Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Time’s Up For Asian English

I picked up a jar of turtle fungus paste at a medicine shop on the way home last night. The label said: "It will lower the evil fire."

It probably intended to say something dull about reducing one’s fever, but I preferred the wording as it stood. We all have evil fires which occasionally need lowering.

But labels like that are disappearing. Tragically, English in Asia is being standardised and brought in line with Western English.

The growth of outplacement services is causing this to happen all over Asia, and the Olympics are amplifying the effect in China.

This is dumb. Asian phrasing and terminology are much more powerful than English equivalents. I’ll prove it to you.

In the West, signs in parks say: "Don’t drop litter."

In China, and I am not making this up, the same signs sometimes say: "If you pay loving care to public health, you will live to be 100 years old. If you throw garbage everywhere, your children will die."

That’s a brilliant sign, don’t you think? Be honest. Which of the two slogans more powerfully gets your attention?

Homeowners in the West put pictures of a dog in front of their homes to deter thieves. In India, I saw a sign on a gate saying: "Beware ferocious dogs and ghosts." Junk mail deliverers made a wide berth.

Instead of "Keep Off" signs stuck into lawns, some Beijing parks have signs which say: "Show mercy to the slender grass."

Instead of "No Hawkers", the Chinese equivalent is impressively direct: "Peddlers are prohibited from entering. Violators will be beaten viciously with violent blows."

I once saw a "No Entry" sign in Indonesia which consisted simply of a black-on-white image of one man shooting another. Message received. I chose not to enter.

Then there was the sign in Malaysia which said: "Please do not spit too loud." This is smart: the sound of spitting is as revolting as the sight of it.

Asian signs often intriguingly reveal the mindset of the people writing them.

At the zoo in Nanjing, keepers put up a sign which says: "Please don’t hurt the animals while teasing them."

Chinese officials may think animals are there to be tormented, but big buildings are to be respected, as shown by this sign in front of one: "Classic and tranquil and enjoyable and big hall."

In India, I saw a sign in front of a tourist hotel which said: "Broken English Spoken Perfectly."

Thailand is another place with memorably honest signs. You’ll find one outside a bar in Phuket which says: "Over 150 Pretty Ladies and Two Ugly Ones." Straight out of the horse’s mouth!

And still on the theme of truthfulness, there used to be one in the "Ethnic Minorities" theme park in Beijing which described it to visitors as "Racist Park". Sadly it has disappeared in the pre-Olympics clean-up.

Signs in Asia can often conjure up existentialist puzzles.

At the building where I do most of my work in Kowloon, there are signs bolted onto the tables. The majority of the space is taken up by the words: "Do Not Remove This Sign."

So let’s fight to keep Asian English the way it is. We like it that way.
Tags: Asia, English In Asia, Western English, Asian English, Asian Phrasing, Asian Terminology



Blogger Convivialdingo said...

All your base are belong to us! :-)

24 April, 2008 16:25  
Blogger Johnny Ong said...

sorry mate, malaysia's english is british based

25 April, 2008 09:49  
Anonymous 3POINT8 said...

All your base are belong to us!

26 April, 2008 18:03  

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