05 February 2016

Estet Industrial

This is a picture taken by James McLellan in Limbang, which he discussed in his recent FASS seminar. (For more details, see here.)

The second line is, of course, in Chinese. But what language is the first line in?

Both the words are English, but the spelling of the first word estet ('estate') is in Malay, and the word order, with the adjective occurring after the noun it modifies, is clearly Malay.

So, what language is it in? There seems to be no easy answer to this question.

18 January 2016

France Soldiers

There has for many years been a contrast between using an adjective premodifier for nationalities ('Spanish troops', 'Chinese territory') and the bare name of the country ('Singapore transport', 'Brunei English'). It seems that, for small countries such as Singapore and Brunei, we prefer the name of the country instead of an adjective ('Singaporean', 'Bruneian'), while for larger countries, we use the adjective ('Spanish' rather than 'Spain').

However, that seems to be undergoing change. Look at this headline from the BBC World page of today:

Note the use of 'France soldiers' rather than 'French soldiers', as I would expect.

I have seen this for football teams in the past ('the France team' rather than 'the French team'); but this usage seems now to be extended to other domains. I have no idea why.

17 January 2016


An authoritative book on English spelling, Upward and Davidson (2011, p. 235) states that 'bamboo' comes from the Malay word bambu. It is a bit ironic, then, that the modern Malay for bamboo is buluh; and my Collins Malay dictionary does not even list bambu.

If Malay already had a perfectly good word for bamboo, why did it adopt a new one? And where did buluh come from?

The WordSense.eu Dictionary suggests that buluh is an indigenous word originating from Proto-Malayic, so I guess there must once have been two terms for bamboo in Malay, though buluh seems to be the most commonly used nowadays.


Upward, C., & Davidson, G. (2011). The History of English Spelling. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

11 January 2016

4th Floor

As is well known, Chinese people have an aversion for number 4, as 'four' in Chinese sounds like 'death'. So what do hotels do about the 4th floor?

The usual solution is just to omit it. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Tainan. It goes from the 3rd floor to the 5th floor, and nobody has to stay on the 4th floor.

However, there is another solution. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Kaohsiung, where the 4th floor is re-labelled as A Floor.

The trouble with this is that not everyone understands it. I saw one couple enter the lift, look at their key, and then go back to the registration desk to ask what was meant by A floor. But it does mean that nobody has to stay on the 4th floor, even if finding your room might be a bit confusing!

01 January 2016


In my previous post, I suggested that use of 'gravida' to refer to pregnant women in a sign in Taiwan arose out of over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary. Here is another similar example, this one from the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung:

What on earth does 'caponizing' mean?

I have looked it up, and a 'capon' is a castrated rooster, so to 'caponize' is to castrate a rooster. (Apparently this makes the meat tastier.)

In this case (and unlike the 'gravida' example), you might say that the translation is accurate. But how many people know the word 'caponize'? The purpose of translation is to explain a text to people who cannot read the original, and it seems a pity to use obscure words that few people will understand, even if the usage might technically be regarded as accurate.

In this case, 'Rooster Castration Competition' might be better, though in fact it seems from the Chinese that the competition is about comparing castrated roosters, not competing to castrate them, so maybe 'Castrated Rooster Competition' would be more accurate.

Language in Taiwan

I just spent two weeks in the south of Taiwan, where there seems to be a genuine effort to encourage a range of languages. In the subway trains in Kaohsiung, station announcements are generally given in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese (Hokkien), Hakka, and English; and some announcements are also given in Japanese. Very impressive.

The English on signs is mostly intelligible, but it can sometimes be a bit unexpected. This is the sign on priority seats intended for the old and infirm:

Most of it is intelligible (though the grammar isn't too good). But 'gravida'? 孕婦 means 'pregnant woman'. So where does 'gravida' come from?. It is not a term I am familiar with, and it suggests a rather over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary.

In fact, I have just looked it up, and it is a medical term that refers to the number of pregnancies a woman has had; it does not mean 'pregnant woman' at all.

It is a bit surprising that the authorities can spend lots of money providing a translation for signs such as these and then printing them out for all the carriages in all their trains but not get someone to check the English.

Never mind. The attempt to make the subway system user-friendly for visitors is impressive.

12 December 2015

Berbahasa Satu

This is the central section of the mural on the front of the library building in the middle of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

The words say: Berbahasa satu, Berbangsa satu, Bernegara satu (One language, One race, One nation).

While this is not very encouraging for efforts at preserving minority languages, it is perhaps not unusual in countries around the world, where the desire to have a common language throughout the country is widespread. For example, there is a movement to establish English as the national language of the United States, even though there does not seem to be any real threat to the dominance of English despite the fears of some people that Spanish might one day replace English; and in Indonesia, establishment of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language even though it was originally the home language of virtually nobody has been a central national policy over the past few decades.

11 December 2015


In Malay, belas is the suffix given to numerals to indicate the numbers 11 to 19, so 11 is sebelas, 12 is dua belas, and so on.

Then there is the Malay word belasan, to refer to the age group 11 to 19. My dictionary gives the gloss for belasan tahun as 'teens'.

However, this is not quite right, as in standard English, the teens only start at 13, and people aged 11 and 12 are not teenagers.

I wonder if there is a shift of meaning of the word 'teenager' in Brunei English, influenced by the Malay word belasan?

One further influence might be from Chinese, as there is no easy translation of 十几岁 ('aged between 11 and 19') in English. It seems possible, therefore, that this shift in the meaning of 'teenager' is found quite widely in the region, including in Singapore.

05 December 2015


When I started out as an academic, I believed it was my duty to do research and publish it, but I found self-promotion tacky. Well, I guess that's all changed, and now I make things available on my website and on ResearchGate, just like everyone else. I accept that we have to promote our research, and we can't just sit back and hope that somehow people will find it.

Now, as part of my role as Webmaster for my Faculty, I have been tasked with creating and maintaining a 'News' page in the faculty website. (See here).

Is this the sort of thing an academic should be doing? Well, I suppose in the modern world where universities have to promote themselves, just like businesses, it probably is. And even if it does take time away from research, I have to accept that this sort of work is what we all have to do. (Anyway, it beats being on another committee!).

Maybe some people will find it interesting and useful, who knows.

27 November 2015

Ivory Tower

It is interesting when a calque form one language into another involves a shift in meaning. In English ivory tower always has a negative connotation, suggesting a university that is cut off from reality. But look at this paragraph from page 1 of the Media Permata of 28 November:

Dua adik-beradik menarik nafas lega apabila cita-cita mereka untuk melanjutkan pelajaran ke menara gading di Malaysia tercapai dengan adanya bantuan biasiswa penuh daripada sebuah syarikat tempatan hari ini.

which might be translated as:

Two sisters breathed a sigh of relief today when their ambition to continue their studies at an ivory tower in Malaysia succeeded with the help of a full scholarship offered by a local company.

Note that menara gading ('ivory tower') does not suggest anything negative in this context. Indeed, my dictionary gives the meaning of menara gading as 'institution of higher learning'.

15 November 2015


This photo, of an Australian coffee shop in London, was sent to me by Benjamin Tucker:

The use of an -ie (or -y) suffix is well-known in Australia: so you have:

  • barbie (barbeque)
  • mozzie (mosquito)
  • u-ie (u-turn)
  • eskie (ice box for keeping beer cold)

So, the purpose behind the name Beanie seems to be show it is a coffee shop from Australia. Quite imaginative, really.

05 November 2015

TPP Countries

In a report by the BBC on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) (see here), near the top there is a link to a video which starts by showing the flags of the 12 nations that are involved:

Then, near the end of the article, it is stated that:

The member countries of the TPP account for some 40% of the global economy and include Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Given that eleven countries are listed, why not the twelfth country, Brunei Darussalam?

I know that Brunei is small, but it still seems bizarre to omit it when all the other participant countries are listed.

02 November 2015

Car Booth Sale

Here is an extract from an article on page 2 of Media Permata of 2 November 2015, about activities to be held in Tutong District:

Manakala pada 6 hingga 8 November pula akan diadakan Car Booth Sale bertempat di Taman Rekreasi Sungai Basong. [italics in the original]
which might be translated as:
Meanwhile from 6 till 8 November a Car Boot Sale will be held at Sungai Bason Recreational Park.

'Car Booth Sale'? This reflect two aspects of pronunciation: in Brunei English, there is often no distinction between /θ/ and /t/, so speakers are uncertain about the sound at the end of 'boot' and 'booth'; and voiceless TH at the end of a word is pronounced as [t] rather than the [f] that would be expected in Singapore, which reflects the fact that Brunei English is distinct from other varieties of English in the region.

One might also note that this is a kind of folk etymology, where language users re-interpret words to make more sense to them. Bruneians don't use 'boot' for the back of a car, and Brunei Malay uses the word bonet. (I have no idea why people got the wrong end of the car for this term.) Given that 'car boot sale' doesn't make much sense to people who do not use the word 'boot' for the back of a car (the 'trunk' for Americans), 'booth' seems logical to refer to a small stall to sell second-hand goods.

This reinterpretation of a word is also termed an 'eggcorn', after someone who mistakenly used the word 'eggcorn' in place of 'acorn'. (See Wikipedia article.) Some other eggcorns in English are:

  • 'wet the appetite' instead of 'whet the appetite'
  • 'ex-patriot' instead of 'expatriate'
  • 'mating name' instead of 'maiden name'

14 October 2015

Words borrowed from English

My Brunei Malay dictionary shows some words with 'Ig', to indicate that they come from English. While the origin of some is obvious (basikal, batri, kompeni, radiu), others can be more puzzling. See if you can guess what the following might be. To help, I'll give you the meaning.

bikium : a machine to clean the floor
guhit : to move forward
gustan : to move backwards
kulbat : a drain
kumpum : to validate
pain : money you have to pay
putbul : a game
waksap : a place to get your car repaired

The answers are as follows:

bikium : vacuum
guhit : go ahead
gustan : go astern
kulbat : culvert
kumpum : confirm
pain : fine
putbul : football
waksap : workshop

Of course, it helps to know that Brunei Malay doesn't have /f/ or /v/, so /p/ and /b/ are used in their place.

Even so, some of the entries are bizarre, For example, kiket ('ticket') is also listed even though Brunei Malay has a /t/.

10 October 2015


In American English, cooties is used as a term of abuse by children, indicating some other child is abnormal in some way. Typical usage might be 'Now you've got cooties.'

Originally, apparently it referred to lice, but now it seems to have become extended to refer to anything abnormal.

One of my students today told me that it comes from the Malay word kutu, meaning 'louse'.

01 October 2015

wezi sar

A friend was negotiating with an Indian grass-cutter for the fellow to come and cut his grass, and he got the following text reply:

Sar tumaru tudy am wezi sar

He eventually worked it out as:

Sir, tomorrow; today am busy, sir.

I have to admit that it left me completely perplexed; but I guess that people who use text messages more frequently than me might have no problem.