10 September 2016

/æ/ vs /eɪ/

In my phonetics class yesterday, I asked my students to transcribe 'complicated'; and half of them used /æ/ instead of /eɪ/ in the third syllable. The fact that they cannot differentiate between /æ/ and /eɪ/ confirms that speakers of English in Brunei tend to merge the TRAP and FACE vowels.

Why should this be? It is quite different form Singapore, where people tend to have a close monophthong for the FACE vowel, and this vowel is quite distinct from the TRAP vowel. (The latter tends to be merged with DRESS, and both are pronounced as [ɛ].)

The first thing to notice is that there is a systematic link between /æ/ and /eɪ/ in English. For example, 'vane' has /eɪ/ while 'vanity' has /æ/, and the same is true for 'sane'/'sanity', 'profane'/'profanity', 'nation'/'national' and many other pairs of words. And it is not surprising if some speakers use the same vowel in both the base form of the word ('vane', 'sane', etc) and its derivative ('vanity', 'sanity', etc.). Furthermore, there are a few words in which there is variability: in both 'patent' and 'patriot', some speakers have /æ/ while others have /eɪ/.

However, this does not explain why there is a different pattern in Singapore and Brunei. And for this, we must consider the dominant indigenous languages.

Most Singaporeans are Chinese, so we would expect their English to be influenced by Chinese. Now, Chinese has lots of words with the /ei/ diphthong, such as 给 (gěi, 'give') and 黑 (hēi, 'black). However, there is no such diphthong in Malay. In Malay, /ai/ can occur at the end of words such as cukai 'tax' and sungai 'river' (though we can actually argue that these are monophthongs followed by an approximant; see here), but the /ei/ diphthong does not occur.

Then we might note what happens to English words with /eɪ/ when they are borrowed into Malay. In most cases, /a/ is used: radio, status, stadium, agensi and templat all have /a/ while the original English has /eɪ/ (though there are some exceptions: kek 'cake' and ejen 'agent' bother have /e/ rather than /a/).

Next, we might note that, according to my dictionary, 'plate' becomes plat in Malay (as in plat nombor), while 'plaque' becomes plak, so we can see that though the vowel is different in these two words in English, it is the same in Malay.

It seems that it is probably this influence from Malay, particularly the way that English words are borrowed into Malay, that influences the pronunciation of English in Brunei.

05 September 2016

arcing

I've previously mentioned the problem of adjectives and verbs ending in 'c'. If you want to add 'ed' or 'ing' to 'panic' or picnic', you need an extra 'k', so we get 'panicked' and 'picnicking'.

But what about words like 'chic'? What is its comparative form (meaning "more chic")? If you write 'chicer', it looks like the 'c' is pronounced as [s]; but 'chicker' is no good. So it is basically not possible to write the comparative of 'chic', even though the word can be said.

And if 'to mic' is a verb (meaning "to put a microphone on someone"), what is its progressive form? If someone is doing it to you, are they 'micing' you? Or maybe 'micking' you? Neither one works.

I just saw another example of this in a BBC report of a football game between Wales and Moldova. If 'arc' is a verb (meaning "to move in an arc"), what is its progressive form (or, in this case, its derived adjective)?

The BBC used 'arcing', but that does not work for me, as 'c' followed by 'i' must be pronounced as [s], not [k]. But what alternative is there? It seems that 'arcking' isn't quite right.

So there doesn't seem to be an easy solution. I guess the rule that 'c' followed by 'e' or 'i' is always pronounced as [s] now has a few exceptions.

31 August 2016

tips

In the new Gadong Health Centre, the walls of the waiting rooms are decorated with pictures and advice on healthy eating, ways to protect your teeth, and various other things. All of it is in Malay, except 'tips' in this heading (which might be translated as 'tips for healthy teeth for your children'):

I'm not sure why the English words 'tips' is used when there is a perfectly good Malay word petua. I don't think there is anything specialist or unusual about petua, so it seems strange to use the English word instead.

25 August 2016

Platform

My Malay dictionary tells me that platform is a word in Malay. But how is it pronounced?

I have often heard it said with an initial /f/ by newsreaders of Nasional FM in Brunei. Why would this be? Surely we would expect an initial /p/?

There seem to be three reasons why it might be pronounced with initial /f/:

  • The is no /f/ in Brunei Malay, with the result that words with initial /f/ borrowed from English tend to have /p/ instead. For example, 'file' becomes pail, 'fine' becomes pain, 'fashion' becomes pisin, and 'football' becomes putbul. Similarly for words from Arabic: 'faham' ('understand') becomes paham, and 'fikir' ('think') becomes pikir. It is possible that the newsreaders are so keen to avoid this kind of substitution when they are reading the news in Standard Malay that they overgeneralise and use /f/ when /p/ is actually expected.
  • It is possible that the /f/ later in platform influences the pronunciation of the initial consonant; so there is a kind of long-distance assimilation between the consonants.
  • Maybe people think there is some element of 'flatness' in 'platform', so this encourages speakers to start the word with /f/.

I don't know which of these factors is key. Maybe all three contribute to the occurrence of /f/ at the start of the word.

19 July 2016

Erdogan

In a recent post, I discussed the lack of concern by Brunei newscasters about how they pronounce foreign names; and I had always been under the impression that the BBC took more care over it. After all, they have a pronunciation unit whose job it is to give advice over the issue.

Last night, I watched the BBC programme HARDtalk, in which Zainab Badawi was interviewing the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Mehmet Şimşek, and inevitably much of the discussion involved the President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan.

Throughout the programme, Zainab Badawi pronounced Erdogan as [ɜːdəʊɡæn], while Mehmet Şimşek pronounced it with no [ɡ], as is usual in Turkish - the 'g' is a silent letter.

So, why did Zainab Badawi persist on pronouncing it wrongly? Did she fail to notice that her pronunciation deviated so obviously from the native speaker? Or did she believe that the anglicised version of the name should have a [ɡ] in it, even if the Turkish pronunciation has no [ɡ]?

It seems that the BBC is not as careful about getting foreign names right as I believed.

06 July 2016

luggages

This is the directory of departments for the First Emporiurm Department Store in BSB. Luggages?

I would never use 'luggage' in the plural. For me, it's a mass noun.

But logically, there's no reason why it shouldn't be countable. So it is just like all those other logically countable things which are often counted in varieties of English such as that of Brunei: furniture, equipment, accommodation, information, and many more.

I suspect that 'luggages' will become standard in the not-too-distant future, and it will only be a few old-fashioned people like me that cling to the traditional form and insist that 'luggage' cannot be used in the plural.

05 July 2016

busana

This is the headline from page M6 of the Media Permata of 4 July 2016:

Corak ringkas, warna pastel pilihan busana Hari Raya

which might be translated as:

Simple design, pastel colours (are) selections for Hari Raya clothes

I did not know the word busana. I looked it up in my Malay dictionary, and it was not there; and it was not in my Brunei Malay dictionary either. Eventually, I looked it up on the Internet and found that it is an Indonesian word for 'clothes'.

The Malay of Malaysia is generally used in Brunei. But I wonder how extensive the use of words from Indonesian is. Furthermore, I wonder how distinct Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia are. Are they merging? Or are they diverging? And how familiar are people in Malaysia with words such as busana from Indonesian?

My impression is that British and American English are merging. For example, most of the words for things involved with computers (mouse, hard disk, software, etc) are the same. In contrast, many words associated with cars (windscreen/windshield, gear lever/gear shift, bonnet/hood, etc) differ between British and American English. This is presumably because of the ease of international communication, and because of widespread access to films from both countries. But what about Malaysia and Indonesia? Are their languages also merging? That would be an interesting research topic.

03 July 2016

Foreign Names

The newsreaders at RTB (Radio Television Brunei) take great pride in pronouncing local names correctly. For example, it would be a major faux pas to mispronounce the name of anyone in the royal family; and the way they read the name of the Sultan (which is rather long) is impressive.

However, they take much less care over foreign names. In fact, it seems they can't be bothered to even try and get them right. Yesterday, on Nasional FM, I heard Francois Hollande called [fræŋko] (a better approximation would be [frɒnswɑː]); and this morning I heard Calais referred to as [kælaɪs] ([kæleɪ] would be better, or maybe [kɑːleɪ]). It is disappointing that RTB newsreaders don't look up the pronunciation of these words and try to get them reasonably accurate.

Mind you, if people in Britain can pronounce Paris with a final [s] (instead of the French [pɑːriː]), maybe people in Brunei putting an [s] on the end of Calais is no different. Perhaps you could say that foreign words are pronounced according to their spelling in Malay?

20 June 2016

Initialisms

In Brunei, initialisms are very common. Examples include UBD (Universiti Brunei Darussalam), BSB (Bandar Seri Begawan), and OGDC (Oil and Gas Discovery Centre).

One interesting phenomenon is when the initialism is for the English version, and the expansion is in Malay, as with this road sign for JIS (Jerudong International School):

On pages 6 to 8 of Media Permata of 14 June 2016, I found the following examples of the Malay name followed by the English initialism:

  • Pusat Perubatan Jerudong Park (JPMC)
  • pertubuhan-pertubuhan bukan kerajaan (NGOs)
  • Majlis Perniagaan Wanita (WBC)
  • tanggungjawab sosial korporat (CSR)

Sometimes it can be tricky to work out what the original English is, though I think I can get these four: Jerudong Park Medical Centre, Non-Government Organisations, Women's Business Council, and corporate social responsibility.

This phenomenon seems also to be common in Malaysia. The following examples are from page 11 of Media Permata of 11 June 2016. They are from the Malaysian Bernama news agency, and I assume that the wording is how it was written by Bernama:

  • Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kota Kinabalu (KKIA)
  • Program Penajaan Pendidikan Petronas (PESP)
  • Sistem Binaan Berindusti (IBS)

These stand for: Kota Kinabalu International Airport, Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme, and Industrial Building System, though this site claims the last one is actually Industrilised Building System.

31 May 2016

world

Last week, I was in Myanmar. This is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

Our guide told us that there is a large ruby at the top, and Myanmar produces the 'most rubies in the [wɔː]'. When she said this, I had an image of the Second World War cutting supplies from everywhere else, but somehow Burma (as it was then called) managed to continue producing them. It took me a while to realise she was saying 'most rubies in the world' – and indeed, Myanmar produces about 90% of the world's rubies (according to the Lonely Planet guide, page 272).

This use of [ɔː] for the NURSE vowel with words starting with 'wor' (as discussed in my previous blog) seems to be very common around the world. I wonder if it will become the standard pronunciation in World Englishes. Maybe it already is the standard, and people like me need to get used to it.

18 May 2016

Piplo

Having been in Brunei for nearly nine years now, I like to think I have adjusted to the local pronunciation of English. However, I still get caught out sometimes.

Recently, I went to the Ong Sum Ping clinic in BSB for a medical check-up, and I was told that I needed to go to Piplo. At first, I thought this must be some other place in Brunei, and the lady had to repeat it a few times before I realised she was saying 'fifth floor'. Actually, I should have got that, as it is only the use of [p] instead of [f] – in this case, all three [f]s become [p]. (In addition, the final TH in 'fifth' is omitted; but this is hardly surprising, as the TH is surrounded by three other consonants, [f] before it and [fl] after it, so omission of the TH sound is not unexpected.)

Then, when I went to register for the check-up, the man at the counter asked 'Are you [wɔːkɪŋ]?'. I heard this as 'walking', so I said 'No, my car is outside' (perhaps they wanted to know if I kept fit by doing regular exercise). But when it was repeated with 'Are you at ITB', I realised he was saying 'working', not 'walking'. This misunderstanding is interesting, as it involves an instance of spelling pronunciation. Most words with 'or' are pronounced with [ɔː]: 'fort', 'port', 'sort', 'short', 'sport', 'fork', 'pork', 'stork', 'born', 'corn', 'torn', 'worn', 'sworn', 'cord', 'ford', 'sword' etc, and I can only think of five in which 'or' is pronounced as [ɜː]: 'word', 'worm', 'worse', 'world' and 'word'. (I'm not sure why they all involve 'w'.)

Given that 'or' is usually [ɔː], it is not too surprising that 'working' sometimes gets pronounced as [wɔːkɪŋ] rather than the expected [wɜːkɪŋ].

22 April 2016

Ambiguous Headlines

Sometimes, headlines can be really confusing. I just saw this headline on the Guardian online of Tuesday, 16 February, 2016. (Although it is two months old, there is a link to it from a current article.)

When I read it, I thought, "That's good. Donald Trump is supporting the Paris deal, and he is warning people that it should not be scrapped."

Unfortunately, that is not true. In fact, 'warned' is a passive verb, so the true meaning of the headline is, 'Donald Trump has been warned about the danger of scrapping the Paris climate deal'.

I wish that headline writers would think a bit more and make their headlines clearer. Or maybe they do it deliberately, to get us to read the article and find out what is going on.

20 April 2016

Labels on Trees

I recently went on a walk around Bukit Mentiri, and it is splendid to see that lots of the trees are labeled, not just with the scientific name but also often with the local names. For example, in the case below, the name of the tree is given in Kedayan and also Iban.

However, it is a pity that the labeling isn't a bit more accurate. Saurauia is a member of the family Actinidiaceae (See this Wikipedia page), not Fagaceae (it is not an oak tree).

07 April 2016

FIFA Rankings

The latest FIFA rankings for world football have been published, and Brunei Darussalam is ranked at No 195 (out of 210), a fall of 11 places since the last ranking:

It seems extraordinary that Brunei has such a low ranking, given the amount of money that is spent on supporting sport in the country.

Never mind. At least it is ranked higher than Tahiti and Papua New Guinea.

29 March 2016

Noun Phrases in Headlines

I've never understood why headline writers favour densely packed noun phrases. Take this one that I saw on the Guardian website today:

The trouble with this headline is that it is what we called a 'garden-path' sentence: when I first read it, I believed that 'Trump campaign manager' was the subject and 'questions' was the verb; but then you get to the end and find it doesn't make sense. So you have to start again, and then you realise that the subject is 'Trump campaign manager questions' and the verb is 'lead'. This seems to me really opaque.

It would be much better to express it as 'Questions about Trump campaign manager lead CNN town hall'. That is one more word, but it is so much easier to parse. So why don't headline writers do it? They seem to take perverse pleasure in creating headlines that are as hard to understand as possible. Why?

And do headline writers in Brunei do the same thing? Is there some international conspiracy among headline writers of English news stories to confuse the poor reader as often as possible? I'll need to look through the Borneo Bulletin and the Brunei Times to see if they do it. That would make rather a nice research project for someone: to compare the syntax of headlines in Brunei and international news stories.