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.

05 December 2014

car booth sale

An 'eggcorn' is the substitution of a word based on similarity in the speaker's pronunciation in order to make sense of a phrase. It originates from 'acorn' being reinterpreted as 'eggcorn', based on an acorn looking like an egg in its eggcup. Some other examples (from the Wikipedia site) are:

  • ex-patriot instead of expatriate
  • mating name instead of maiden name
  • preying mantis instead of praying mantis

Here is one I saw on page M2 of the Media Permata of 6 December 2014, discussing the marketing of some handicrafts in Malaysia:

... setiap hari Jumaat dan Ahad berkonsepkan 'car booth sales', saya juga aktif menyertai pelbagai karnival ...

which might be translated as:

every Friday and Sunday on the concept of 'car boot sales', I also actively participate in several carnivals

The use of 'car booth sales' instead of 'car boot sales' can be explained because the speaker does not distinguish /θ/ from /t/, and also because the stalls at car boot sales are rather like booths.

The original idea of a car boot sale was that people took various second-hand goods to be sold in the boot of their car; but nowadays the stalls are often rather more elaborate.

15 November 2014

Who is the Subject?

This morning, a colleague sent me this message:

As a data freak, I thought you might be interested in this alert sent to me by Nature.

So, who is the data freak? The initial clause ('as a data freak') is a non-finite subjectless clause, and according to the normative rules of English, the subject of the main clause must be its assumed subject – so my colleague is the data freak! Though he clearly intended it to refer to me. It's a bit like the sentence:

While walking to school, the birds were singing.

In this sentence, 'while walking to school' is similarly a subjectless non-finite clause, so its subject must be the subject of the main clause, 'the birds' – i.e. the birds were walking to school!

But these sentences are rather common, and nobody seems to misunderstand them. In fact, only pedants notice there is anything wrong with them. Or we could alternatively say there is actually nothing wrong with them, and the normative grammar has got it wrong. If the grammar taught by teachers tries to prevent us from using language as we all use it, then that grammar must be wrong.

14 November 2014


When I find something in Malay I don't understand, sometimes I try translating it into English to see if that helps. Today I saw sehenti in the newspaper, and I couldn't find it in my dictionary. Then I realised it must be a calque from the English 'one-stop'.

Actually, it occurred twice in the same newspaper, and it was only the second time I saw it that I realised what it meant:

  • pusat beli-belah sehenti ini ('this one-stop shopping centre') – Media Permata, 15 November 2014, p. 13
  • menawarkan perkhidmatan sehenti ('offers one-stop service') – Media Permata, 15 November 2014, p. 14

I don't know if sehenti is now an established word in Malay, or if it is a newly-created calque from English.

11 November 2014

Stealing/Borrowing Ideas

A few days ago, one of my colleagues told me that he was stealing some of my ideas to use in his class.

I replied that if he stole something from me, such as my money, then I would no longer have the money. But I still have my ideas. So he can't be stealing them.

OK, he said. He was borrowing my ideas.

But if he was borrowing them, surely he should give them back to me one day?

I feel that the idea of stealing or borrowing ideas is misplaced; and I suggest that he was using my ideas, but not stealing or borrowing.

Finally, there is no need to apologise for it, or even tell me. If someone finds something I do useful, then use it. And you don't need to tell me about it.

I realise that people get very sensitive about other people using their ideas; but I honestly don't see what the problem is. I am delighted if something I do or some idea I have can be of help to others.

29 October 2014


In recent posts, I have discussed the pronunciation of words borrowed from English into Malay, especially those with 'g' or 'a' in the English.

Recently, there has been an exhibition on science and technology in Brunei. In his titah opening the exhibition, HM the Sultan said the word teknologi many times, and he quite deliberately used /g/ every single time. (He also sometimes dropped the [s] at the end of sains – I wonder whether [sain] is becoming the standard way of pronouncing this word in Malay.)

Surprisingly, in her summary of the titah, the newsreader clearly used /dʒ/ in every single token of teknologi. I find this divergence between the pronunciation of HM and the newsreader's discussion of the titah quite surprising.

Finally in the Sudut Pelita ('Lamp Corner' – a short programme for government discussions) later in the day, the State Mufti was talking about the impact of science and technology on Islam, and he alternated between /g/ and /dʒ/ in teknologi. I'm not sure if he was uncertain about what pronunciation to use or was deliberately choosing an indeterminate form.

This neatly illustrates how the pronunciation of 'g' in borrowed words such as teknologi, generasi, agenda and alergi is uncertain.

25 October 2014

'e' or 'a' in borrowed words

Most words that are borrowed from English to Malay and have /æ/ in the English are spelled with 'e' rather than 'a' in Malay: e.g. kem ('camp'), setem ('stamp'), and teksi ('taxi'). This makes sense, as Malay /a/ is a central or back vowel that sounds rather like English /ʌ/ and is quite different from English /æ/.

The use of 'e' for English /æ/ helps explain why speakers in Malaysia and Brunei are sometimes unable to differentiate between /e/ and /æ/ in English. If kem and setem have /e/ in Malay, it is hardly surprising if speakers of Malay also use /e/ in 'camp' and 'stamp' when they are speaking English. Furthermore, if teks ('text') and teksi ('taxi') have the same vowel in Malay, it is not too surprising if 'text' and 'taxi' also have the same vowel for Malay speakers of English.

However, one word that is rather surprising is faks ('fax'). Why does it not have the expected 'e' instead of 'a'? Especially as pronouncing this word with a vowel that sounds like /ʌ/ is a bit unfortunate in English.

'g' or 'j' in borrowed words

Something I don't understand is why some English words borrowed into Malay retain a 'g' while others do not. For example, agenda, generasi, teknologi and alergi are all spelled with 'g', and then there is variation over whether they should be pronounced with /dʒ/ (as in English) or as /g/ (as suggested by the spelling).

In contrast, plenty of borrowed words get spelled with 'j', such as imej ('image'), kolej ('college'), mesej ('message') and caj ('charge'). It seems that 'j' is used for English 'g' at the end of a word, but 'g' is (mostly) retained elsewhere.

There are also a few words in which 'j' occurs in non-final position, such as enjin ('engine').

If 'j' can be used in kolej and enjin, I don't understand why it is not used in agenda and generasi as well.

23 October 2014


In my previous post, I discussed a Malay alphabet chart for kids, expressing surprise at the number of words borrowed from English that were included. Something else that is surprising is the inclusion of 'x' as a letter in Malay, with the word xilofon ('xylophone') to illustrate it.

My dictionary includes just two words for 'X': x-ray and xilofon. In fact, all other words borrowed from English with an 'x' in them are spelled with 'ks': e.g. teksi ('taxi'), oksigen ('oxygen'), faks ('fax'). So it seems that 'x' only occurs in x-ray and xilofon.

Is it really necessary to include the letter 'X' for just these two words? Surely x-ray could be written as eksrei, and xilofon could start with 's', as that is presumably how it is actually pronounced.

22 October 2014


I just saw this colourful alphabet poster for sale in a local shop, to enable Malay children to learn the letters of the alphabet:

What is rather surprising about this is how many words are borrowed from English: belon ('balloon'), epal ('apple'), foto ('photo'), helikopter ('helicopter'), jip ('jeep'), oren ('orange'), raket ('racquet'), van ('van'), wisel ('whistle'), xilofon ('xylophone'), yo-yo ('yo-yo) and zip ('zip').

While some of these are understandable, as sounds such as /v/ and /z/ are not native sounds of Malay and only borrowed words have the letters 'v' and 'z', others are more surprising: Why are native Malay words not used for letters such as 'b', 'j' and 'r'?

12 October 2014

tall tree

In the forest, it is really important for trees to grow tall, to enable them to reach the canopy. However, once a tree has reached the canopy, there would seem to be no advantage in growing still taller. So I'm not sure why this tree (seen in Tasek Lama) is so much taller than its neighbours. Wouldn't that make it more likely to be blown down in a storm?

Chinese has a proverb that reflects this: 树大招风 (shù dà zhāo fēng, 'the big tree catches the wind'), which suggests you should keep your head down and not become too prominent, for fear of attracting attention. It is rather similar to the English 'tall poppy syndrome', the idea being that the tallest poppies get chopped down (I guess).

Does Malay have a similar proverb? Or are Malays not so concerned about standing out from the crowd?

09 October 2014


I have mentioned lexical doublets in Malay before (e.g. here and here). In yesterday's titah ('royal speech') in celebration of Teachers' Day, HM the Sultan used two in one sentence (assuming that Media Permata are quoting him accurately):

Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia turut mengingatkan bahawa dalam penilaian dan rebiu mengenai Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad ke-21, SPN21, perlu juga dilihat dari segi kelemahan atau kekurangannya jika ada dan tidak hanya menonjolkan perkara-perkara yang bagus sahaja.

which might be translated as:

His Majesty also reminded us that the evaluation and review of the National Sistem of Education for the 21st Century (SPN21) should also look at weaknesses or shortcomings, if there are any, and not just showcase things that are good.

This includes two categories of doublets:

  • the use of a Malay term together with an English one: penilaian dan rebiu ('evaluation and review')
  • the use of two Malay terms with a similar meaning: kelemahan atau kekurangan ('weaknesses and shortcomings')

Given that it occurs in a royal titah, it also reminds us that this use of lexical doublets is part of the rhetoric of well-written Malay. Whether it should be retained in the translation into English is something that should be considered.

One more instance of what might be regarded as repetition in this extract is hanya ('only') as well as sahaja ('only'). In this case, I think it is clear that the English translation should just use one term.

06 October 2014

Bot Pam

A 'false friend' is a word that is borrowed from one language to another and then undergoes a change in meaning. It can be really tricky for the translator, as the temptation is to use the original word.

An example in Malay is kompaun, referring to an on-the-spot fine, such as one given out by the traffic police. It clearly comes from 'compound', and it may be related to 'compound fine'; but in English we do not use 'compound' to refer to an on-the-spot fine.

Today I saw bot pam in this extract from an article on page 10 of the Media Parmata, reporting an incident in Sabah, Malaysia:

... pasukan peronda berjaya menahan sebuah bot pam dinaiki tiga lelaki dan seorang wanita ...

which might be translated as:

... the patrol succeeded in catching a pump boat which was carrying three men and one woman ...

But what does 'pump boat' mean? Is this a false friend from English?

I checked bot pam in the on-line Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu, but there is nothing there. Next, I searched the web for bot pam, and I found this headline from the MStar newspaper of 4 September 2014:

Tentera Lepas Tembakan Ke Arah Bot Pam Penceroboh Di Perairan Pulau Selingan

So, what does it mean? I managed to find the equivalent article in English, in the online New Straits Times of 4 September 2014:

Soldiers fire at intruding pump boat off Sabah, arrest a man

Well, that doesn't help me much, except to confirm that writers in English use 'pump boat'. Finally, I found a Wikipedia entry for Pump Boat, which explains that it is an outrigger canoe widely used in the Plilippines.

So, it appears that 'pump boat' is not necessarily a false friend, and in fact the term now exists in English. Or at least it occurs in Wikipedia, which is maybe the same thing. Maybe we can say that it is a word in Philippines English, and people in Brunei and Malaysia may also be familiar with the term, though I doubt too many people in the UK or USA would understand it.

26 September 2014

buses / busses

What is the plural of 'bus'? I have always thought it was 'buses'; but then someone sent me something that included the word 'busses', so I thought I'd better look it up. And my New Webster's Dictionary allows both.

However, I still felt that 'buses' is more common, so I checked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There are 5354 tokens of 'buses' and just 119 tokens of 'busses', which confirms that 'buses' is the usual plural, but 'busses' does sometimes occur.

The next question is: why would 'busses' occur? After all, it is not usual for 's' to be doubled in creating a plural.

The explanation for this is that 'bus' is rather an unusual word in English, as words that end in /s/ after a vowel are generally spelled with a double 'ss': 'miss', 'hiss', 'fuss', 'mess', 'toss', 'pass', 'dress', 'press', 'cross', 'grass', 'gloss', 'glass', 'class', 'floss', 'bliss', 'stress', 'address', 'abyss', 'across' etc. The only words that I can think of that have a final /s/ and are spelled with a single 's' are: 'this', 'thus', 'us', 'pus' and 'cos' (a kind of lettuce).

In contrast, most words that are spelled with a final 's' after a vowel are actually pronounced with /z/: 'is', 'was', 'has', 'does', 'as', 'his', 'hers', etc.

Furthermore, in the middle of a word, 's' between two vowels is often pronounced as /z/: 'these', 'those', 'phase', 'please', 'raise', 'rise', 'hose', 'lose', 'nose', 'fuse', 'muse', 'rouse', etc, though there are quite a few exceptions is which the 's' is pronounced as /s/: 'case', 'mouse', 'dose', etc. In fact, there are some words in which the medial 's' may be pronounced as /z/ if the word is a verb but as /s/ if it is a noun or adjective: 'use', 'house', 'close'.

In conclusion, it seems that 'busses' is actually not a bad way to spell the word, even if it is not very common, as it clearly indicates that the medial consonant is pronounced as /s/ not /z/.

12 September 2014


Some mistranslations are just amusing, while others could have rather more serious consequences.

I saw this on a hand drier in one of the toilets at UBD:

The advice to 'place your hands in and out of the machine' sounds potentially lethal!

In contrast, this advice elsewhere on the same notice is not quite so dangerous:

The trouble with this one is that 'hang down' is an intransitive verb – it cannot take an object, so, for example, you cannot *'hang down your clothes in the wardrobe'. In consequence, as 'things' cannot be the object of 'hang down', the instruction must be that you should not yourself hang down from the machine. I guess people are not really likely to try and do that!