10 February 2020

whilst / amongst / ought

In my class this morning, I was talking about language change and how some words that once were common are now rarely used; and I suggested that whilst and amongst are now archaic.

I know that many Bruneians use them quite often; but given that they mean the same as while and among, I see no reason to use whilst and amongst if there are perfectly good alternatives which nobody regards as archaic. So I always recommend to my students that they avoid whilst and amongst.

My students then suggested that ought is similarly archaic, and on reflection, I suspect they might be right; I think I use should and almost never use ought, so maybe I should recommend to students that they similarly avoid use of ought.

To investigate this further, we can consult the COCA corpus, and we find the following figures:

  • between 1990 and 1994, there were 7,674 tokens of ought
  • between 2015 and 2019, there were 2,519 tokens of ought
  • between 1990 and 1994, there were 82,752 tokens of should
  • between 2015 and 2019, there were 74,585 tokens of should

This confirms that the incidence of ought has substantially declined in the past 25 years, while the incidence of should has changed very little. In other words, ought is, indeed, becoming less common, though it is still sometimes used, so perhaps calling it archaic is too strong.

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to do similar comparisons for whilst and amongst in recent data.

28 December 2019

bad news

I find it incredibly depressing how the mainstream media always focus on bad news. Take the headline from a Guardian report dated 28 December 2019:

Now, let's look at the first paragraph of this report:

This year saw the highest number of mass killings on record, database records show, with 41 incidents claiming 211 lives in 2019 even as the overall US homicide rated dropped.

So, the overall homicide rate fell, but the number of mass killings rose. Why, then, does the news report focus on the latter and not on the former? Why not analyse some of the reasons for the overall reduction in the homicide rate, considering some of the cities where this is most evident and what policies have achieved this? Why does the report select one negative statistic and discuss that in length and largely ignore the overall positive trend?

Why are we told about an outbreak of Ebola in Eastern Congo but not told about how it is now being resolve? Why do we learn about a famine in Ethiopia but never hear that it is now over? Why are we constantly being told about bush fires in Australia, but none of the news sources will tell us when they have been controlled?

I find the sensationalist, unbalanced reporting of all media outlets really disturbing.

18 December 2019


I have recently been watching the BBC series Civilisation, produced and narrated by Kenneth Clark in 1969; and some of his pronunciation is quite surprising.

He has a raised /æ/ vowel (the TRAP vowel), and he also has a voiceless sound at the start of 'what' and 'which' (so 'which; and 'witch' would be distinguished); but both these are expected for an RP speaker of his generation.

However, some other words are more unexpected, and I wonder if they are idiosyncrasies of his pronunciation. For example, he pronounces 'capitalism' with stress on the second syllable: 'caPITalism', which sounds very strange. (Listen here).

I've just checked in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed., 2008, p. 123), and this variant is listed as one possibility, so maybe Kenneth Clark was not so idiosyncratic after all. But I've never heard it as 'caPITalism' before, and it took me a moment to understand it.

06 December 2019

What did he say?

There is a fascinating example concerning speech perception arising from a speech by Boris Johnson during the current general election in the UK. According to the subtitle provided by Channel 4, he says:

I'm in favour of having people of colour coming to this country

But, did he really say that? In fact, he claims that he said:

I'm in favour of having people of talent coming to this country

Is that correct? You can listen to the extract here.

25 November 2019


I have been doing some work on the pronunciation of Kedayan. (See here for more details.)

One of the most salient features of Kedayan is the absence of any /r/ sound, in contrast with the other indigenous languages of Brunei, all of which have some kind of /r/ sound. As a result, rendah ('low') in Standard Malay is andah in Kedayan, and roti ('bread') is uti. (Like Brunei Malay, Kedayan only has three vowels: /i, a, u/.)

In the recording on which the analysis is based, in the phrase Si Angin Utaa pun ('the North Wind, in contrast'), we find Standard Malay utara ('north') pronounced as [utaa], as expected, with no /r/ sound:

However, in the phrase kuat dai kadia ('stronger than the other'), we unexpectedly find dai ('from', 'than') pronounced as [daɾi], with a medial tapped /r/ sound:

One possibility is that the speaker is influenced by Brunei Malay, which has a salient /r/ sound initially, medially and finally. One then wonders: how extensively spoken nowadays is pure Kedayan, uninfluenced by the other indigenous languages of Brunei?

21 November 2019


My year-one UBD exam had the following question:

A digraph is two letters in the spelling that are used to represent a single sound. What is the digraph that is used in most cases in English to represent the velar nasal?

The correct answer to this is 'ng', but of the 49 students taking the exam, only 6 gave this answer. Instead, 36 wrote gave the answer /ŋ/ (while the remaining 7 wrote something else).

I don't get this – how is /ŋ/ 'two letters'? I don't understand why students are so bad at reading the question.

Well, it's only worth 1 mark, and many of the 36 who wrote /ŋ/ did really well on the rest of the exam, so some of them should get an A grade. But still, why don't they read the question?

15 November 2019


Yesterday, I went on a Brunei Nature Society outing, to visit the sago factory in Tutong District. One of the highlights was the chance to try the delicious (?) sago grub, known locally as utod.

Now, where does the word utod come from? It can't be Malay, as native words of Malay cannot end with /d/. While there are some Malay words that end with /d/, such as masjid (mosque), abad (century) and wujud (exist), these are all borrowed words, mostly from Arabic. While Malay can certainly have /t/ at the end of a word, such as bukit (hill), empat (four), and tempat (place), /d/ is not possible.

So, where does utod come from? My guess is it's from Dusun. Dusun can certainly have /d/ at the end of a word, as in talid (sprouting branch) (see here); so maybe utod as well.

11 November 2019


This morning, I was listening to presentations from three of my students who have been on attachment with Royal Brunei, and the following sentence was mentioned:

We would like everyone to fasten your seatbelts.

How should you pronounce 'fasten'? Standard pronunciation is [fɑːsən] (or [fæsən] for American English); but my student pronounced it as [fɑːstən] with a [t], using what might be called spelling pronunciation. (See here for more on spelling pronunciation.)

The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells, 2008) does not list this possibility with a [t], even as a non-standard variant. But does that make it wrong? My guess is that it is quite common in this region, and it is probably more easily understood than the standard pronunciation, especially for people from China, Japan and Korea. If that is the case, then pronunciation with a [t] should be encouraged, even if it is not standard. Intelligibility is the key, never mind what dictionaries suggest.

Similarly, 'often' traditionally had no [t], but now it does for 27% of speakers in the UK and 22% in the USA (Wells, 2008, p. 560); and my guess is that this number is increasing, so that use of [t] in 'often' will soon become the norm. I also predict that 'fasten' will follow suit one day, and maybe 'listen' and 'castle' as well. Listening pronunciation is a well-established trend; so Royal Brunei cabin attendants who have a [t] in 'fasten' may be at the forefront of changing pronunciation.

23 October 2019


At a talk given by Dr Victor King to the Brunei Nature Society on Monday 21 October, he suggested that the word orangutan was actually invented by an Englishman. This surprised me, as I always assumed it was from Malay.

Daftar Leksikal 7 Dialek, published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Brunei, gives the word as orang hutan in Standard Malay and Kedayan, and as orang utan in Brunei Malay, Dusun and Bisaya. However, in Tutong and Murut, the word is shown as mayas. I don't know if mayas was the original word for the animal in Brunei.

One other word that looks like it is Malay but actually originates from English is Kampung Ayer; apparently, this comes from the English Water Village. So maybe orangutan is similar.

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.