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

Hierapolis

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

ornitologi

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

shopping

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

code-switching

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

sehenti

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

teknologi

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

xilofon

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.