My view of language
The field of linguistics is perhaps most famous for Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG) proposal, which claims that every human grammar is based on the same innate template. But in recent years, linguists—especially phonologists—have started to seek alternative explanations for language universals and typologies (patterns of structural differences and commonalities between languages) (e.g. Blevins 2004, Mielke 2008). I view language as just one of many human behaviours, and my goal is to find out how much we can explain without invoking a language-specific organ. I am agnostic on the question of whether universal phonological constraints are innate or learnt, perhaps during the babbling stage of language acquisition; my contention is that if UG does have a phonological component, it is still worthwhile to understand how and why it might have evolved. In practice, that means I look for known biophysical and cognitive effects which may be operating during speaker-to-speaker interactions. As a phonologist, this means enriching and complementing UG-inspired approaches such as Optimality Theory with experimental findings from phonetics and psycholinguistics.
Research strand 1: Language contact in Singapore
My interest in language contact began when I encountered the conflicting descriptions of Colloquial Singaporean English (CSE) prosody. For example, when faced with characteristic CSE utterances such as “FiNISH!”, numerous researchers commented on the high pitch, length and loudness resembling stress on the final syllable, yet others reported no unusual stress placement in such cases (refs. in Ng 2011: 76–77). I proposed that this contradiction and many others can be explained if CSE prosody is a hybrid system, where three surface tones are assigned based on underlying stress. Other hybrid systems have previously been reported (Good 2004; Remijsen & van Heuven 2005), but CSE may have been slow to be recognised because of the Malay influence (Ng 2012), which causes the highest pitch to appear on word-final syllables rather than stressed syllables.
CSE data have proven fruitful for challenging and developing Optimality Theory. In addition to stress-tone interaction (Ng 2009), I have also investigated the effects of morphological structure and lexical access speed on variation and phonological word structures (Ng 2010, 2019a). Moving forward, I hope to complement my existing studies of speech production by running speech synthesis and perception experiments, as well as expanding my analysis to resolve conflicting descriptions of tonal variation in CSE pragmatic particles (Ng 2019b). I also look forward to documenting other contact languages as the opportunity arises (cf. sign language below).
Research strand 2: Phonological typologies
Pidgin and creole studies have long been dominated by the controversial claim that creoles are grammatically simpler than ‘normal’ languages with ‘unbroken’ histories (e.g. Bickerton 1984; McWhorter 2001). This claim has been attacked by most creolists, especially phonologists (e.g. Faraclas & Klein 2009; Aboh & Smith 2009; Klein 2011). In response, I proposed that (a) languages with a history of mass second language (L2) acquisition may indeed be different from others, but not necessarily grammatically simpler, and (b) these differences may not show up synchronically (in the state of a language today), but diachronically (in the types of changes which occurred in the past). In taking this approach, I was inspired by experimental studies in historical phonology which have successfully traced many sound changes to phonetic bias (e.g. Ohala 1993; Garrett & Johnson 2012).
For my dissertation (Ng 2015), I surveyed the subfields of pidgin and creole studies, loanword phonology, World Englishes, L2 acquisition, and naive non-native perception. Putting together a database of 77 language contact situations, I found differences not only between language contact and ‘normal’ first language (L1) transmission, but even between different types of contact. Each of my three case studies has yielded a more specific hypothesis on how the circumstances of language contact might create a bias against certain types of sound change. I plan to test these hypotheses against other cases of phoneme loss, assimilation, and epenthesis.
Research strand 3: Sign language in Singapore
The very first thing I was ever told about sign language research was, “But sign languages have no phonology.” I was appalled. True, phonology is the study of sound systems in language, and by definition sound is not part of sign languages. But we know that human language exhibits two layers of patterning: sounds are arranged into words (phonology), and words are arranged into sentences (syntax). It is clear that sign languages have words, which we usually call signs. To say they have no phonology means that nothing is being combined to create a sign—that signers memorise each and every sign on its own, the way a dog memorises new commands.
That was twenty years ago. Happily, it is now widely accepted that just as spoken words are made up of consonants and vowels (sometimes also stress or tone), signed words are also made up of handshape, movement, location and orientation (sometimes also non-manual marking). I find that my research focus in phonology transfers well to sign language, because I have always focused on the physical movements of the speech articulators (e.g. lips, tongue tip, vocal folds). My background in language contact also turns out to be extremely relevant, because Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) shows interesting parallels with the language contact history of Singaporean English. SgSL has strong influences from Shanghai Sign Language, Signing Exact English and American Sign Language, but also new developments, some of which are shared by Malaysian Sign Language (Ang et al. 2016).
Research on sign languages in Singapore has barely begun, and formal linguistic descriptions are especially scarce. We lag far behind Hong Kong, which is on the cutting edge in this field. Because this is such a new area, a heavy investment of basic fieldwork would be needed, but I think it is very much worth it.
My approach to linguistic research
I notice that I am attracted to topics where scholarly opinion is sharply split. My preferred approach is not to disprove one hypothesis or another, but to try to reconcile them. So far I have found that this is possible by reexamining the data, considering other languages with typological or social relevance, or applying insights from other relevant subfields. This approach does not necessarily win more friends — in fact, it may actually double the number of sceptics — but it does account for a greater part of the whole, as well as opening up rich possibilities for continued exploration.
Aboh, Enoch O. & Norval Smith, eds. 2009. Complex processes in new languages. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Ang, Mary Shu Yi, Low Jarn May, Jessica Mak, František Kratochvíl & Wang Li-Sa. 2016. Language Contact-induced Layering of the Basic Vocabulary in Singapore Sign Language. Poster presented at Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research (TISLR 12).
Bickerton, Derek. 1984. The language bioprogram hypothesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7: 173–188.
Blevins, Juliette. 2004. Evolutionary phonology: The emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Faraclas, Nicholas & Thomas B. Klein, eds. 2009. Simplicity and Complexity in Creoles and Pidgins. London: Battlebridge.
Garrett, Andrew & Keith Johnson (2012). Phonetic bias in sound change. In Origins of sound change: Approaches to phonologization, ed. by Alan C. L. Yu. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 51-97.
Good, Jeff (2004). Tone and accent in Saramaccan: Charting a deep split in the phonology of a language. Lingua 114: 575–619.
Klein, Thomas B. 2011. Typology of creole phonology: Phoneme inventories and syllable templates. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 26(1): 155–193.
McWhorter, John H. 2001. The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology 5(2-3): 125–166.
Mielke, Jeff. 2008. The emergence of distinctive features. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ng, E-Ching. 2009. Non-plateaus, non-tonal heads: Tone assignment in Colloquial Singaporean English. Chicago Linguistic Society 45.
Ng, E-Ching. 2010. Reduction, frequency and morphology in Singaporean English prosody. Unpublished manuscript, Yale University. Rutgers Optimality Archive #1102.
Ng, E-Ching. 2011. Reconciling stress and tone in Singaporean English. In Asian Englishes: Changing Perspectives in a Globalised World, ed. by Lawrence J. Zhang, Rani Rubdy & Lubna Alsagoff. Singapore: Pearson Longman. 76–92.
Ng, E-Ching. 2012. Chinese meets Malay meets English: Origins of the Singaporean English word-final high tone. International Journal of Bilingualism 16(1): 83–100.
Ng, E-Ching. 2015. The phonology of contact: Creole sound change in context. Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University.
Ng, E-Ching. 2019a. High-frequency initialisms: Evidence for Singaporean English stress. Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America 4.
Ng, E-Ching. 2019b. Singlish pragmatic particles: Tone or intonation? Chicago Linguistic Society 55.
Ohala, John J. (1993). The phonetics of sound change. In Historical linguistics: Problems and perspectives, ed. by Charles Jones. London: Longman. 237-278.
Remijsen, Bert & Vincent J. van Heuven (2005). Stress, tone and discourse prominence in the Curaçao dialect of Papiamentu. Phonology 22: 205-235.