Public notices and warning signs are doubtless dull affairs to locals – mere government finger-wagging or insurance against lawsuits. You should always pay attention to them when in Asia, though. You'll find entertainment, instruction and cultural insight wherever you look.
"Beware tripping", say ambiguous signs in Yangon shops. "Beware of snatch thief", warn yellow diamond-shaped street signs in Kuala Lumpur. "Strictly no playing with sparklers", says a perplexing notice in Singapore's Chinese Garden, leaving me to wonder whether Singaporeans have unmanageable urges to let off sparklers in public places.
I like such signs. They're often strange exhortations in slightly odd English and present a different world, or a way of looking at it that can seem peculiar. No lying on benches in Hong Kong parks. No feeding monkeys in Malaysia. No durians on trains. A simple "Think!" at an intersection in Pokhara in Nepal is an almost existential notion. In Singapore, "Drop no litter" is a concise, perfectly understood instruction, but to Australians a rather curious framing of words.
English in Asia is a wonder, and not just on street signs. You mightn't understand the local language, but you can listen whenever English is spoken and be certain of hearing utterances that please the ear. Asian English is a glorious amalgam of archaic sayings, colonial-era vocabulary, the slang of London's East End and Far East port towns, and borrowings of Hindi and Mandarin, Malay and Burmese. Language is a living part of culture, ever evolving, ever sparkling with wit and wisdom, a showcase of cultural influences as insightful as anything in a museum, and far more personal.
The simplest of sentences can produce an entire thesis in your head. I once saw a sign in a Delhi temple: "Ill manner of all kinds is intolerable". You ask yourself, exactly what kinds of things are considered poor form in a Hindu temple; more explanation might be useful. Is this an admonishment or just an observation? Is it a quotation from some venerable Vedic text? And it may be intolerable, but is it tolerated?
And then you notice the grammar, which seems not quite right. Yet who am I to say so? A mere 25 million Australians use one kind of English, but 125 million Indians use another, and in remarkable ways. Indians have a Shakespearean knack for inventing new variations on words and phrases: upgradation, upliftment, pin-drop silence, key bunch and the wonderfully succinct "Mention not!" when thanks aren't required. "The weather is very loveable!" seems a fair observation on the rare occasion blue skies unfurl over Delhi.
Variations in noun plurals are common in Indian English. You can have an ill manner and many informations. "She is pulling your legs", I was once informed by a dinner companion in Mumbai. It seemed ignominious to have both legs pulled, but it added rich layers of meaning. Was I being teased in a particularly outrageous way, or was I twice as gullible?
The details of Indian English are delightfully eccentric, and worthy of close attention. Tune in and you'll hear odd preposition choices (pay attention on, discuss about) and different grammatical rhythms, such as a fondness for progressive verbs. "She'll be knowing the answer," said a hotel receptionist, referring me to her colleague. "You'll be fainting if you don't drink more water," advised a tour guide on a hot day in dusty Jaipur.
What I love most about Indian English is the continued use of vocabulary considered old-fashioned elsewhere. Words such as hullabaloo, hoary, gallivanting, thrice, scurrilous and grievance are dropped into conversation like twinkling mementoes of the Edwardian age. In Darjeeling, I was once delighted to spot a Public Grievance Office in which two people worked behind Dickensian piles of dusty paperwork that susurrated in the breeze of an overhead fan. Members of the public could post complaints in a letterbox marked "Grievance".
Native speakers of English often seem aggrieved at what they perceive is a mangling of their mother tongue. Nonsense. Leave that to the wild mistranslations of Chinese menus that are a staple of internet amusement. Indian English conforms to its own proper rules of grammar and vocabulary. One day an entirely new language might result. After all, the Romans lost control of Vulgar Latin and two-dozen languages from Portuguese to Italian were the result.
Today native speakers of English (450 million) are far outnumbered by non-native speakers (at least a billion). English is no longer controlled by the people that first spoke it in an obscure corner of Europe. What a traveller's joy results. You're in for a treat from the moment someone in India asks you, "What is your good name?"
One thing common in many Asian languages is word duplication, which is confined in English to archaic, somewhat stilted phrases about lands far, far away. But in India you can talk colloquially about hot hot coffee, small small houses and someone who has been crying crying. I once had a guide in Delhi called Virendra who called India Gate "big and enormous", which indeed it is. Singaporeans do this, too. I once asked a passerby there how long it would take to Raffles Place. "Walking walking there in only 10 minutes," came the delightful reply.
Chinese grammatical structures give Singaporean English its flavour. You can dispense with subjects ("Can or not?") and even verbs ("This chilli crab delicious") and reshuffle your word order ("That temple people very sweaty"). You can ignore the main verb when it comes to question tags and ask: "You're leaving now, is it?" But for most visitors, the most noticeable feature of Singlish is the use of the Malay suffix "lah" or Chinese suffix "lor" at the ends of sentences, as in "What to do, lah?" and "Let's go by bus, lor", in order to add emphasis or exasperation, resignation or surprise.
Alas, you won't find such entertainment on street signs in Singapore. The government prefers a "proper" British style of English. In the 1970s, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew lamented the emergence of a "strange Singapore pidgin", which was banned from the media. Genteel BBC English was favoured, although Britain had just begun to tolerate regional accents on television. The Singapore government is still trying to hold back the tide with its latest Speak Good English campaign.
Singlish has refused to go away. It's a promiscuous language for a buttoned-up city that borrows from Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects and has developed into a creole spicy with linguistic treats the way beef is studded with pepper. How much more colourful to call someone "yaya papaya" instead of arrogant, or "kambing" instead of foolish (kambing is the Malay word for goat). My favourites? Act blur (feign ignorance or innocence) and toot (a stupid person).
Some Singlish words are now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, such as the verb "to sabo" from the abbreviation for sabotage. If you're being saboed in Singapore, you're being troubled, inconvenienced or pranked. Hong Kong English expressions make the grade, too, such as sandwich class (those with moderate incomes) and shroff (cashier).
English in Hong Kong hasn't developed quite like that in multilingual Singapore, since it has mostly been confined to business, law and educational settings, where language tends to remain more standard. Still, the odd eccentricity will entertain you on a wander through the city, where signs might command "No abuse of fire hose" or (in a playground) "Do not leave your children unsurprised" – though these are charming errors of translation and not new forms of English.
But nowhere are you more entertained by English signs than on the road in India. Sign-spotting will pass the time as you lurch slowly along, dodging bullock carts and beggars and buses. "Horn please!" is a simple instruction at a mountain bend. "Drink and drive – a fatal cocktail" starts plainly, and ends up rather James Bond.
Particularly amusing and happily quite common are road signs in rhyming couplets. "Faster will see disaster" and "Always alert, accident avert" are straightforward. "Don't dream, otherwise you'll scream" belongs to the more fanciful mode of public warnings. But my favourite of all is "Road is hilly, don't be silly", which deserves a prize for world's best short poem.