15 August 2019


I was just reading an article in The Guardian about spurious concerns over the decline in the English language. It quotes the British broadcaster John Humphrys who complains about instances of tautology such as these:

  • future plans
  • past history
  • live survivors
  • safe havens

In each case, the adjective is redundant: history is about the past, so there is no need to add 'past'; if survivors are not alive, they are not survivors; etc. My own favourite is 'free gift' — if gifts are not free, then they are not gifts.

Some examples I previously found in the Borneo Bulletin include:

  • a good facilitator and enabler for the market
  • enhance and upgrade my skills
  • determine and evaluate the impact

However, is it true that English is getting increasingly flabby, embellished by unnecessary extra words, thereby losing its compact crispness in conveying information efficiently? Or have we always had tautology? And is it true that Brunei English exhibits this tendency even more than other varieties of English, perhaps influenced by the rhetorical style of Malay?

I always recommend that students avoid tautology and eschew phrases such as 'analyse and investigate'. It is always important to think about one's writing and endeavour to improve it; but I'm not sure that English is getting sloppier. We have always had good writers and bad writers, and it is my job as a teacher to encourage my students to become good writers. But I don't believe that the overall standard of writing is deteriorating.

01 August 2019

crash us out

I just read a UK news report in The Guardian in which there was a quote from Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats:

Boris Johnson’s shrinking majority makes it clear that he has no mandate to crash us out of the EU.

'crash us out'? To me, 'crash out' is an intransitive verb, so it cannot have an object such as 'us'. In the COCA corpus, there are 17 tokens of 'crash out', but none of 'crash us out'.

If one of my students were to write 'crash us out', I would mark it as an error; but seeing as it was produced by the leader of one of the main political parties in the UK, instead we might regard it as an indication of the ways that English is changing, even if this change is not yet reflected in a corpus such as COCA.

This is, of course, problematic: people in the UK have innovative usage, reflecting the ways the language is changing; but similar usage in places such as Brunei is treated as an error. Maybe we need to be more tolerant of all innovative usage, wherever it occurs.

10 May 2019

Pronunciation of Dusun

Research continues at UBD on the pronunciation of Dusun. The following website highlights recent efforts:


One goal of this work is to enable readers to listen to the material as they read about it. Here is the opening phrase of the 'North Wind and the Sun' passage.

As you can hear, one key feature of Dusun is the pronunciation of 'r' as [ɣ], a voiced velar fricative; so utara' ('north') is [utaɣaʔ].

My dream is that , one day, all academic papers on pronunciation will have embedded sounds, so you can always listed to the material as you read the paper.

02 May 2019

Pronunciation of 'Sultan'

How should I pronounce 'Sultan'? Should it be [sʊltən] (the first syllable rhyming with 'full')? Or should it be [sʌltən] (the first syllable rhyming with 'gull')?

This morning, I asked this question to a room full of people, mostly Bruneians, and the consensus was for [sʊltən]; but Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2008, p. 791) only gives [sʌltən]:

So, is John Wells wrong?

Perhaps it should be [sʊltən] in Brunei and Malaysia but [sʌltən] in the UK, the USA and elsewhere?

Actually, on reflection, in the context of Brunei and Malaysia, it should probably be [sʊltæn], with a full vowel in the second syllable. I must remember to use that form in the future.

05 April 2019

MRT Announcements

I am currently in Singapore, and it is fascinating to listen to the announcements on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport, the underground train system). The announcer very carefully pronounces the [d] in 'mind the gap' and the final [t] in 'next' in the phrase 'next station', even though it would be normal for native speakers to omit these sounds. If retaining the [d] and [t] helps improve intelligibility, particularly in a noisy train, then such careful articulation is to be applauded.

One other area where the announcer deviates from native speaker pronunciation patterns is for phrasal sounds. For example:

Change here for the Circle LINE. (stressed on 'line')

whereas a native speaker would say:

Change here for the CIRCle line. (stressed on 'circle')

because 'Circle Line' is a phrasal noun that would normally be stressed on the first item.

But does stressing 'line' interfere with intelligibility? In the context of Singapore, where the special pattern of stress for phrasal nouns is not generally found, it probably makes little difference; and stressing 'line' rather than 'circle' helps to mark the end of the utterance, so it may actually play an important communicative role.

02 April 2019

Problem Words

In enabling learners of English to become proficient communicators in international settings, making themselves understood is the key goal, and sometimes close imitation of native-speaker pronunciation is not helpful. In fact, when teaching English, it is valuable to make students aware about which words can be problematic in all styles of pronunciation, and how these issues might be resolved. Here are some issues that learners of English should be aware of:

  • can ~ can't: these two words are difficult to differentiate, especially in American English in which both have /æ/ and the final /t/ of can't is often omitted in fast speech. One solution to this is to avoid saying can't, and always say cannot instead. (This seems to be the solution widely adopted in Singapore.) If one wants to emphasise the ability to do something, under some circumstances saying 'am able to' instead of can would be a useful strategy.
  • fifteen ~ fifty: these two words are hard to differentiate (just like six ~ sixteen and the others). In some circumstances, such as when giving a time like 10:15 or 10:50, speakers might be encouraged to add 'one five' or 'five zero' to clarify things (just like pilots do).
  • oral ~ aural: in British English, these words are both pronounced as /ɔːrəl/, which is rather unfortunate as they are opposites! (The first means 'speaking' while the second means 'listening'.) The best solution here is to avoid using these words and say speaking or listening instead.
  • D ~ T; M ~ N; S ~ F: the names of the letters are a nightmare in English. I find it astounding that we haven't adopted a more sensible system of letter names, like the Greek alpha beta gamma delta etc. The first thing is for students to be aware of the issue, especially that S and F cannot be distinguished over the phone (because of the low-frequency cut-off). The ideal solution would be to learn the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet: alpha bravo charlie delta etc. An alternative is to use place names: Africa Belgium China Denmark etc.

While no single solution is ideal for these issues, students should at least be made aware about them, and they should be encouraged to develop strategies strategies to resolve the problems.

01 April 2019

Standard English

In the modern world, we emphasise that there are many ways of speaking English, and insisting on one external model such as British or American English is not advisable so long as the speaker can make themself understood.

Consistent with this English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) approach, I always tell my students that they should speak clearly and well, but that does not mean imitating me. If you don't come from England, then there's no need to pretend that you do. And there are better ways of speaking.

For example, if you say 'as' and 'of' with a full vowel instead of the schwa ([ə]) that I use, then keep it. Use of a full vowel in these words is probably more intelligible. Furthermore, I do not differentiate 'tour' from 'tore'; if you distinguish these words, then you should continue to do so. And I pronounce 'hours' as [ɑəz], using what is called smoothing; if you pronounce it as [awəz], then keep it.

But what about writing? Should I accept local patterns of writing? Or should I insist on Standard English?

Recently, I have been grading assignments written by my students, and I often encounter patterns such as these:

  • 'One of my sister is a nurse.' (using a singular noun after 'one of')
  • 'At home I speak Malay language.' (omitting 'the')
  • 'Majority of people speak Brunei.' (omitting 'the' before 'majority')
  • 'I am doing researches on language usage.' (plural use of 'researches')
  • 'As for my sister, she goes to secondary school.' (explicit fronting of the topic)

Should I correct these patterns? Or should I accept them as examples of Brunei English that are perfectly valid in the local context?

One analogy may be helpful: if my own children wrote 'Me and my friend went to the shops', I would point out that, in writing, it is usual to say 'my friend and I'. Now, this is unnatural for most people, but we still insist on it. So, maybe written English is an unnatural language for everyone. And if I failed to point out some of its features to my children, I would be failing in my duty to enable them to progress in the world.

So should I correct my students' writing the patterns I have outlined above? When I talk so much about ELF-based teaching, is this being hypocritical?

I don't know the answer to this. My feeling is that I should point out these patterns, but if students want to maintain their own usage, maybe even take pride in it, then so be it. That way, I am raising awareness about local usage and not insisting on native-speaker usage. But I accept that there is a thin line between pointing out local patterns of usage and identifying errors.

05 March 2019

janji melayu

One of my colleagues told me today that, when you make an appointment in Brunei say for 10 am the next day, people might ask Janji melayu atau janji orang putih kah? (Malay time or Western time?).

It seems a bit sad that one facet of local culture is a lack of respect for time. Or maybe some people feel comfortable with a tolerance for flexibility, and they feel an obsession with punctuality is an unwelcome Western trait.

It seems to me that, in the modern world, we should try to be punctual, to meet deadlines, and so forth; and that is one of the things I try to insist for my students at UBD. Today I had a written assignment due, and 20 out of 26 students handed it in on time. I guess that's not too bad.

29 December 2018

servo, rego, etc

Traditionally, words ending in -o tended to refer to people and generally had a negative connotation: wino, psycho, wacko, etc.

However, in Australia it seems that this suffix is being adopted rather widely and it now has a neutral connotation: arrvo (afternoon), avo (avocado), servo (service station), rego (car registration number), garbo (garage collector) and probably many more.

I don't know why some words have -o while others have -ie: barbie (barbeque), hunggie (one hundred dollars), uie (a U-turn) — though I'm not sure how the last two are spelled; I guess they rarely are written, though they are very commonly spoken.

01 December 2018

hot / hard

The other day, my wife went into a restaurant and ordered a cup of doujiang ('beancurd juice') to take away. When the lady handed it to her, she said, 'Careful, it's hard.' My wife had to ask her to repeat it three times before she realised it was 'hot', not 'hard'.

There was nothing wrong with the pronunciation: the lady was probably from the Philippines, where 'hot' would be pronounced as [hɑːd], using an American accent; but, being more familiar with British pronunciation, my wife heard [hɑːd] as 'hard'.

Given the context, this kind of misunderstanding should not happen. When someone hands you a cup of liquid to take away, there are not many things she could say apart from 'it's hot'. But, surprisingly, we do sometimes make mistakes like that.

22 November 2018

Wikipedia: Brunei English

I wrote the Wikipedia page on Brunei English. But subsequently, anyone anywhere can edit the material. And sometimes complete rubbish gets added. For example, I just found the following claim in there: 'English in neighboring Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia remains rhotic".

WHAT??? Australian English remains rhotic? Australian English has never been rhotic, and it probably will never be. Presumably, the author meant 'non-rhotic'. But why do people add rubbish to publicly available pages?

That's the problem with Wikipedia: there's lots of good stuff in there; but there's also lots of rubbish.

Anyway, I fixed that. I guess I need to look at the page more often, to see what rubbish has been added, and then remove it.

Bukit Versing

A friend was arranging to meet with me in Bukit Beruang, near Tutong. But the message actually stated Bukit Versing rather than Bukit Beruang! Don't you just hate auto-correct.

Whenever I type Malay on my computer, it corrects datang to dating. Now, I can switch that one off; but how does one edit the correction options on a mobile phone? Furthermore, though one might change the language from English to Malay, that doesn't help much if you include Malay terms in an English message. I guess the only solution is to turn auto-correct off.

10 November 2018


How do you pronounce 'mischievous'?

According to Wells (2008, Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd Edition), the standard pronunciation is [ˈmɪstʃɪvəs]. However, two alternative pronunciations are also given: [mɪsˈtʃiːvəs] and [mɪsˈtʃiːvɪəs]. And a chart on page 511 of Wells (2008) shows that stress on the second syllable is most common among younger speakers, so presumably it will one day become the norm.

While overall 65% of British people and 67% of Americans prefer stress on the first syllable, this preference is much reduced for younger speakers, and it is the pronunciation pattern of younger speakers that will almost certainly win in the future.

One might further ask why this shift is occurring. It seems that it is an instance of spelling pronunciation: the spelling of a word influences the way that it is pronounced. In this case, it is highly unexpected that <ie> be pronounced as [ɪ], so speakers use the more expected [iː] instead; and then the long [iː] in the second syllable gets stressed.

That explains the [mɪsˈtʃiːvəs] pronunciation. But what about [mɪsˈtʃiːvɪəs]? My guess is that this is a result of analogy with words such as 'previous'. 'envious', 'devious', 'obvious' and 'impervious' — it seems there is a common pattern for [vɪəs] to occur at the end of an adjective.

Yesterday, I asked students in my class how they pronounced 'mischievous'. Half of them opted for [mɪsˈtʃiːvəs] while the other half went for [mɪsˈtʃiːvɪəs] — and none chose the more standard [ˈmɪstʃɪvəs]. This illustrates that speakers of English in Brunei tend to be in the forefront of the evolution of English pronunciation, as I have previously argued (see here).

05 November 2018


We often make allusions to things and events in the world about us, and sometimes we make allusions to books and films. Yesterday, my daughter sent me this picture of her partner and her taking their daughter to a party. I'm afraid I completely missed the allusion, and my wife had to explain it to me. Can you get it?

The adults are wearing the uniform of Ghostbusters, and their baby is dressed as Stay Puft the Marshmallow Man from the movie.

I was interested whether young people in Brunei would get the allusion. The film was made in 1984, so how familiar are young people with it? Today I showed the picture to my class, most of whom are aged between 20 and 24, and of the 25 students in the class, 17 understood the allusion. It surprised me that so many young people would be familiar with a movie made over 30 years ago.

30 October 2018


I was recently told that young people in Brunei write messages like this when texting:

im finna go to store

The more formal version of this would be:

I'm going to go to the store.

So, where does 'finna' come from? Apparently, it is from 'fixing to', which is a common way of expressing future time in the South of the USA (see here). But African-American speakers then pronounce 'fixing to' as 'finna'.

How did African American informal usage get into informal Brunei English? It seems to be the kind of Internet slang that is becoming used globally on platforms such as Twitter. I wonder how much else in modern text-speak is derived from African American English.

27 October 2018

Voiceless TH in China

Voiceless TH, the sound at the start of words such as 'thin' and 'three', can be something of a shibboleth: some people worry about pronouncing it as [θ], even though there is little evidence that pronouncing it as [t] (as is common in places such as Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore) has much impact on intelligibility. Indeed, plenty of people in Ireland use [t], and many people in England use [f]; so how important is use of [θ] for voiceless TH?

In China, people tend to use [s] for voiceless TH. Does that impact on intelligibility? Do listeners ever mistake 'thing' for 'sing' as a result?

Recently, while in China, I presented my analysis of thirteen five-minute conversations with students in Yangzhou. (For more information about my presentation, see here.) In those thirteen conversations, I found eighteen instances where I did not understand the speakers, and just one case involved voiceless TH. Let us consider that token in some detail. In the following transcript, Int is the Interviewer (me) while F1 is the female speaker from Yangzhou:

Int :   er lots of people want to become teachers do they?
F1 :   erm i think many girls want to
Int :   mm

I initially heard this as 'as many girls want to', so it seems that the use of [s] at the start of 'think' contributed to the misunderstanding. However, let's consider it a bit more.

Here is a spectrogram of 'i think many' from this utterance:

In fact, one can see that 'i think' is pronounced as [aɪs], and there is little evidence of a separate syllable for 'think'. In other words, the use of [s] for voiceless TH was just one factor, and if 'think' had been pronounced as [sɪŋk], it is likely that the misunderstanding would not have occurred.

My conclusion, therefore, is that variant pronouncing of voiceless TH has little impact on intelligibility.