and that is not English at all. That’s basically a contact language with the various at the local languages mixed together with English. So, English spoken with a Singaporean accent really refers to English, standard English as one group could understand everywhere else in the world. But with a Singaporeans sounding characteristic is their analysis of what that actually mean.”
Most of the hybrids blend English and the local native language. For Singlish, it’s English blended with Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. It gets funky because the grammar is then spliced in four ways. Not sure what this sounds like? Naomi Yeo is one of a rare breed of voice talents in Singapore who is hired for both English and Mandarin voice work. Most voice talents, while technically bilingual, will only accept professional voice work in one language. She’s agreed to demonstrate Singlish, describing her journey to the studio
Naomi Yeo Singlish Example
If you’re not from Singapore, Singlish can sound pretty out there. Here’s Associate Professor Tan’s academic view of Singlish
Prof Tan Ying Ying “Singlish is not English… I’m a strong champion of English, what I have very strong objection to is that people keep saying, Hey, you know, Singlish is at the lowest end of the spectrum of the standard English that we’re talking about. But why do you put them even on the same scale, it should be a completely different box altogether, because they don’t belong together. And the minute you start to think that way, if you want to have a single production, by all means, do it provide subtitles? Because this is not bad English, is not broken English is just Singlish.”
When expats come to Singapore and put effort into blending in with the local community, they often indiscriminately add Lah at the end of sentences. But it’s more nuanced because, in practice, there are variations of lah because of the option to use different tones and inflexions which then change the meaning.
Prof Tan Ying Ying “think about this as grammar, right? That the law itself, it’s got different tones, attached to the law, every single tone, put in a different audience gives you a different meaning. So you need to learn all these because someone needs to write a grammar book on law and say, Well, look, we have 10 different variants of laws, and you have law with a low tone law with a high tone law with falling tone, love with the rising tone, and you can attach them in these various fashions. And this will give you meaning XYZ. And people don’t think about it this way. Because they think, Well, you know, lies, la people just drop the laws everywhere. That’s how Singaporeans speak. But there is a grammar behind this. So I think people who use them without understanding the grammar tend to use them wrongly and the why you get people making suggestions to you like, yo, you know, you do this better than most MMOs, you might already have internalized some of the grammar, which is why you do it. Well. And many people don’t. Yeah.“
The impact of the Singlish hybrid is more pronounced as English is so widely spoken here. There are a few books which have attempted to explain Singlish, mostly with a humorous tone. I asked Associate Professor Tan about one of these, Coxford Dictionary, which is a play on words and the Singlish term “talk cock”, which means idle banter or talking total nonsense.
Prof Tan Ying Ying “It’s a very good effort. In trying to put many of these English terms into print of some form, it’s actually a really, really difficult task, because someone actually needs to go in and try to pin down the meanings. Many of these meanings are not transparent to people. And it’s not just the cost of a dictionary, lots of other people online are doing pretty much the same thing. You have another site called the Singapore long, Singapore, Lang, whatever. And they would pretty much doing the same stuff as well. So I see this as an increasing effort of people trying to make sense of single age.“
I’d like to share an urban myth about Singlish that I’ve heard a few times. The story goes that Singapore Air Force Top Guns were training in Arizona with the US Air Force, and on the first day of the exercises, the US pilots dominated the Singapore jets. The US knew exactly what the Singapore crews were up to as they could monitor the radio comms. That night, the Singapore pilots decided to change things up, and converse in Singlish during the dogfights. The legend goes that the Singapore jets won every aerial exercise for the rest of the week. That sounds kinda far-fetched, but it’s a cool story cos the hero of the tale is linguistics. Speaking of heros, lets refocus on our monomyth protagonist, the Singapore English accent. It started out rejected by the big broadcasters in the mid 90s, and was surviving on local media projects. However, unseen forces had moved the pieces of the puzzle, and our hero was about to overcome the odds and become one of the most highly desired accents in Asia.
ACT 5 – THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN
“We’re looking for a male voice with an Asian English accent for a presentation video for a big property project. It needs to well spoken, clear and work for high net worth individuals who will be the audience. Please help”
This was typical of the emails that I started to receive in 2008. That year, Singapore would host the first night race in Formula One history, with massive support from the Singapore Tourism Board. All around the Marina Bay, years of careful urban planning were coming to fruition: a year and a half after that first grand prix, the Marina Bay Sands opened, as did Resorts World Sentosa, Universal Studios, and Gardens by the Bay. Singapore had shed its image of a stodgy uncool city state and was now one of the world’s hotspots. Doing business here meant making glossy video presentations, and those email requests for an English accent that would work for Asia were the turning point for Singapore English.
Robert Gaxiola is a creative director who has won an outsized number of awards for his work in advertising, and he’s been in Singapore for over 2 decades. Coming to Singapore from California, I asked him for his impressions of the Singapore accent.
Gaxiola “Well, you can pick it up in a crowd if you’re at the airport, right?”
He’s worked on huge campaigns that target multiple countries in Asia, and in casting roles in these campaigns, relied on using people with a certain look
Gaxiola “we used to get briefs on pan Asian and Asian people. So the reason was, they could travel well, so if you got a pan Asian look, which is kind of a mixed … person. They could travel in markets like how from Hong Kong to Indonesia, Malaysia to Singapore. without a problem. Maybe it’s the same thing with voices, …. the Filipino voice English voices has too distinct … But with the English education here … You have a lot of people who … in Singapore, they speak very well. I think that’s that’s kind of what they’re looking for. Because it could, I guess kind of accent neutral through Asia.Gaxiola 6:46 … when i when i when i first got to Singapore, I was so keen to use all the British voiceover guys because to my ear been green from California that was just fresh sounded so so good. And later, I got to use some of the local guys from the local DJ and stuff and with the regular speaking voice, like I thought that was really had a nice sound to it. …. I think using using the local guys, … was always always something to look forward to.
Remember the map of Asia, when I asked you to think about which countries spoke English natively? The Filipino accent, lovely and melodious in its own right, was too easily identified as being from the Philippines. The Singapore accent, on the other hand, COULD cross borders, with it’s mix of influences: the prim and proper poise of UK English, lightly seasoned with hints of neutral American tones. Singapore’s financial market had opened up, and Singapore banks became regional banks. Pan-Asian ad campaigns no longer relied on UK or US voices. The Singapore accent became the new voice of Asia: crisp and easily understood by Asian business leaders who travelled the world. They were drawn to an accent that has Asian flavour enhancing its Anglo-roots.
Prof Tan “So when you say Singapore is the only place in Asia where English is native, is really refreshing, because most people don’t go that way. …It is absolutely true that it is native, just like I would think English is also native in India, because of the colonial heritage and the fact that it has been and it’s always been one of the official languages next to Hindi. We are pretty much in a parallel situation. But in Singapore’s case, English has been used a lot more than in India. … I think people are moving away from ethnicity and moving towards national identity… people start talking about being Singaporean first, rather than being Chinese first, or believers. …I think as a whole as a nation, that is this detachment and moving towards this pan Singaporean identity, which is great.”
In a quarter century, Singapore English has gone from being used only locally, to an accent that works in any country in Asia. Voice talents are paid based on how widely their voice can be used: top US voice actors can command big paydays because they’re paid for all the markets that their narration could be used, which was basically the whole world. Singapore voice talents used to only be able to charge for one market, Singapore. Now, I am routinely asked to include multiple market loading fees because Singapore English is the go-to accent for Pan-Asian English campaigns. It’s a remarkable turnaround. In my website for voice talents, at www.voiceovers.asia, I’ve put Singapore English under the term Asian English, because that IS what it’s become.
Prof Tan “You’re absolutely right. And people more people need to know that
As per the Hero’s Journey template, our hero, Singapore English returns home after completing the journey, changed and transformed. What started out as a highly localized accent in the mid 90s, now stands alone as the English accent that works best across Asia. It’s almost unbelievable, like something out of the movies…
The Singapore Tourism Board used to use the slogan “Uniquely Singapore”. Their website, at visitsingapore.com lists the various genres of interest for visitors as neighbourhoods, arts, history, architecture, culture, nature and leisure. I’d like to suggest that the one thing that makes Singapore truly unique, is the accent that has evolved over its 54 year history. During this show, you’ve heard some 20 Singaporean voice talents reading the pangram. I’m going to end with these 20 voices reciting the National Pledge.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Crafted By, from the Know or Not podcast. It was produced and hosted by me, Kenn Delbridge, and my thanks to everyone who sat for interviews and the 20 voice talents who contributed their voices: they are Benjamin Chow, Chan Hui Yuh, Daphne Lim, Dwayne Tan, Elliott Danker, Hagen Valerio, Jean Danker, Joe Augustin, Lim Yu Beng, Lyra Beins-Stewart, Maddy Barber, Margaret Mary Lim, Mister Young, Naomi Yeo, Leslie Pillay, Remesh Panicker, Sharon Chen, Susan Ng, William Xavier and Yasminne Cheng.
For more information and link, please visit our website, knowornot.com.
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