Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Australian Cultural Dictionary

A koala at a wildlife park near Adelaide, Australia

Where do you turn to in order to understand unfamiliar words and expressions when you’re living and studying in a new culture? My first point of call is usually a dictionary. Not all dictionaries contain local expressions, however. That’s why we’ve come up with an Australian Cultural Dictionary containing words and expressions suggested by English language students in Adelaide, Australia. All these words and expressions are ones that the students found hard to understand in their first weeks in Australia.

This dictionary is free, it’s online, and it’s designed specifically for learners of English. That means that we’ve included information that learners really need:

A kangaroo with a joey in its pouch

  • spelling;
  • definitions, written with a limited defining vocabulary (i.e. a set number of words used in the definitions so they are simpler to understand);
  • pronunciation, both in the International Phonetic Alphabet and in audio files (which work fine on Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome and will soon work well on Internet Explorer too, we hope);
  • grammatical information, giving information on whether a noun is countable for example, or how to make it plural;
  • usage notes, so that learners know who usually uses a word (for example, older or younger people) and when they might use it (formally or informally);
  • example sentences taken from a corpus (i.e. a collection) of real English sentences;
  • photographs of all the words or of situations in which the expressions are used; and
  • videos of some words and expressions (there is nothing like seeing a kangaroo hopping to understand how it really moves!).
There is also a link to an online survey, and we really hope you’ll give us some feedback (and maybe win a $20 Amazon voucher).

The words and expressions are all used in Adelaide, and most of them are used throughout Australia. Even if you don’t visit our country, we hope the dictionary will give you an idea of some of the common words and expressions you might encounter here.You can find the dictionary at this website:


Alpacas at the Royal Adelaide Show

This dictionary was produced by Julia Miller, Deny Kwary and Ardian Setiawan. We'd like to thank the School of Education at the University of Adelaide for giving us some funds to help put the project online. We'd also like to thank the PEP students at the university's English Language Centre for suggesting the words and giving us feedback on the types of definitions that worked best. Thank you also to Adam Kilgarriff for allowing us to access the VOLE corpus. And a big thank you to Athena Kerley and Alex Lovat at the University of Adelaide for lending us their voices for the audio files!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Primary learning in a multilingual society

Eunice Lee is a seven-year old girl who is studying in primary one. She is enrolled in a private school, which requires her traveling for two hours each morning to the so-called better school. On the eve of Labour Day, she returned to her grandparents' house with exercises from school in three languages. Eunice has to learn Malay, English and Mandarin in school. Her favorite language is English and she dislikes Mandarin, her school-based mother tongue. Right after lunch at 3 o’clock one afternoon Eunice started to complete her homework. The problem-solving strategy that required her selecting and creating answers for the blanks was invoked. This strategy was chosen with the awareness that she hated the Spartan learning style, which made her cry before when she was attending kindergarten. It was the least stressful method in solving linguistic problems for her without sacrificing learning too much.

                                 Eunice doing her mother tongue homework at her workstation

Malay was the first exercise type that Eunice did. She was asked to spell and read the words including the instructions. Whenever she was stranded at a syllable, spelling aid was rendered and she continued with the pronunciation before figuring out what to do with the questions. Her tasks included selecting the right color terms for different objects, such as grapes (anggur), hibiscus (bunga raya), grass (rumput), etc., naming objects by pairing the words with images, and serializing pictures in a flow of before-and-after sequence. The tasks were relatively manageable for Eunice; however, the reading of instructions and words via syllabic segmentation was rather challenging. She had to figure out that [i] is a suffix in /mempunyai/ (owns), which is a four-syllabic word /mem-pun-ya-i/ rather than three */mem-pun-yai/.

In comparison to Malay, English was relatively easy for Eunice who had to decide which picture should be matched with /thank you/ in a relationship chain. The person who received a gift or assistance would require the politeness tag as the corresponding utterance. In another Malay exercise, Eunice had to construct sentences for a pictorial sequence, namely one with a girl smiling at a birthday cake and the other showing the girl thanking her mother for a present. This exercise was trying for Eunice as she needed help in Mandarin to clarify matters and draw upon her personal experience from celebrating her sister’s birthday. The language of metacommunication for completing school work oscillated between Mandarin and English in a complicated way. Mandarin was used to encourage her thinking about Jessie, her sister, and the things related to Jessie's birthday celebration. Yet, English was required to fix the syntactic and spelling errors.

                                                      Jessie and Eunice at Legoland

Interestingly, English became the means of explanation in approaching the Malay exercise and English plus Mandarin were the language mediums for talking about the English exercise. The metacommunication of homework solving was a combination of English and Mandarin plus some onomatopoeia for making academic tasks more aligned to a primary school pupil’s mind. Not a single phrase at the metacommunication level was sanitized according to the standard written format in a particular language. This was obvious at the syntactic level as each phrasal segment contained a smattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and sounds conjoined within a code-mixing mould involving two of the three languages that Eunice learns. 
Mandarin, a tricky subject for Eunice, was the last exercise type to complete. Eunice, who dislikes Mandarin, has to deal with Mandarin school work that contained very many characters testing one's linguistic-visual spatial memory. The hardest exercise already had the answer choices marked with the number of the questions. Eunice informed that the teacher dropped hints for them, reinforcing negatively the pupil's belief that Mandarin was indeed difficult. The hints that resolved 15% of  the work have made learning Mandarin more opaque. For the remaining Chinese exercises, Eunice had to match pictures with phrases, fill in the blanks with phrases, copy Mandarin characters in a series of writing transformation beginning from the basic strokes to a radical formation before the complete emergence of the Mandarin character; and she had to place punctuation marks, namely a question mark, a comma, or a period in the correct places within or at the end of several Mandarin phrases.

In the learning interactivity, Mandarin was used to talk about the Chinese exercises, as it is the common language between Eunice and her maternal grandparents and parents (her biological mother tongue is Hokkien, spoken in her paternal household). Speaking Mandarin is very different from learning the written Chinese characters and understanding the syntactic constructions. A very young Chinese speaker such as Eunice, who may be fluent in spoken Mandarin, was unable to identify all the corresponding written Mandarin characters in complex phrases. Eunice also had difficulties in construing and producing syntactic segments according to a common Chinese scheme of knowledge, especially when she was already getting used to the logics of English scripts constructed for children in programs like Hi-5, Disney Junior, Okto Channel. 

                                Eunice and her cousin, Jiayi, undoing their mother tongue on stage in their glocal world

One may be interested to know that (Chinese) adults who sing the Mandarin pop songs of Jay Chou and Wang LeeHom may not recognize each Mandarin characters in the lyrics. A cognition with sound symbolic mapping capability and tone-sensitive filter would be sufficient for the musical rendition (cf. Sew 2014a on Mandarin /chun/ or spring being construed as leftover in Hokkien by means of sound symbolism).  The same principle applies when one sings in Hokkien, a southern Chinese dialect, because the target verbal Hokkien words are matched with the corresponding sound symbolic Mandarin characters since there is only one set of Chinese character for all the Chinese dialects.

Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese do not share the same tones. For example, /sui/, or pretty in Hokkien is represented with 水, or water in written Mandarin on the Kara-oke screen. Although the tone of the Hokkien-/sui/ is different from 水, a 'polyglotal' Chinese may easily sort out the dialectal mapping almost instantaneously. Most of the time, however, the dialectal-phonetic-tonal pairing is irrelevant because only singing  and performing matter in the verbal repertoire for singing out loud.

The metacommunication of learning interaction in a multilingual society is a form of complex primary speech much more complicated than the monolingual prints on the exercise sheets (see MacCorquodale, 1970, p. 95 for a explanation on primary speech). In fact, the mode of metacommunication reflects the contemporary language use in a global world that involves a mixing of language codes (Hall & Cook, 2012). The complex dialogue structures in the English conversation between a female representative of an international organization with a prominent local figure in a Guyama community is a good example (Bartlett, 2014, p. 23).

Despite the romantic belief that language learning occurs in the guise of the formal language, spoken utterances on the fly either in a formal, or informal (learning) interactivity do not adhere to the standard variety at morphological and syntactic levels. This is due to the fact that other non-linguisitic indexes are required to complete communication tasks (Sew, 2009, Clark, 1996). One may want to ponder further if dropping out of the primary school has anything to do with the code of metacommunication. The code of instruction that is very different from the code of interaction at home might pose a learning hurdle to a child in acquiring academic knowledge in monolingual and multilingual societies. The notions of elaborated and restricted codes are relevant to understanding the matter (Bernstein, 1964) although this article does not correlate social class with the codes.

Many a times at secondary school level, educators are reminded to speak the language of teenagers in order to connect with the youngsters and secure their attention. Symbolic as it may seem, language as social capital  is another factor underpinning   language learning (Sew, 2012). The use of slang, for example, is a case in point. Slang is something frowned upon as a bad linguistic behavior despite its familiarity in the spoken and digital discourse of youngsters (see Sew, 2014b for a natural occurence of slang in a language learning situation).
Eunice did not cry after three and a half hours of homework coaching on Wednesday, although her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets the next day for reading practice. The reading practice was intended as a means to strengthen her linguistic-visual spatial memory for Mandarin. She did not do it, of course. The domestic helper came to her rescue by switching on the DVD player showing Walt Disney’s top computer-animated musical fantasy-comedy film, Frozen. Yes, I let it go by asking Eunice to play the song ‘Let it go’ sung by Idina Menzel again.

Bartlett, T. (2014). Analysing power In language: A practical guide. London: Routledge.
Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and restricted codes: Their social origins and some consequences. American Anthropologist 66(6), Part 2, 55–69.

Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, G., & Cook, G. (2012). Own-language use in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching 45(3), 271-308.

MacCorquodale, K. (1970). On Chomsky's review of Skinner's 'Verbal Behavior'. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 13(1), 83–99.
Sew, Jyh Wee. (2009). Semiotik Persembahan Wacana [Semiotics of discourse performing]. Kuala Lumpur: University Malaya Press.

____________. (2012). Malay and global literacy. Akademika 82(2), 25-35.

____________. (2014a). Spring in other dialect. Grammar Gang (January issue).

____________. (2014b). Slang: Beyond a knee-jerk reaction. Grammar Gang (April Issue).
Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Spot the mistake!

Subject verb disagreements like this are becoming increasingly common in English. It's as though the writer or speaker looks at the last noun they've used and makes the verb agree with that, instead of searching for the subject of the sentence. In this case, it is the "illuminated red beam on the doors" that should change to green, not the doors themselves, so the sentence should read: 

Please do not enter lift cart until the illuminated red beam on the doors changes to green.

Am I being unnecessarily pedantic? I don't think so. The UK Guardian newspaper recently published an article about the Idler Academy's  Bad Grammar Awards. Stray  apostrophes feature there, as well as confusing subjects/objects and inaccurate spelling.

Do these things really matter, though? Surely communication is the main thing? After all, language is all about communication. Yes and no. Spelling mistakes may not matter in the long run, but if communication is impeded by bad grammar or punctuation then there may be serious problems. Think about these sentences from the Cybertext Newsletter blog:

     Most of the time travellers worry about their luggage.

     Most of the time, travellers worry about their luggage.

Are we talking about ordinary travellers or time travellers?

One of my other favourites is this Australian sign:


Without the punctuation, this could mean that drivers should go more slowly because children could be injured if a car hit them. However it can also mean that children should walk more slowly and not bounce along the road!

Finally, let's look at another sign:

The top line starts, "You would of noticed . . ." When we speak in English we usually say "would've". The writer here obviously didn't realise this sound meant "would have" and not "would of".

Little mistakes like this don't matter in terms of communication, but they make the reader think that the writer is either careless or uneducated, and that is not helpful if someone is trying to sell a product, impress a future employer or write a good academic essay.

What common mistakes have you noticed around you, and have your own writing mistakes ever had a comic or serious effect in your life?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Slang: Beyond a knee-jerk reaction

Here is a snippet of what was going on in a Malay language classroom. At the beginning of one particular tutorial discussion, the compound word air [water] mata [eye], or tears in the lyrics of a Malay song, entitled Sahabat (Friend, performed by Najwa Latif and featuring Sleet and Shamkamarul) was highlighted for discussion.

Before the lesson could proceed to the next Malay compound selected for discussion, one female student raised a question, “Isn’t air mata boyfriend?”  This knee-jerk reaction in foreign language learning indicated that Malay learners at tertiary level may also be interested in the slangy meanings, i.e. boyfriend or girlfriend beyond the dictionary meaning of air mata. In terms of language pedagogy, the learning diversion was an exciting topic to some male students who began to show a heightened interest in the morpheme.

The learning episode makes an interesting discussion of slang words in this blog post, not least because many young people incorporate slang in verbal communication when they make reference to a romantic partner. Actually, mata air, the inverse of air mata (tears) is the slang for romantic partner in Malay, which may imply that a boyfriend, or girlfriend has the potential to provoke tears.

                                        Mata air (image taken from

In Standard Malay, the word mata air has a dictionary meaning which is spring, or water source. Reflecting further on the meaning in mata air may suggest that the reason for tears to be co-opted into the slang has to do with (erratic) emotional reactions that may come with maintaining a relationship. 

Turning to English, the slang for the same reference is associated with a popular word often uttered in American movies and television programs, namely chicks. From a second speaker viewpoint, the slang chicks may well be referring to small and cuddly qualities, reflecting further a functional aspect of the relationship in the particular speech culture. I welcome alternative explanations as the slangy meanings of chicks in American English. 
                                       Image taken from
Interestingly, the slangy chick has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in literature studies. Reflecting a particular literary genre, the term chick-lit is coined for writings about women of all ages. It is an indisputable fact that chick-lit has received considerable amount of media and academic attention across the globe (cf. Donadio, 2006). Among others, Indigeneous Australian writer, Anita Heiss' work, Not Meeting Mr Right and Avoiding Mr Right are regarded as significant works of chick-lit (Ommundsen, 2011).

During my undergraduate years, my peers co-opted the Cantonese word vegetable [choy] as the slang word for a potential boyfriend or girlfriend. Due to the multiple uses of this slang in Hong Kong drama and movies, the Cantonese morpheme remains a robust slang currently cutting across different types of speech situations. The slangy use of vegetable as romantic partner is also true among young speakers of Southeast Asian Mandarin.

Recently, vegetable or 菜 cài has become a slang word in Taiwanese Mandarin. The Mandarin 'vegetable' was used as slang in the interview between a host and a famous Taiwanese actress on television, as she replied to the local host, “You are not my vegetable” [ni bu shi wo de cài...] to reject the tongue in cheek offer from the male host as her boyfriend. 

Along the green vein, so to speak, many fruit names such as apple, banana, cucumber, and grapes are part of the descriptions for referring to certain human characteristics in English (Sew, 2014). The derivation of human references based on vegetables and fruits may have started as slangy references before the full acceptance and common use of the meanings in verbal communication.
There are several reasons for speakers to include slang as part of their utterances in communication. Peer-group bonding, or aping may be a reason for the use of choy when a young speaker is chatting with his friends casually. Peer-group identification or the desire to connect with her clique underpins my Chinese student's interest in using mata air as slang when she interacts with her Malay friends. One study reports that the use of slang is a self-protecting strategy for interaction in certain Malay speech community (Noriah & Norma, 2006). In this instance, slang becomes a masking tool in face-to-face communication.

In claiming that texting occupies an important position among youngsters, Deborah Tannen has noticed that young people prefer a digital text to a phone call, which is considered to be intrusive (McLaughlin, 2010). As a typical semiotic culture in using social media, inserting slangy lingo in electronic text augurs well with texting as an intimate form of communication for young people. For example, Eva Lam (2004) has studied the digital records of two female chat room users and noticed that certain texts contained hybrid phrases combining English and Cantonese. Lam's digital data such as open laugh mei (are you kidding) and hate 4 nei (hate you forever) are slangy digital exchanges. 

Ontologically speaking, our mind may be more poetic and capable of making hybrid connections to many abstract, or metaphorical notions derived from the original linguistic meanings when we operate digitally. The medium of communication is a relevant factor contributing to slang production because it is easy to text slangy morphemes via a smart phone, or utter slangy references face-to-face than to spell them out in print for mass distribution (Sew, 2010).

The inclusion of an alternative lingo within the electronic discourse runs parallel to the use of slang as a pragmatic diversion in oral communication. It is logical to assume that young netizens' construction of semiotic codings while interacting with each other, as a form of personal texting in the digital spaces, may be the underlining pragmatic reason for online advertisements to include hybrid Chinese expressions and phrases that are different from the standard grammar (Feng & Wu, 2007).

We may equate mata air in Malay with chicks in American English, 菜 or choy in Cantonese, or cài in Taiwanese and Southeast Asian Mandarin as the slangy lingo of young speakers, although chicks is limited to a female reference. (Perhaps, cock may be the English slang word referring to the male counterpart). 
Readers who know any slangy words communicated in the same way as mata air, chicks, or choy are invited to share their collection of slang words, as well as their reasons for making use of the slang words in daily communication.

Donadio, R. (2006). The Chick-Lit Pandemic. The New York Times, 19 Mar.
Feng, J.W., & Wu, D. (2007). Cultural value change in mainland China's commercial discourse. In Shi-xu (Ed.), Discourse as cultural struggle (pp. 73-90). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Lam, W.S.E. (2004). Second language socialization in a bilingual chat room: Global and local considerations. Language Learning & Technology 8(3), 44-65.

McLaughlin, J. (2010). To text or not to text: Even young people don't know the answer. Inside Fordham.

Noriah Mohamed, & Norma Baharom. (2006). Pembentukan kata dalam slanga lelaki gender ketiga. In Paitoon Chaiyanara et al. (Ed.), Bahasa: Memeluk akar menyuluh ke langit (pp. 126-171). Singapura: Universiti Teknologi Nanyang.
Ommundsen, W. (2011). Sex in the global city: Chick-lit with a difference. Contemporary Women's Writing 5(2), 107-124.

Sew, J.W. (2010). Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya Press.
Sew, J.W. (2014). Going bananas. Grammar Gang, 1 February.

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Games for language teaching and learning

Following on from Jyh’s post about the play museum, I thought I’d write about how we can use games in language teaching and learning. 

As a language teacher in Portugal in the 1990s, there were lots of games I used with my students. One favourite was the grammar auction, where students had an amount of (imaginary!) money and had to bid for sentences. If the sentence was correct, they doubled their money; if it was ungrammatical, they lost their money. Fortunes were made and lost in the space of a lesson! 

Another favourite activity was picture pairs, where cards represented pairs of words and pictures. For example, a picture of an umbrella was matched by the word ‘umbrella’ on another card. All the cards started off face down, and students could turn over two cards at a time in order to find a perfect pair. These cards could be difficult for the artistically challenged teacher to make, but fortunately there were several good books of grammar games with photocopiable activities. Two very useful  books were Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities and Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games. There were others whose names I’ve forgotten, but perhaps you’d like to share your ideas in the comments box below?

Another game was snakes and ladders, in which students threw a dice to go round a board and answer questions on aspects of English grammar. If they answered wrongly when their counter was on the head of a snake, down they went to the snake’s tail a few rows below. However, if they answered correctly at the foot of a ladder, they could go a long way up the board.

We also played dominoes, with words and definitions, or pictures and written words, on different domino rectangles. And of course, we played a lot of bingo, with numbers and words. A
photo by Julia Miller
slightly less lugubrious variation on the word game hangman was the spelling shark, in which students had a limited number of opportunities to guess the letters that made up a word. If they weren’t quick enough, and didn’t guess the word in number of chances available, the stick figure on the whiteboard walked off a cliff and fell into the mouth of a hungry shark.  The number of chances increased if the teacher was feeling generous!

photo by Julia Miller
With very young students, musical colours was a winner. The children danced around to an English song, and when the music stopped they had to stand on a large piece of paper in the colour called out by the teacher. We also did this activity with shapes.

Many games were enjoyed by students of all ages. However, some adult learners and parents of younger students worried that games were not a ‘serious’ learning activity. Their fears were unfounded, as students in my classes were motivated by the games and did well in exams. 

Although, as a teacher, I spent a lot of time preparing materials, these games could be used again and again, and brought a lot of pleasure to my students, while at the same time stimulating them in their language learning. Nowadays, of course, there are so many opportunities for online language games too. What are some of the language learning games and websites that you like best?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Playing in Singapore

Currently, there is a worldwide movement acknowledging the importance of play in the development of children. Playeum, or The Play Museum places several play stations in an enclosure emulating the concept of museum without walls. The aim is to provide multi-disciplinary cultural experiences for families and such a concept is well-received because Playeum has found its sponsorship in major cities.

                                  Parents and children collaborating at the pictorial wall

According to the organizer's flyer, Playeum has found its way to Melbourne through ArtPlay Arts Grant in 2011, won a Traiblazer Award presented at the British Museum, London, in 2010, and earned a Whitmore Drawing Inspiration Award, London, in 2009. In Singapore, Playeum became a reality at Tampines Central Community Complex, on 23 February 2014. It was a well-organized event attended by many parents and close-knit family members along with young children.
                                  Playeum at Tampines Central Community Complex Feb. 2014

There are many play stations set up for children to create, innovate, shape and design with confidence. Some of the playful activities included drawing on a large pictorial wall, using flour to mold various shapes with plastic casts, assembling hand-made designs on cards as part of the creative display for the wall mounted on the stage, and running through a maze of cloths to draw on the paper found in selected panels.

Designing on a T-Shirt is another interesting play form that offers much scope for creativity. Young children were captivated by the task. Some put their hard work to practical use by wearing the shirt immediately after they had put their heart and sweat into the designs.
                                          Molding with flour was a captivating activity at Playeum
The Guest-of-Honor, Mr. Heng Swee Keat, Minister of Education in Singapore, was present at the Community Centre. In his speech, he informed parents that unstructured play is an important part of a child’s life. At present, schools in Singapore are also putting emphasis on the EAGLES Award that speaks of students' leadership achievements as an integral part of holistic education. EAGLES stand for Edusave Award for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service which is awarded to Singapore students based on their co-curricular activities and contribution to community services over a one-year period.

At the Community Complex, many parents picked up useful tips from experts who shared some of their observations from studying children at play. One panelist shared her findings that all children wanted to be with their parents as indicated in their narratives for the pictures they drew, which always contain a participating parent event though the parents were not made visible in the picture. Another expert noticed that a child might develop a routinized feeling towards extracurricular classes  that they are enrolled in if they are not provided with their own play time. Going to a music lesson, for example, is not the same as playing the instrument on their own and recognizing their particular strength in the musical genre.
                                          A sense of satisfaction: wearing a self-designed T-shirt

More importantly, an expert also informed that pre-school children lacking drawing ability may indicate a lack of confidence due to the fear of drawing something incorrectly. The resolution is simply to encourage the child to draw openly according to her own view. Confidence would eventually develop from the drawing task. Another expert reminded parents that it is acceptable to have play-talk with young children as a form of bonding. Conversation need not always be a question-answer formulaic sequence. Questions may lead to more questions as a form of interactivity between parents and children.

The message is clear from Playeum that as part of a normal childhood, children must be given the space to explore with colors, glue, flour, paper, ribbon, cloth, straws, etc., not least because such behavior might not be readily available nor would it be a welcome way for some children to spend time at home. The organizers might have generated the realization that it is alright for children to make a mess during play and have fun through the experience even though there is no practical outcome simply because such activities are part and parcel of the personal development in childhood.
I still remember how American television programs such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company enhanced my own command of alphabetical compositions and counting in English. Puppet characters like the Count, Cookie Monster, Ernie and Big Bird successfully reinforced my English counting and spelling that I painstakingly learned in primary school with plenty of fun via rhythmic beats and melodious tunes.

Playeum reminds me that, despite a nightmarish experience in primary school, my language development was rescued by means of playful methodology such as mimicking a cartoon's words, or aping the puppet characters' pronunciation through pseudo-personification. The joy of watching and listening to English on television was all the more important because English as a subject was only spoken occasionally during contact time for a total of 4-5 hours a week many decades ago. One might recall the mimicking effort of a three year-old girl learning to sing in formal Mandarin phrases while dancing in front of the television according to the Chinese music video (Sew, 2013). 

Readers of this blog entry are welcome to share their experiences of playing or playful activities that have contributed to their language or personal development.

Further references


Sew, Jyh Wee. (2013). Sing to read. Grammar Gang.

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Immediately on Top

Year 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese Zodiac. One word that revolves around the concept of horse in Chinese, English and Malay is horsepower. As a specific value, horsepower is a common unit of measurement for mechanical power. The horse notion is iconically prevalent in horsepower in some other languages, such as /马力; mǎ (horse) lì (power)/ in Mandarin, or /kuasa [power] kuda [horse]/ in Malay. A short discussion on iconicity is available in Sew (2005).
                                     image taken from

Cataloging lexical compounds between Chinese, English and Malay for a contrast of morphosyntactic variation makes a typical comparison. The morpheme horse is at the initial position of the English and Chinese lexical composition in contrast to the final position of the Malay compound. In terms of lexical combination, the Malay bipartite compound kuasa kuda  exists in an opposite combinatory to horsepower and /马力/ in Mandarin. 

In the remainderof this blog post, the focus is on the Chinese characters horse and top. / shàng/, which initially denote on top of a running horse, is currently an adverb meaning immediately. Jim Gibney (2011), who teaches English in China, observes that /mashang/, which literally means 'at horse speed', turns out to be 'eventually' when it comes to getting repair work done for his building.

In the visual representation below, the idiomatic /mashang/ combines with two other Chinese characters have 有 and presents 礼 to denote a wish that is synonymous to receive gift immediately. From a semiotic viewpoint, the visual representation depicts a gift (written with the character fortune) sitting on top of equine as the main component of /mashang/. If iconic symbolization may be part of cultural semiotics (Sew, 2005), the red paper cutting represents an original aspect of /mashang/.

In Chinese culture, apart from material objects, gift as a cultural concept may refer to the money offered to the host of a wedding or birthday banquet (see the Mandarin skit illustrating the plight of a married Chinese couple who hatched a plan for throwing a 10th anniversary wedding banquet as a strategy to make some quick money in Chun Wan 2014, Receiving gifts is a double-edged sword, as it may be interpreted as bribery, although it is a cultural practice in many parts of the Chinese-speaking world for establishing guang 关 shi系 (relationship), or networking in a cultural-specific corporate world. The delivery of hampers among business associates normally peaks during the month before Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia.

                                      Image taken from

Interestingly, there is a reversal of meaning change in the pragmatics of /mashang/. Diachronically, the horse character // and top character // undergo the process of semantic bleaching becoming less equine- and top-like in //. Semantic bleaching is related to grammaticalization - a process in which a lexical word loses its original meaning in time. In terms of diachronic grammar, many claim that grammaticalization is unilateral, i.e. a one way development in which a full lexical word becomes more grammatical gradually. There are others who do not subscribe to the unilateral direction of grammaticalization. This post merely recounts a usage-based situation in which a grammaticalized word regains its original lexical meaning.
For illustration and comparison of Chinese wishes in the real world  that begin with /mashang/, Table 1 contains two types of wish shared verbally during Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia. The first type is the immediately-have-thing wish such as immediately own money, house, and car. The second category, in contrast, is the immediately-be-in-a-state wish including immediately be prosperous, immediately be lucky, and immediately be happy.

Mandarin wishes
Hanyu Pinyin
ma shang you qian 
(Tho, 2014)
Get rich immediately (Tho, 2014)
ma shang you fang
(Tho, 2014)
Own a house immediately
(Tho, 2014)
ma shang you che [hao] (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
Obtain a car [licence plate] immediately (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
ma shang cái
Strike a fortune immediately
ma shang hǎo yùn
Become lucky immediately
ma shang xin
Blessed with happiness immediately

Table 1: Select Chinese New Year Greetings in Mandarin

The year 2014 offers an immediate opportunity for the horse and top characters to spring into life, as it were, via a zodiac-based fortification in the semantics of wishing repertoire invoked as a face-to-face cultural practice. Both characters /mashang/ reverberate an on-top-of-the-horse meaning because the immediately-wishes in Table 1 are not commonly shared with each other in Chinese New Year yet become relevant and popular in conjunction with the ushering in of the year of the horse.

After knowing that /mashang/ is used to wish for something immediately, or get into a wonderful state immediately, we may append many things or states that are desirable for listeners in our verbal interaction. A well-tailored wish in the year of the horse will definitely enhance one's CQ (cultural intelligence) immediately, so to speak. The scope that follows the immediately-wish is definitely diverse ranging from good health, youthfulness, longevity, pregnancy, daughter, son, or promotion for everybody in accordance to one's preference(s).

Data base and work consulted
Gibney, Jim. (2011). What ma shang really means.
Sew, Jyh Wee. (2005). Iconicity. In P. Strazny (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Linguistics (pp. 487-488). New York: Routledge.
__________. (2014). Spring in other dialect. Grammar Gang.
Tho, Sin Yi (2014). Cheeky equine greetings of the Horse 2014. Rightways: Sowing the seeds to success.

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore