25 July 2014


Here is a headline from page 2 of Media Permata of 26 July:

Ada majikan tidak bayar 'overtime' pekerja

which might be glossed as:

There are bosses who do not pay overtime to workers

Then, the first paragraph of the article starts with:

Sebilangan majikan didapati tidak membayar kerja lebih masa kepada pekerja mereka

which might be glossed as:

Some bosses are found who do not pay overtime to their workers

It is interesting that the headline uses the English 'overtime' but the article itself uses the Malay equivalent kerja lebih masa.

I quite often see English/Malay doublets, often presenting an English technical term and then its Malay equivalent, but this is the first time I have seen the English in the headline but the Malay equivalent in the text. However, I guess it works well enough.

20 July 2014


I just read a short article in the Guardian Online (here) about the invented word 'oxt'. Apparently, if today is Friday, then 'this weekend' would be tomorrow and the next day, while 'oxt weekend' would be the following week. (I'm not sure if anyone is actually proposing this new word, or if it is just a joke.)

What is interesting is this: we know what 'this weekend' means; and now 'oxt weekend' has been defined. So what does 'next weekend' mean?

And If today is Monday and I say "Let's meet next Wednesday", when are we meeting? Is it the day after tomorrow? Or is it the Wednesday of next week, i.e. in nine days' time? Nobody seems to know, which seems totally bizarre. Perhaps we really do need a new word such as 'oxt' to help sort things out.

04 July 2014

Long Sentences

I recently saw this sentence on page 6 of the Media Permata of 3 July. It is 76 words long.

Sepanjang bulan Ramadan ini, Jabatan Bomba dan Penyelamat mengambil kesempatan ini untuk menasihatkan dan mengingatkan kepada orang ramai untuk berhati-hati terutama sekali dari segi aspek pencegahan kebakaran khususnya suri-suri rumah tangga apabila berada di dapur untuk memastikan tidak meninggalkan sebarang masakan terbiar dan apabila meninggalkan rumah untuk memastikan membuat senarai semak iaitu untuk memastikan semua peralatan elektrik yang tidak digunakan hendaklah ditutup termasuk gas memasak di mana dikhuatiri berlaku kebocoran yang boleh membawa kepada berlakunya kejadian yang tidak diingini.

It might be translated (rather badly) as:

Throughout this month of Ramadan, the Fire and Safety Office is taking the opportunity to advise and remind the public to be careful especially with respect to avoiding fires particularly housewives when they are in the kitchen to ensure they do not leave their cooking unattended and when they leave the house they should ensure they complete a checklist namely to ensure all electrical tools which are not being used are switched off including the cooking gas whereby there are worries there might be a leak which could bring about an undesirable event.

In this rather literal translation, I have maintained the use of 'whereby' as a translation di mana, as lots of my students use 'whereby' in their English.

As far as I know, the Malay is fine; but English does not encourage such long sentences. It would be better to break it up, maybe something like:

Throughout this month of Ramadan, the Fire and Safety Office is taking the opportunity to remind the public to be careful especially with respect to avoiding fires. In particular, housewives in the kitchen should ensure they do not leave their cooking unattended. In addition, when they leave the house, they should complete a checklist to make sure all electrical tools which are not being used are switched off. Furthermore, they should be careful about the cooking gas, as there are worries there might be a leak which could bring about an undesirable event.

In addition to breaking it up into four sentences, I have avoided the use of 'advise and remind', which seems a bit redundant, even though menasihatkan dan mingingatkan is fine in Malay. I have also eliminated the repetition of 'ensure', even though memastikan occurs three times in the Malay.

Shortening of sentences and avoiding lexical repetition are issues that need to be considered when translating from Malay into English.

26 June 2014

Opaque Idioms

While watching the World Cup, I am always struck by how many opaque idioms the commentators use:

they're under the cosh (they're under pressure)
that's right on the money (the ball is just where he wanted it)
it's kitchen sink time now (the team is throwing everything forward)
he's got his foot to the floor (he's going as fast as he can)

and so on. I pity foreign language learners who are trying to make any sense of this kind of commentary.

Of course, opaque idioms are all around us, and we rarely stop to think about them. My wife recently heard that someone who had been in hospital for a while had 'turned the corner', and she thought that must be bad, as you don't know what's around the corner. But, in fact, 'turn the corner' is used to indicate that things have started to improve, and the person in hospital was now getting better.

Another idiom with an unexpected connotation is 'over the hill'. Logically, climbing a hill is hard work, and once you get to the top and can start going downhill, that should be good news. But in fact we use 'over the hill' to refer to someone who is past it and is no longer able to contribute much.

And one more: I always think that 'purple patch' ought to be something bad, as I associate purple with bruises and things like that. But, in fact, a purple patch is a period of notable success, especially for a writer or a musician. Apparently, it derives from Roman times, when purple was an exquisite colour that only the rich could afford to wear.

Of course, Malay is just the same. I came across ringan tulang (lit. 'light bone'), and I thought that must be bad. In fact it means 'hardworking'.

And in today's Media Permata I saw this: perkara pokok (lit 'tree matter'). Now, what could that mean? There seemed to be nothing about trees in the article! In fact, perkara pokok means 'the crux of the matter'.

Well, perhaps this last one is because pokok ('tree') has a secondary meaning, for it can also mean 'basic', as in gaji pokok ('basic salary'). Nevertheless, it reminds us how opaque idioms can be.

24 June 2014

Singular 'their'

I just wrote a reference for one of my students to study at York University, and the message that came back was:

Thank you for taking the time to upload a reference for Ms Xxx Xxx in connection with their application for the MSc in Forensic Speech Science.

(where I have blanked out the name to maintain anonymity).

It is interesting to see that the University uses 'their', even though the gender of the applicant is known to be female (note the use of 'Ms').

I find it encouraging that 'they' and 'their' are becoming increasingly acceptable for singular referents. It makes things so much easier than having to write 'his or her' or something clumsy like that.

17 June 2014


One of the biggest problems for learners of a foreign language is when their first language has a superordinate word and the foreign language has two (or more) hyponyms. For example, even after speaking Chinese for 40 years, I still get caught out by the distinction between 穿 chuān and 戴 dài, both of which are 'wear' in English. In Chinese, you use 穿 for clothes and 戴 for peripheral things like hats or seat-belts; but in English we say 'wear a shirt', 'wear socks', 'wear a hat' and 'wear a seatbelt'.

In speaking Malay, the same problems might occur for padi, beras and nasi, all of which are 'rice' in English. However, I find it easier to to keep those apart, as they are nouns, and it is easier to remember that padi is growing in the fields, beras is for sale in a shop, and nasi is already cooked.

What about the other way round? Chinese speakers of English often confuse 'he' and 'she' in English, because although they are differentiated in writing as 他 and 她, both are pronounced the same: .

For Malay learners of English, I would expect that the distinction between 'pain' and 'sickness' would be problematic, as both are sakit in Malay.

14 June 2014


I was just watching Chile against Australia in the World Cup, and the commentator (who seemed to be from Britain) constantly referred to the Chilean team as /tʃɪˈleɪən/. I have never heard that before, and for me it would be /ˈtʃɪlɪən/.

I then checked the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd edn), and indeed /ˈtʃɪlɪən/ is the only possibility listed for British pronunciation. However, for American pronunciation, /tʃɪˈliːən/ is given as the most common, followed by /tʃɪˈleɪən/, so the commentator was using the second pronunciation found in the USA.

I wonder if a sound change is taking place in how we are expected to say the word. When I was young, Caribbean was pronounced /ˌkærɪˈbiːən/ (with the main stress on the third syllable). But nowadays, it seems to be /kəˈrɪbɪən/ (with the stress on the second syllable). Perhaps the pronunciation of Chilean is also undergoing change.

08 June 2014


This picture (sent to me by Ishamina Athirah) is presumably advertising for a tailor, i.e. someone who cuts and sews.

The trouble is that 'sewer' has two different meanings in English: when pronounced /su:ə/, it is a drain; and when pronounced /səʊə/, it is someone who sews. However, the first meaning is much more common than the second, and in reality we never use the second meaning. Instead, we say 'tailor' or 'seamstress' or something like that.

My guess is that this use of 'sewer' is a direct translation of penjahit ('someone who sews'). In Malay pemotong dan penjahit ('someone who cuts and someone who sews') would make perfect sense.

26 May 2014


On Linguist List (here) I just saw this opening pane from a comic strip:

The posting is about the use of 'peak friend'. But what about 'BORF'? What does it mean? It looks like an acronym. But if it is, what does it stand for?

The online Hyperdictionary (here) defines it as:

To uncerimoniously (sic) disconnect someone from a system without prior warning.

But then it says that its origin is unknown.

Keeping track of new terminology is difficult; and it doesn't help when what appears to be an acronym has an unknown origin.

(It also doesn't help when 'unceremoniously' is misspelt. I guess the Hyperdictionary isn't the most reliable resource.)

25 May 2014

selfie, hashtag, tweet

I just read a report that selfie, hashtag and tweet are now going to be included in the dictionary of Malay published by the Malaysian Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka ('Language and Literature Bureau'). They will be labelled as 'bp', which stands for bahasa percakapan ('colloquial language'), as they are not regarded as bahasa baku ('standard language').

The rationale for including these words is that it is the job of a dictionary to reflect actual usage. On this basis, I wonder when they will include so and then as words of Malay. I regularly hear people using these two words in utterances that are otherwise completely Malay, so it seems it is only a matter of time before they are completely accepted as Malay words.

24 May 2014


Local languages in this part of the world typically fail to distinguish the gender of third person pronouns; so both 'he' and 'she' are dia in Malay, and though they are differentiated in Chinese writing as 他 and 她, these are both pronounced as [ta] on a high-level tone. As a result, even quite proficient speakers of English in the region sometimes continue to confuse 'he' and 'she'.

From a communicative perspective, does this matter? If someone says:

I have one sister and he works as a teacher

they are unlikely to be misunderstood, though a listener from somewhere such as the UK might find it a bit jarring.

However, breakdowns in communication can sometimes occur. I have been listening to some recordings I made in Guangxi Province, and in the 24 interviews, there are 41 expected uses of 'he' and 'she' and 7 unexpected ones, 4 uses of 'he' to refer to a mother or sister and 3 uses of 'she' to refer to a father or brother. None of these is an issue, as the meaning is clear in context. However, there is one additional instance which is problematic. A female speaker said:

I have a roommate. He er he's live in Shangrila.

In response, I said 'okay', hoping the student might elaborate about her roommate. But when this was not forthcoming, I changed the subject, asking about where she would like to travel to if she had the choice.

The problem is this: it is extremely unlikely that her roommate was male, especially in China; but she had used 'he'. So if I was to ask more about her roommate, should I use 'he' or 'she'? Instead I took the safe option and changed the topic.

It seems that confusing the two pronouns can sometimes be a problem.

20 May 2014

for good

My most recent book, published by De Gruyter, was on Misunderstandings in ELF (see here). My PhD student, Ishamina Athirah, is now replicating the work but focussing just on Brunei English. This is providing some fascinating data about what features of Brunei speech may be hard for people from elsewhere to understand.

This morning we were listening to a recording of a Bruneian talking to someone from Vietnam, and the Bruneian said:

when I went to Brunei for good

which the Vietnamese listener did not understand.

Although most misunderstandings seem to arise because of pronunciation, this one is caused by the Vietnamese not being familiar with the idiom 'for good'. And if you do not know this idiom, there is no way you could work out that it means 'permanently'.

Sometimes idioms are really opaque; and this is a fine example. When we are talking to people from elsewhere, we should try to be careful about using opaque idioms that they may not know.

On the other hand, 'for good' is such a common phrase in English that we may not realise that others do not understand it. Furthermore, it is probably quite hard to immediately think up an alternative to 'for good' when we are talking to someone.

18 May 2014


It always leaves me bemused when I see a line of Malay with no space between the words. This is from page 2 of the Media Permata of 19 May 2014.

The first line would be a bit easier to read if it were written as:

Berada di lapangan terbang bagi menucapapkan
Present at           airport           to         say

They must have special software to enable them to crunch the words together like that. If you tried to do it in ordinary wordprocessing software like Microsoft Word, it would force you to have a new line; and reducing the spacing between words is not straightforward.

It is also a mystery why the final word mengucapkan is not hyphenated: mengucap-kan. Later in the same article bertujuan ('to intend') is hyphenated as ber-tujuan and membuka ('to open') is broken up as mem-buka; so why the same is not done with mengucapkan is bizarre.

17 May 2014


I just read (here) that Vietnamese has a word for elder brother (anh) and elder sister (chi), but the same word for both younger brother and younger sister (em). This is the same as Malay, were elder brother is abang, elder sister is kaka, and younger sibling is adik, and no difference is made between younger brother and sister.

Of course, there is no suggestion that Malay and Vietnamese are connected, as they belong to entirely different language families. But I wonder if it might be an aerial feature, a feature of language that extends across language families because of proximity?

Or maybe it is just a coincidence.


Prefixes in Malay are highly productive, so it is easy to create new words which others can immediately understand. This morning I heard about menasik, which is the meN prefix added to tasik ('lake'), so it means to walk around the lake. Or, in this case, to walk in the Tasik Lama recreational park, a popular hiking spot in the middle of BSB.

It shows also that people know the rules about affixation, as the initial /t/ gets omitted when the prefix is added, and everyone knows that even if they have probably never been taught it explicitly.

The only question I have about menasik is why the meN prefix is used, as verbs with this prefix usually have an object. I would have expected the ber prefix to be used instead, as verbs starting with ber are generally intransitive. But maybe the ber prefix is less productive than meN.

16 May 2014

QWERTY and names

There is a hypothesis (see here) that we prefer typing with our right hand, and as a result, as more and more people have become accustomed to using a computer keyboard, there is a greater preference for names that predominantly use the right side of the keyboard. This would predict that John would become more popular (all four letters are typed with the right hand) while Edgar would become less popular (all five letters are typed with the left hand).

Well, maybe. I'm not convinced.

This hypothesis predicts that David would become less popular, as all but one of its letters are typed with the left hand; and the names I gave both my children, Alexander and Elizabeth, would also be dis-preferred, as both are predominantly left-sided. But they were born before I started to use a computer on a regular basis, so the hypothesis is irrelevant for them.

What about Malay names? I have 29 students with Malay names in my year one class at UBD. If we just analyse the names before the bin or binti, we find that:

  • 15 have a right-sided name: Nurul Amirah, Norazlinah, Nur Liyana, Nur Bazilah, Noor Atikah, Nurol Izazi, Mohd Khairul, Muhd Amaluddin, Muhd Alqurnain, Nurul Nadiatul, Amalina, Muhammad Zulfadhli, Nur Aqilah, Nur Hanizah, Muhammad Ghazali
  • 3 have equal right and left-sided letters: Nur Haidatul, Nur Diyanah, Abdul Qawiy
  • 11 have more left-sided letters: Siti Izzatul Aliah, Mohammad Iskandar, Siti Nurfaizzah, Fatihah, Muhammad Amir Syaddad, Emmyra Nurfazrenna, Nur Khadizeah, Farah Mahirah, Wa'iz, Izaz Fahad

So there is a slight preference for names that are typed with letters on the right side of the keyboard.

However, I would be very surprised if this was connected in any way with keyboard usage. I suspect that few of their parents were accustomed to using a keyboard when these students were born. A more likely explanation for the slight preference for right-sided letters is the common occurrence of 'N' in these names.