07 April 2014

berkesan dan effective

I have previously mentioned the pairing of Malay and English words (see here). Not surprisingly, this particularly occurs in semi-technical writing, where it may be important to match a local word with its English equivalent. For example, in an article on mosquito-born diseases in the Media Permata of 8 April 2014, we find:

penghapusan filaria atau untut
  eliminate   filaria   or   untut

where untut is (presumably) the Malay equivalent of 'filaria'. In the same article, we find:

siasatan entomologi atau kaji serangga
investigation entomology or study insects

where the technical term 'entomology' is provided a Malay gloss kaji serangga.

A bit more surprising is when the same kind of pairing occurs with adjectives. So we also find:

tatacara yang paling berkesan dan efektif
method which most effective and effective

where the Malay word berkesan is paired with its English equivalent 'effective'. This seems rather more redundant. But perhaps adding an English term adds gravitas to the writing.

One more example from the same article might be added:

kerjasama orang ramai dan penglibatan semua stakeholders
cooperation people public and involvement all stakeholders

In this case, penglibatan semua stakeholders seems pretty much the same as kerjasama orang ramai. Maybe this just reflects a Malay tendency for lexical doubling, perhaps to emphasise a point.

04 April 2014


You would expect deviations from Standard English to simplify things: they are likely to omit final consonants, drop suffixes, and so on. But sometimes one finds the opposite. Take this sign I saw on the door of a shop in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

Note the spurious 'd' on the end of 'closed'. Perhaps one could regard this as a case of hyper-correction: the user is so concerned about omitting suffixes that a 'd' is added here even when it is not needed.

19 March 2014


When my wife was doing some shopping in BSB yesterday, a sales assistant told her that, as a result of the introduction of shariah law, she might in the future have to wear a cardigan to cover her arms properly. But she pronounced 'cardigan' with /dʒ/ at the start of the final syllable instead of the expected /ɡ/.

This might be regarded as a case of hyper-correction. In Malay, the letter 'g' is always pronounced as /ɡ/. However, in English, 'g' is sometimes /ɡ/ and sometimes /dʒ/, and the speaker got the wrong one.

Actually, a little knowledge of phonics would have resolved this problem. In English, 'g' is always pronounced as /ɡ/ before 'a', 'o' and 'u'. For example, 'gate', 'garden', 'goat', 'gone', 'gut', 'guest', etc. It is only ever pronounced as /dʒ/ before 'e', 'i', and 'y', in words such as 'general', 'gesture', 'ginger', 'gin', 'gyro', and 'gymnasium'.

In fact, before 'e', 'i' and 'y', there are rather a lot of exceptions: 'get', 'gear', 'give', 'girl', 'gynecologist', and many more all have 'g' pronounced as /ɡ/ rather than /dʒ/. But there are no exceptions for its pronunciation as /ɡ/ before 'a', 'o' and 'u'.

Now that phonics is being taught in Brunei schools, one wonders if the error with 'cardigan' might no longer occur when today's primary school students grow up.


An exchange student from China, Huang Luyin, is taking my module on Translation in which the written assignment required her to find a passage in Chinese, translate it into English, and comment on the translation. In doing this, she translated 肠子('intestine') as 'tharm'.

I assumed that this was a typo, and I asked her what she intended to write. But she insisted that her on-line dictionary, 有道词典, gives 'tharm' as the translation of 肠子. Then she showed it to me, and it does indeed give 'tharm'.

I have never heard of 'tharm', and it is not listed in my New Webster's Dictionary. I have just checked on-line, and it seems that 'tharm' is an archaic word for 'intestine'. Furthermore it seems to be accepted in Scrabble, so I'll remember that.

Even if it is acceptable in Scrabble, it is not a word of modern English, and its listing in the on-line dictionary is bizarre. The inclusion of archaic words in an on-line dictionary is unfortunate, and it illustrates the perils of relying on such resources.

11 March 2014

like her

I was reading an article on The Guardian online (here), discussing a book called Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, in which a sentence started with:

In Lean In, Sandberg aimed to help women like her

When I read this, I thought she was trying to get people to like her. Actually, she was trying to help people who are similar to her. As you might see, this sentence is ambiguous.

I believe that writers should be sensitive to the potential ambiguity of things that they write, and they should try to resolve any such ambiguity. It might have been better to say:

In Lean In, Sandberg aimed to help women who are like her

First Lines

I was just reading an article in the on-line Independent (here) about the importance of first lines in novels, and it included the sentence:

And, of course, Pride and Prejudice starts with the only opening sentence of a novel that everyone knows by heart.

Well, I like to think that I am moderately well read, but I confess that I didn't know what the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is. So I looked it up, and it is:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I guess I should have known that. But I didn't. And my guess is that most people don't know it. Which just reminds me how out of touch many newspaper columnists are. Most people in the modern world simply are not familiar with the contents of nineteenth century fiction.

Or maybe I am just ignorant.

24 February 2014

Where's your plane?

I often go walking in Tasik Sarubing and Bukit Markucing with my colleagues. Yesterday, I was walking there with one colleague. A local chap had seen three of us walking there earlier in the week, and he asked:

Where's your plane?

This left me bemused. Fortunately, my colleague understood it correctly as:

Where's your friend?

and gave a suitable reply.

I felt really stupid, as I should have been able to understand it in context. /f/ is often pronounced as [p] locally, as Malay does not have /f/, except in a few borrowed words such as faham ('understand') and fail ('file'). (see here)

I guess I'm not very good at accommodating to local patterns of pronunciation, even though I've been in Brunei for over six years now.

22 February 2014


February 23 is Brunei's National Day, involving a big parade in the National Stadium. In connection with preparations for this parade, I have recently often seen the word raptai ('dress rehearsal') in the Media Permata. Surprisingly, raptai is absent from my dictionary (Collins Easy Learning Dictionary), which is a bit surprising as it seems to be a reasonably common word. Fortunately, it is included in the excellent Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu, together with some helpful examples of its usage. I guess printed dictionaries are on the way out, and nowadays everyone uses web-based sources.

One other thing about raptai is how it should be pronounced. Is it two syllables, like cukai ('tax')? Or is it three syllables like mulai ('begin')? There is no way to tell from the spelling, which illustrates the limitations of the Malay spelling system. For it to be three syllables, the final 'i' would have to be a suffix; but there is no way to tell if the root of the word is rapta or not.

I have subsequently heard it spoken on the Nasional FM radio news, and it seems to be two syllables; so it is a single morpheme.


Traditionally, 'who' is the subject of a clause while 'whom' is the object. So the first sentence in the following (from a BBC page on Oscar acceptance speeches) is just fine: 'who thanks whom'.

But what happens when the same sentence gets passivised? It should be 'Who is thanked ...', not '*Whom is thanked ...', because 'who' is the subject of the verb, not its object.

But people seem to find the selection of 'who'/'whom' rather confusing. Maybe this is one reason why most people are nowadays abandoning the use of 'whom' entirely.

16 February 2014

Devoicing of /b/

/b/ can occur at the start of words in Malay (e.g. barang 'thing', burong 'bird') and in the middle of words (e.g. habis 'finish', ibu 'mother'), but it can only occur at the end of words that are borrowed from Arabic (e.g. sebab 'because', wajib 'cumpulsory', adab 'good manners') or English (e.g. arkib 'archive', rizab 'reserve'). Note that, in the last two, English final /v/ becomes /b/ in Malay.

When these words have a final -an suffix, the /b/ tends to stay (e.g. peradaban 'culture', from the root adab). However, if the suffix is -kan, the final /b/ may actually be pronounced as [p]. For example, menyebabkan ('to cause', from the root sebab) is usually pronounced with [p] before the /k/ (see here), except perhaps in very careful speech.

This devoicing of root-final /b/ when a suffix starts with a voiceless sound is similar to what happens in English: 'describe' / 'description', 'absorb' / 'absorption'.

However, there is one word in Malay that seems strange: kewajipan ('obligation') has a /p/ in it, even though the root wajib has a final /b/ and the suffix is -an and not -kan. I cannot provide an explanation for this.

09 February 2014

Banana Joke

A couple of days ago, I heard this joke on the local radio station, Pelangi FM:

Q: What did the banana say to the doctor?
A: I'm not peeling too well.

I guess that only really works in places such as Brunei where /p/ and /f/ tend to be merged. In fact, there was originally no /f/ in Malay, so words borrowed from Arabic that begin with /f/, such as faham ('understand'), tend to be pronounced with a /p/ at the start: paham.

The opposite process can occur, probably as a form of over-compensation. When my wife was learning to drive here, she had to attend some initial classes, and the only thing she remembers from them was when the teacher said:

When you are parking, be careful.

Unfortunately, he used a short vowel in the first syllable of parking, and the initial sound was pronounced as /f/, so it didn't come out as intended.

04 February 2014

Relaxing in Temburong

This is the view over the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre in Temburong. Relaxing there for a couple of days was just brilliant.

While we were there, when we weren't walking in the forest or chatting with friends, it was a splendid place to chill out with something to read. That is something I really looked forward to, as I rarely have time to read simple fiction. And I specially bought a simple detective novel which I finished while I was there.

It was interesting to note that nearly everyone on the trip had taken a book to read; but then we were nearly all expatriates, from the UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. I imagine that a similar bunch of Bruneians would have spent their time using their mobile phones, checking and updating Facebook, but few would have brought a book to read.

But maybe nobody reads books any more, apart from old-fashioned people like me. Maybe the modern literacy is contributing to Facebook and reading on-line materials, so the modern generation doesn't read books. And perhaps surfing the net and contributing to stuff on Facebook is an even richer kind of literacy than reading printed fiction. But I still love to read a book.

02 February 2014


I just spent three days in Belalong, Ulu Temburong, which to me is the magical heart of Brunei. Here is the view from the top of the canopy walk.

What is surprising, for something that is so special, is how poorly it is maintained. Here is the sign at the base of the canopy walk. Hmm, not very helpful!

In fact, the steps up to the canopy walk can be really slippery and quite dangerous at times. It is hard to fathom why the place is not maintained better. Never mind, the view from the top is quite breath-taking:

29 January 2014

te- prefix

Malay has lots of prefixes. For example:

  • ber- is an intransitive verbal prefix, so berjalan ('to walk') has no object.
  • meN- is a transitive prefix, so membuat ('to do') requires an object after it.
  • ter- is either the superlative prefix, e.g. terbaik ('the best'), or it is a passive prefix, e.g. terputus ('be cut').

But what about the te- prefix? Examples include:

  • tetapi ('but'), which means much the same as tapi.
  • tetamu ('guest'), which is the standard term, but tamu also exists.
  • tetangga ('neighbour'). I haven't come across this one, but my dictionary lists it. The root tangga means 'steps', but rumah tangga means 'family'.
  • tetikus ('computer mouse'), where tikus is an ordinary mouse.
  • tetingkap ('computer window'), where tingkap is the window in a building.

I suspect that nobody really uses the last two, as most people probably generally use the English terms 'mouse' and 'window'. But I saw tetikus in the Media Permata today, in an article on e-payment.

This te- prefix is different from the other prefixes because it can only occur with a word that begins with 't'; so it is not really a prefix but more of a kind of alliteration. And I am also not sure how productive it is. For example, would it be possible to have ?teturun ('to fall') or maybe ?tetutup ('to close')? I don't think these exist; but maybe words such as these will emerge, by analogy with the five listed above. Perhaps in relation to computers? Maybe teturun and tetutup might become used to refer to downloading material and closing a computer window?

28 January 2014

Postponed Dinner

We just received a notification from the Assistant Registrar in the Assistant Vice Chancellor's Office of UBD that the annual dinner has been postponed. The message is written in both English and Malay, so this allows us to compare the two. The English version is:

On behalf of the Registrar and Secretary, I wish to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, date for the annual dinner has been postponed to Wednesday, 05 March 2014 at 7:30 pm.
The theme remains the same (Black and Bling) and the venue will be at Berkshire Hall, Royal Brunei Polo and Riding Club, Jerudong.
Tickets will be distributed in due time. Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused.
Thank you for your kind attention.

and the Malay version is:

Dengan penuh hormat sukacita memaklumkan bahawa atas perkara yang tidak dapat dielakkan, tarikh Majlis Makan Malam Tahunan UBD bagi sesi tahun 2013/2014 adalah ditunda ke hari Rabu, 05hb Mac 2014 pada jam 7:30 malam bertempat di Berkshire Hall, Royal Brunei Polo and Riding Club, Jerudong
Tema bagi tahun ini adalah "Black and Bling" dan tiket akan diagihkan pada masa yang terdekat.
Terima kasih atas perhatian semua.

The most obvious difference is that the English begins with 'On behalf of the Registrar and Secretary, I wish to inform you that', while the Malay has Dengan penuh hormat sukacita memaklumkan bahawa ('With full respect, please be informed that'). I am not sure why the English identifies the Registrar and Secretary as the source of the message while the Malay does not; and I am also uncertain why the Malay has 'with full respect' but the English does not. Perhaps English needs full attribution of the source of a notification, while Malay needs additional formulaic language but attribution is less important?

The other main difference is the English has 'Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused.' near the end of the message, but the Malay does not have this apology. Again, I am not sure why the apology is included in the English but not the Malay.

27 January 2014

Borneo Bulletin

Last Saturday, I gave a public lecture on Brunei English. It seemed to go well. There were about 50 people there, and I hope they found it reasonably interesting.

On page 2 of the Borneo Bulletin of Sunday, 26 January, there was a half-page spread covering my presentation:

I guess that's a good thing, though I find it weird to see a picture of myself in the national newspaper. But I suppose that's to be expected in such a small country.

21 January 2014


I always find it interesting when a word in one language has a broader meaning than its equivalent in another language, something that can cause problems for translation. For example, the Malay tikus can be either 'rat' or 'mouse' in English. We can say that Malay has a superordinate term (with a broader meaning), while English has two hyponyms (with narrower meanings).

This cross-linguistic comparison of superodinate/hyponyms can also apply to verbs. I had always understood lemas to mean 'drown'. But I just read an article in Media Permata about an 87-year-old man who was lemas when he was caught in a fire at his house, and it was then that I realised that lemas could mean 'suffocate' as well as 'drown'.

18 January 2014

Public Lecture

On Saturday, 25 January, at 9:00 am, I will be giving a public lecture entitled: Brunei English, Intelligibility, and Emergent ASEAN English. It will be in the Senate Rooms, Chancellor Hall, UBD.

I guess the time is a bit strange, as most people will be working then. But anyone who is interested will be welcome.