24 March 2015

Jungle Tracking

On page M3 of the Media Permata of 24 March, I read that some school children had been involved in Jungle Tracking. I wondered if this is a mistake for jungle trekking. Malay speakers of English often do not distinguish between /e/ and /æ/ (the DRESS and TRAP vowels), so this kind of confusion is expected.

Or is jungle tracking a different activity from jungle trekking? I just looked up both terms in the COCA corpus, and there is one token of each. Then I looked them up in the British National Corpus, where I found one token of 'jungle trekking' and none of 'jungle tracking'. So this is pretty inconclusive.

I guess the meaning of jungle tracking is fairly obvious, so even if it is an error for jungle trekking, it is unlikely to cause any misunderstanding.

21 March 2015

University Abbreviations

It seems to be the common practice for universities around the world to adopt three-letter abbreviations. So you find UBD and ITB in Brunei, NTU and NUS in Singapore, MIT in the USA, and HKU in Hong Kong.

While these might work well locally, this does not seem to be such a good idea globally, as there are too many institutes using the same three letters. For example, in Singapore NTU stands for Nanyang Technological University, but in Taiwan the same three letters refer to National Taiwan University.

I was reminded of this when I was asked to supervise a student doing his third year internship at ITB. Great, I thought, I'll just pop down the road to the Institute of Technology Brunei, about five minutes away from my office, to see how he's getting on. Unfortunately, he is in Indonesia, at the Institute of Technology in Bandung. I guess I won't be able to visit him after all!

05 March 2015


This week, I registered for TelBru's e-bill facility, which lets me monitor my usage of the internet as well as pay my telephone bills electronically. It is a really useful facility, as it enables me to ensure that I do not exceed my usage quota in any month.

In registering, I wanted to change my passport from the default password I was sent (Abc123!@#). And I discovered that not only was I required to have at least one number and both upper-case and lower-case letters, but I also had to have at least one punctuation mark. It seems that the requirements on passwords are getting stricter and stricter, resulting in them becoming less and less memorable. There seems little choice but to write them down.

The funny thing is that, for this e-bill account, the only two things I can do are monitor my internet usage and pay my telephone bill. Now, I really don't care if other people find out about my usage; and I would be absolutely delighted if someone decided to pay my bill for me! So why do I need such a secure password? Bizarre!

17 February 2015


I was reminded of the difficulties of using a Malay dictionary when I tried to look up pengecas.

To use a Malay dictionary, you need to identify the root of the word. Clearly, pengecas starts with the noun-creating peng- prefix. But what is its root?

Three immediate possibilities I tried were: kecas, ecas, or ngecas, as adding a peng- prefix to any of these would result in pengecas. But none of these is correct.

I finally found the answer: the root is cas, so the word is borrowed from the English word 'charge'; and pengecas means 'charger' (as in mobile phone charger). Because the root is a single syllable and Malay prefers bisyllabic roots, an extra syllable is added. (On a side note, it is interesting that the English word 'charge' has been borrowed twice into Malay: as caj for a financial charge, and as cas for an electrical charge. I wonder if there are any other words that have been borrowed into Malay twice?)

It is somewhat frustrating for a learner to have to grapple with these issues when using a Malay dictionary; but perhaps such issues are soon to be a thing of the past. Most people nowadays probably just look up a word directly in a computer dictionary, which should list pengecas with no need to work out what the root is. Maybe printed dictionaries will cease to exist in a few years' time.

10 February 2015


In today's tutorial, Ishamina Athirah asked her students whether 'creativity' can have a plural: 'creativities'. All her students agreed that the plural noun is fine. This seems, therefore, to be part of Brunei English, and it is consistent with other mass nouns having a plural in Brunei: 'furnitures', 'equipments', 'advices', 'staffs', etc.

I am sure that the majority of speakers of New Englishes around the world would agree with these plurals, and they probably represent the future of English; but users of English in Brunei and elsewhere need to be aware that this is not (yet) standard usage in English.

05 February 2015


When I teach phonetic transcription, I tell my students that all syllables must have one vowel and only one vowel. (I include a schwa in the second syllable of words like 'bottle' and 'fashion', as syllabic /l/ and /n/ tend not to be used in places like Brunei.),

So I tell them to count the number of syllables in a word and then make sure that they have that number of vowels.

Yesterday, one of the words I gave them to transcribe was 'beautiful', so I asked them how many syllables it has. And they all answered: four. Hmm, no wonder they tend to transcribe it as /bɪuːtɪfʊl/.

31 January 2015


In a recent post, I mentioned my surprise to see my picture in the newspaper as a result of my recent trip to Turkey. Here it is again, in the Borneo Bulletin, in connection with the hot air ballooning that we did during the trip.

By my count, that's seven times that my picture has appeared it the papers in the seven years I have been in Brunei. I don't believe that it has ever been in the newspapers in the UK, or that it ever would appear there; but I guess Brunei is a smaller place.

Anyway, hot air ballooning in Turkey was splendid, so if someone wants to share some photos of it in the newspaper, that's fine.

15 January 2015

Fried Data Recorder

I was listening to a news report about the search for the crashed Air Asia plane, and when I heard the Indonesian official mention the 'fried data recorder', I immediately thought, oh no, the data has been destroyed and is no longer usable.

Of course, that is not what the official said. In fact, he was referring to the 'flight data recorder'. But my momentary misunderstanding illustrates two things. First, context does not always enable us to understand things. You would think that the context would make this misunderstanding impossible, yet I was briefly confused. (Well, alright, I admit that maybe I am not a very good listener. But I believe that misunderstandings like this are quite common.)

Second, we can analyse what caused the misunderstanding. There are two basic features of pronunciation involved:

  • the occurrence of /fr/ instead of /fl/ at the start of the word
  • confusion between /t/ and /d/ at the end of the word

In my book on Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca, I found that confusion between /l/ and /r/ in initial consonant clusters like /pl/ and /fr/ was one of the most common causes of misunderstanding, so the occurrence of /fr/ at the start of 'flight' is indeed predicted to be a problem.

The second pronunciation issue needs careful consideration. In fact, the final /t/ in 'flight' usually gets dropped before a following /d/ in all varieties of English. However, in most native varieties of English, the difference between word-final /t/ and /d/ is maintained by means of the duration of the vowel: the vowel in a word such as 'flight' is shorter than in a word such as 'fried'. However, this distinction in the duration of the vowel before voiceless and voiced word-final consonants is not maintained in many new varieties of English.

My guess is that local users of English would not be confused by this neutralisation of word-final /t/ and /d/, and it is only native speakers like me that would get confused. And this illustrates that people like me should work harder to get accustomed to different ways of pronouncing English.

10 January 2015


I constantly find it amazing how many times my photo turns up in the newspapers. There was even a recent report in the Borneo Bulletin (here) reporting on my recent trip to Turkey, with a photo showing all the participants on the trip at the ancient Roman town of Hierapolis:

09 January 2015


I really don't understand the logic of the spelling of English words borrowed into Malay. If 'th' becomes 't' (as in tema, terapi, teater ...), why does 'g' sometimes become 'j' (imej, ejen, caj ...) and sometimes get retained as 'g' (generasi, teknologi, agenda ...)?

It would seems more logical if 'g' always became 'j', so 'ornithology' should be ornitoloji rather than ornitologi.

You might say that keeping the 'g' enables people to read English more easily; but on that basis, 'th' should always be kept as 'th'.

30 December 2014


My trip to Turkey was on a tour with about 40 people, too many for a single bus. So we split into two: one for Chinese people, with a Chinese-speaking guide, and one mostly for Malays, with an English-speaking guide. I chose the former.

It was interesting that although the two groups had the same itinerary, we focused on different things. For example, In Capadocia, we managed to go on a balloon ride which was just splendid.

But only three of the Malay group decided to go on it. In contrast, when we got to Istanbul, we were scheduled to spend one and a half hours in the Grand Bazar.

But after one hour, the Chinese group got bored and all gathered outside, asking if we could go and have an early dinner instead. In contrast, the Malay group asked if they could have an extra hour in the Grand Bazar.

It worked out well, that the Chinese group could spend more time seeing things while the Malay group got extra time shopping. And I am so pleased I was with the Chinese group, as I am allergic to shopping.

26 December 2014

genuine fake

An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, such as 'deafening silence'. I saw this sign outside the ancient Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey.

'Genuine fake' is as classic an oxymoron as you can imagine. But what does it mean? The only interpretation I can derive is that the watches on sale are truly fake – there is no danger that you buy a fake Rolex and someone maliciously sells you a genuine one instead.

I suppose the real purpose of the sign is to capture one's attention. And the fact that I have taken a picture of it and put it on my blog suggests that it has succeeded. The only trouble is that I wasn't tempted to buy a watch. My Casio works perfectly well, so I see no reason to buy a Rolex, either genuine or fake.

But perhaps the sign has still been successful, as my putting it on my blog serves to encourage people to visit Ephesus (and thereby have a chance to buy one of these genuine fake watches). If so, well so be it. Ephesus is brilliant and definitely worth a visit. Here is a picture of the grand entrance of the library.

25 December 2014

selfie stick

I just spent ten days on a tour of Turkey. It was brilliant. One of the new words I learned while there was 'selfie stick', the extensible rod that allows one to take a selfie with a wider frame than can be achieved just with one's arm. They seem to be everywhere among tourists, especially those from China and Japan.

Here a selfie of our group on a hill overlooking Istanbul, taken using a selfie stick. (Should it be called a 'groupie' rather than a 'selfie'?)

One question arises: is 'selfie stick' the right name for it? Some people prefer to call it a 'monopod', though Wikipedia notes that monopod has a broader meaning, referring to the device that is used to hold a camera steady, so it is used for old-fashioned photography that needs long exposure time and it predates the selfie.

It is common for newly-invented devices and new technology to have uncertain terminology for a while. Initially, a 'mobile phone' was also called a 'cell phone' by many, though 'mobile' seems to be winning out. But it seems that 'selfie stick' is becoming established for this new device, though maybe some people still prefer a longer name 'monopod selfie stick'.

One other question is: how old is it? This page from the Guardian suggests that the earliest use of the device (though not the term) is 1926.

07 December 2014

adult stress

A Bruneian colleague was talking to me today about her research, and she consistently said 'aDULT' (with the stress on the second syllable), while I always say 'ADult' (with the stress on the first syllable). So I thought I'd look it up in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. This is what I found:

This shows that British speakers prefer stress on the first syllable, while stress on the second syllable is an alternative, but Americans are the other way round, preferring stress on the second syllable. And 88% of Americans prefer stress on the second syllable. So essentially, my colleague was using the American pattern. I don't know if that is the norm in Brunei, and also the extent to which American stress patterns are being adopted.

It is also interesting that the British-US difference is exactly the opposite of that for 'address' (as a noun), for which British speakers tend to prefer stress on the second syllable while Americans prefer stress on the first syllable.

levels of corruption

Here's a map of South-east Asia, showing levels of corruption (from the Independent). Australia in the bottom right is yellow, so it fares well. Malaysia is not too bad, being orange and ranked 50th out of 175. Indonesia fares less well (ranked 107), and Cambodia is even worse (at 156).

But what about Brunei? Unfortunately, there is no data on Brunei – it is the two white bits on the north of the island of Borneo, as shown in the black ellipse:

It is a bit of a mystery why no data is included for Brunei. Even North Korea is included (it is ranked 174th, second last, and only Somalia is worse). Perhaps there really is some data, but the map maker thought Brunei was too small to include the data on the map. Maybe that is the answer, as there also seems to be no data for Singapore.

06 December 2014


There is a belief by some people that code-switching is a sign of linguistic weakness, and that speakers mix their languages because they are insufficiently proficient in either language and need to use words from both to express themselves.

However, the reality in this part of the world is that proficient code-switching is actually a sign of sophistication. Not only does it show skills in two different languages, but it also demonstrates the ability to switch between them suitably.

I was reading a short story on page M4 of the Media Permata of 29 October 2014. The main character talks to his wife entirely in Malay. But when he speaks to his former girlfriend, someone who is well educated and has been away furthering her studies, he naturally code-switches between Malay and English. And you get utterances like this:

"Oh Farhahana! I ingat siapa tadi. Ya...I'm quite busy right now. Bagainmana you dapat nombor telefon ni?" soalku.

which might be translated as:

"Oh Farhana! I've just remembered who. Yes...I'm quite busy right now. How did you get this telephone number?" I asked.

Note not just the use of a complete English sentence "I'm quite busy now", but also the use of English pronouns 'I' and 'you' in Malay sentences. In fact, this use of English pronouns in place of Malay pronouns seems almost universal in this kind of code-switching.

The Media Permata almost entirely eschews mixing English in its coverage. However, code-switching is so common among educated people here that sticking just to Malay would make the dialogue in the story seem unnatural.