23 May 2015

Tong Sampah

I recently saw this sign in the washroom at the Bangar ferry terminal in Termburong:

The Malay says 'Throw rubbish into the dustbin provided'.

I wonder why the extra word disediakan ('provided') is used in Malay? It doesn't seem to add anything extra to the message. So I wonder why the writer in Malay felt that it was necessary?

21 May 2015


The level of complexity and allusion in some cartoons is stunning. Take the following Dilbert cartoon:

It involves two people, Alice and Walter. Alice's statement "I hate Mondays more than Garfield" is intended to mean "I hate Mondays even more than Garfield hates Mondays", but Walter understands it by its alternative meaning "I hate Mondays even more than I hate Garfield".

However, in the next pane, by making an allusion to Garfield and lasagna ownership, Walter is showing that he knows all about Garfield, so he is basically saying that he is perfectly aware of Garfield's dislike of Mondays. In other words, he is saying that his misunderstanding of Alice was quite deliberate.

Alice understands this, which is why she gets angry. But in the final pane, her threat not to talk to him is taken by Walter as a promise; it is what he was hoping for.

On first reading this cartoon, I failed to grasp much of that; and it was only on reading the explanation on Language Log (here) that I understood it. Partly, that is because I am not very familiar with Garfield and his dislike of Mondays and disregard for ownership of lasagna. But I'm not sure I would have got it even if I had known about these things. I suspect most of us miss the subtle meanings of lots and lots of cartoons.

20 May 2015

berfikir di luar kotak

I saw this headline for an article on page 11 of Media Permata of 18 May 2015:

This can be translated as:

Young people of Sabah urged to think out of the box

Of course, berfikir di luar kotak ('think outside the box') is a direct calque from English.

It seems sad to me, when Malay has such a rich range of idioms and proverbs, that direct translations are taken from English rather than using something indigenous. But maybe this is wrong. Perhaps absorbing idioms from English (and other languages) serves to enrich the Malay stock, so there is nothing wrong in using new idioms wherever you find them.

One other thing about my translation: I used 'young people' rather than 'youths' as an equivalent for belia, as I feel that 'youths' tends to have a negative connotation in English. But that is not how 'youths' is used in the region; so maybe I should have followed local usage and just gone for:

Youths of Sabah urged to thing out of the box

19 April 2015

Progress (?)

One of my favourite views of Brunei is from the forest trail in Tasek Lama, where I go walking with my wife two or three times every week. The picture on the left was taken in 2009, while the one on the right was taken this morning. (The quality is not as good, as I took today's photo with my mobile phone, while the previous one was taken with a digital camera.)

Do you notice the difference?

The crane in the background is involved in the construction work building a bridge across the Brunei Bay, connecting BSB with Lumapas opposite, thereby eliminating the need for a 40-minute drive (or a quick trip across the bay by boat). I guess that's progress, and it will make things easier for lots and lots of people. But still, even in Brunei where the preservation of the forest is done better than in most places, it feels that the jungle is slowly being destroyed.

13 April 2015

Royal Wedding

Last week, the radio news and the local newspapers were dominated by the wedding of Prince Malik, or Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Duli Pengiran Muda 'Abdul Malik (to give him his full title) to Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak Isteri Pengiran Raabi'atul 'Adawiyyah. Here is a picture from page 3 of the Media Permata of 13 April 2015, showing the happy couple surrounded by various members of the royal family.

The reporting of the wedding often involved giving a long list of names. In the article associated with the picture above, 33 people are listed as attending the wedding, including 16 people in addition to the 17 shown in the picture, and the full titles of all of them are presented. On average each person's name plus title is 12 words long, with the shortest being 7 words: Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Bini Hajah Faizah. Not surprisingly, listing all 33 people takes up the whole page.

The radio news bulletin at 8:00 in the morning usually lasts about 10 minutes, but on the morning of 13 April, it took 20 minutes. Not only were all the names of these 33 important people read out in full, but most of the names were repeated at least once as the roles of the different people were listed.

Does anyone listen to all of this? Or maybe it just functions as comforting background noise, reassuring listeners that everything is fine. And does any other country pay so much attention to listing out the names and titles of all the VIPs who attend a function? Maybe this elaborate respect for the royal family is a unique feature of the traditions in Brunei.

24 March 2015

Jungle Tracking

On page M3 of the Media Permata of 24 March, I read that some school children had been involved in Jungle Tracking. I wondered if this is a mistake for jungle trekking. Malay speakers of English often do not distinguish between /e/ and /æ/ (the DRESS and TRAP vowels), so this kind of confusion is expected.

Or is jungle tracking a different activity from jungle trekking? I just looked up both terms in the COCA corpus, and there is one token of each. Then I looked them up in the British National Corpus, where I found one token of 'jungle trekking' and none of 'jungle tracking'. So this is pretty inconclusive.

I guess the meaning of jungle tracking is fairly obvious, so even if it is an error for jungle trekking, it is unlikely to cause any misunderstanding.

21 March 2015

University Abbreviations

It seems to be the common practice for universities around the world to adopt three-letter abbreviations. So you find UBD and ITB in Brunei, NTU and NUS in Singapore, MIT in the USA, and HKU in Hong Kong.

While these might work well locally, this does not seem to be such a good idea globally, as there are too many institutes using the same three letters. For example, in Singapore NTU stands for Nanyang Technological University, but in Taiwan the same three letters refer to National Taiwan University.

I was reminded of this when I was asked to supervise a student doing his third year internship at ITB. Great, I thought, I'll just pop down the road to the Institute of Technology Brunei, about five minutes away from my office, to see how he's getting on. Unfortunately, he is in Indonesia, at the Institute of Technology in Bandung. I guess I won't be able to visit him after all!

05 March 2015


This week, I registered for TelBru's e-bill facility, which lets me monitor my usage of the internet as well as pay my telephone bills electronically. It is a really useful facility, as it enables me to ensure that I do not exceed my usage quota in any month.

In registering, I wanted to change my passport from the default password I was sent (Abc123!@#). And I discovered that not only was I required to have at least one number and both upper-case and lower-case letters, but I also had to have at least one punctuation mark. It seems that the requirements on passwords are getting stricter and stricter, resulting in them becoming less and less memorable. There seems little choice but to write them down.

The funny thing is that, for this e-bill account, the only two things I can do are monitor my internet usage and pay my telephone bill. Now, I really don't care if other people find out about my usage; and I would be absolutely delighted if someone decided to pay my bill for me! So why do I need such a secure password? Bizarre!

17 February 2015


I was reminded of the difficulties of using a Malay dictionary when I tried to look up pengecas.

To use a Malay dictionary, you need to identify the root of the word. Clearly, pengecas starts with the noun-creating peng- prefix. But what is its root?

Three immediate possibilities I tried were: kecas, ecas, or ngecas, as adding a peng- prefix to any of these would result in pengecas. But none of these is correct.

I finally found the answer: the root is cas, so the word is borrowed from the English word 'charge'; and pengecas means 'charger' (as in mobile phone charger). Because the root is a single syllable and Malay prefers bisyllabic roots, an extra syllable is added. (On a side note, it is interesting that the English word 'charge' has been borrowed twice into Malay: as caj for a financial charge, and as cas for an electrical charge. I wonder if there are any other words that have been borrowed into Malay twice?)

It is somewhat frustrating for a learner to have to grapple with these issues when using a Malay dictionary; but perhaps such issues are soon to be a thing of the past. Most people nowadays probably just look up a word directly in a computer dictionary, which should list pengecas with no need to work out what the root is. Maybe printed dictionaries will cease to exist in a few years' time.

10 February 2015


In today's tutorial, Ishamina Athirah asked her students whether 'creativity' can have a plural: 'creativities'. All her students agreed that the plural noun is fine. This seems, therefore, to be part of Brunei English, and it is consistent with other mass nouns having a plural in Brunei: 'furnitures', 'equipments', 'advices', 'staffs', etc.

I am sure that the majority of speakers of New Englishes around the world would agree with these plurals, and they probably represent the future of English; but users of English in Brunei and elsewhere need to be aware that this is not (yet) standard usage in English.

05 February 2015


When I teach phonetic transcription, I tell my students that all syllables must have one vowel and only one vowel. (I include a schwa in the second syllable of words like 'bottle' and 'fashion', as syllabic /l/ and /n/ tend not to be used in places like Brunei.),

So I tell them to count the number of syllables in a word and then make sure that they have that number of vowels.

Yesterday, one of the words I gave them to transcribe was 'beautiful', so I asked them how many syllables it has. And they all answered: four. Hmm, no wonder they tend to transcribe it as /bɪuːtɪfʊl/.

31 January 2015


In a recent post, I mentioned my surprise to see my picture in the newspaper as a result of my recent trip to Turkey. Here it is again, in the Borneo Bulletin, in connection with the hot air ballooning that we did during the trip.

By my count, that's seven times that my picture has appeared it the papers in the seven years I have been in Brunei. I don't believe that it has ever been in the newspapers in the UK, or that it ever would appear there; but I guess Brunei is a smaller place.

Anyway, hot air ballooning in Turkey was splendid, so if someone wants to share some photos of it in the newspaper, that's fine.

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


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


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'.