22 April 2016

Ambiguous Headlines

Sometimes, headlines can be really confusing. I just saw this headline on the Guardian online of Tuesday, 16 February, 2016. (Although it is two months old, there is a link to it from a current article.)

When I read it, I thought, "That's good. Donald Trump is supporting the Paris deal, and he is warning people that it should not be scrapped."

Unfortunately, that is not true. In fact, 'warned' is a passive verb, so the true meaning of the headline is, 'Donald Trump has been warned about the danger of scrapping the Paris climate deal'.

I wish that headline writers would think a bit more and make their headlines clearer. Or maybe they do it deliberately, to get us to read the article and find out what is going on.

20 April 2016

Labels on Trees

I recently went on a walk around Bukit Mentiri, and it is splendid to see that lots of the trees are labeled, not just with the scientific name but also often with the local names. For example, in the case below, the name of the tree is given in Kedayan and also Iban.

However, it is a pity that the labeling isn't a bit more accurate. Saurauia is a member of the family Actinidiaceae (See this Wikipedia page), not Fagaceae (it is not an oak tree).

07 April 2016

FIFA Rankings

The latest FIFA rankings for world football have been published, and Brunei Darussalam is ranked at No 195 (out of 210), a fall of 11 places since the last ranking:

It seems extraordinary that Brunei has such a low ranking, given the amount of money that is spent on supporting sport in the country.

Never mind. At least it is ranked higher than Tahiti and Papua New Guinea.

29 March 2016

Noun Phrases in Headlines

I've never understood why headline writers favour densely packed noun phrases. Take this one that I saw on the Guardian website today:

The trouble with this headline is that it is what we called a 'garden-path' sentence: when I first read it, I believed that 'Trump campaign manager' was the subject and 'questions' was the verb; but then you get to the end and find it doesn't make sense. So you have to start again, and then you realise that the subject is 'Trump campaign manager questions' and the verb is 'lead'. This seems to me really opaque.

It would be much better to express it as 'Questions about Trump campaign manager lead CNN town hall'. That is one more word, but it is so much easier to parse. So why don't headline writers do it? They seem to take perverse pleasure in creating headlines that are as hard to understand as possible. Why?

And do headline writers in Brunei do the same thing? Is there some international conspiracy among headline writers of English news stories to confuse the poor reader as often as possible? I'll need to look through the Borneo Bulletin and the Brunei Times to see if they do it. That would make rather a nice research project for someone: to compare the syntax of headlines in Brunei and international news stories.

11 March 2016


The pronunciation of words borrowed from English into Malay sometimes affects the way those words are pronounced in English by speakers of Malay. For example, Standard Malay has [t] at the start of teater, so it is not too surprising if 'theatre' is also pronounced with an initial [t]; and there is no [t] at the end of pos, so it is not surprising if 'post' is also pronounced with no final [t].

Today I saw this headline on page 3 the Media Pemata of 11 March, 2016:

It can be translated as 'Finding a way to resolve the issue of monopolies of the shares of cooperatives'.

Note that 'cooperative' is koperasi in Malay. The standard pronunciation of 'cooperative' is [kəʊˈɒpərətɪv], but Malay speakers are more likely to say it as [ˈkɒpərətɪv], with one fewer syllable. And it seems that 'cooperation' is similarly affected, with many speakers having [kɒp] at the start.

07 March 2016


This headline, from the Media Permata of 19 February, 2016, p.1, caught me out:

'Child dies in Fire'

When I read it, I assumed that kanak-kanak referred to the plural, as is usual in Malay reduplications: rumah-rumah 'houses'; orang-orang 'people'; barang-barang 'things'. But the article seems to indicate that there was only one child involved.

In fact, apparently, the singular kanak does not exist, so kanak-kanak can refer to a singular 'child'.

While reduplication in Malay does not always indicate the plural (e.g. membeli-belah 'go shopping'), in general there is some change with either the consonant or the vowel in the second word; kanak-kanak is the only non-plural reduplication of a noun with no such change that I have come across.

curhat, taska

I just learned two new words of Malay:

  • curhat, 'to pour your heart out': a blend of curah ('to pour out') + hati ('heart')
  • taska, 'kindergarten': a blend of taman ('park') + asuhan ('take care') + kanak-kanak ('children'). I'm not sure of the difference from tadika, which also means 'kindergarten'

It is interesting that both these blends involve the first part of words, as is the usual pattern for blends in Malay (e.g. cerpen 'short story' = cerita 'story' + pendek 'short'; tadika 'kindergarten' = taman 'park' + didik 'educate' + kanak-kanak 'children').

In contrast English uses the first part of one word plus the end of another (e.g. 'smog' = 'smoke' + 'fog'; 'infotainment' = 'information' + 'entertainment').

05 February 2016

Estet Industrial

This is a picture taken by James McLellan in Limbang, which he discussed in his recent FASS seminar. (For more details, see here.)

The second line is, of course, in Chinese. But what language is the first line in?

Both the words are English, but the spelling of the first word estet ('estate') is in Malay, and the word order, with the adjective occurring after the noun it modifies, is clearly Malay.

So, what language is it in? There seems to be no easy answer to this question.

18 January 2016

France Soldiers

There has for many years been a contrast between using an adjective premodifier for nationalities ('Spanish troops', 'Chinese territory') and the bare name of the country ('Singapore transport', 'Brunei English'). It seems that, for small countries such as Singapore and Brunei, we prefer the name of the country instead of an adjective ('Singaporean', 'Bruneian'), while for larger countries, we use the adjective ('Spanish' rather than 'Spain').

However, that seems to be undergoing change. Look at this headline from the BBC World page of today:

Note the use of 'France soldiers' rather than 'French soldiers', as I would expect.

I have seen this for football teams in the past ('the France team' rather than 'the French team'); but this usage seems now to be extended to other domains. I have no idea why.

17 January 2016


An authoritative book on English spelling, Upward and Davidson (2011, p. 235) states that 'bamboo' comes from the Malay word bambu. It is a bit ironic, then, that the modern Malay for bamboo is buluh; and my Collins Malay dictionary does not even list bambu.

If Malay already had a perfectly good word for bamboo, why did it adopt a new one? And where did buluh come from?

The WordSense.eu Dictionary suggests that buluh is an indigenous word originating from Proto-Malayic, so I guess there must once have been two terms for bamboo in Malay, though buluh seems to be the most commonly used nowadays.


Upward, C., & Davidson, G. (2011). The History of English Spelling. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

11 January 2016

4th Floor

As is well known, Chinese people have an aversion for number 4, as 'four' in Chinese sounds like 'death'. So what do hotels do about the 4th floor?

The usual solution is just to omit it. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Tainan. It goes from the 3rd floor to the 5th floor, and nobody has to stay on the 4th floor.

However, there is another solution. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Kaohsiung, where the 4th floor is re-labelled as A Floor.

The trouble with this is that not everyone understands it. I saw one couple enter the lift, look at their key, and then go back to the registration desk to ask what was meant by A floor. But it does mean that nobody has to stay on the 4th floor, even if finding your room might be a bit confusing!

01 January 2016


In my previous post, I suggested that use of 'gravida' to refer to pregnant women in a sign in Taiwan arose out of over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary. Here is another similar example, this one from the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung:

What on earth does 'caponizing' mean?

I have looked it up, and a 'capon' is a castrated rooster, so to 'caponize' is to castrate a rooster. (Apparently this makes the meat tastier.)

In this case (and unlike the 'gravida' example), you might say that the translation is accurate. But how many people know the word 'caponize'? The purpose of translation is to explain a text to people who cannot read the original, and it seems a pity to use obscure words that few people will understand, even if the usage might technically be regarded as accurate.

In this case, 'Rooster Castration Competition' might be better, though in fact it seems from the Chinese that the competition is about comparing castrated roosters, not competing to castrate them, so maybe 'Castrated Rooster Competition' would be more accurate.

Language in Taiwan

I just spent two weeks in the south of Taiwan, where there seems to be a genuine effort to encourage a range of languages. In the subway trains in Kaohsiung, station announcements are generally given in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese (Hokkien), Hakka, and English; and some announcements are also given in Japanese. Very impressive.

The English on signs is mostly intelligible, but it can sometimes be a bit unexpected. This is the sign on priority seats intended for the old and infirm:

Most of it is intelligible (though the grammar isn't too good). But 'gravida'? 孕婦 means 'pregnant woman'. So where does 'gravida' come from?. It is not a term I am familiar with, and it suggests a rather over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary.

In fact, I have just looked it up, and it is a medical term that refers to the number of pregnancies a woman has had; it does not mean 'pregnant woman' at all.

It is a bit surprising that the authorities can spend lots of money providing a translation for signs such as these and then printing them out for all the carriages in all their trains but not get someone to check the English.

Never mind. The attempt to make the subway system user-friendly for visitors is impressive.

12 December 2015

Berbahasa Satu

This is the central section of the mural on the front of the library building in the middle of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

The words say: Berbahasa satu, Berbangsa satu, Bernegara satu (One language, One race, One nation).

While this is not very encouraging for efforts at preserving minority languages, it is perhaps not unusual in countries around the world, where the desire to have a common language throughout the country is widespread. For example, there is a movement to establish English as the national language of the United States, even though there does not seem to be any real threat to the dominance of English despite the fears of some people that Spanish might one day replace English; and in Indonesia, establishment of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language even though it was originally the home language of virtually nobody has been a central national policy over the past few decades.

11 December 2015


In Malay, belas is the suffix given to numerals to indicate the numbers 11 to 19, so 11 is sebelas, 12 is dua belas, and so on.

Then there is the Malay word belasan, to refer to the age group 11 to 19. My dictionary gives the gloss for belasan tahun as 'teens'.

However, this is not quite right, as in standard English, the teens only start at 13, and people aged 11 and 12 are not teenagers.

I wonder if there is a shift of meaning of the word 'teenager' in Brunei English, influenced by the Malay word belasan?

One further influence might be from Chinese, as there is no easy translation of 十几岁 ('aged between 11 and 19') in English. It seems possible, therefore, that this shift in the meaning of 'teenager' is found quite widely in the region, including in Singapore.

05 December 2015


When I started out as an academic, I believed it was my duty to do research and publish it, but I found self-promotion tacky. Well, I guess that's all changed, and now I make things available on my website and on ResearchGate, just like everyone else. I accept that we have to promote our research, and we can't just sit back and hope that somehow people will find it.

Now, as part of my role as Webmaster for my Faculty, I have been tasked with creating and maintaining a 'News' page in the faculty website. (See here).

Is this the sort of thing an academic should be doing? Well, I suppose in the modern world where universities have to promote themselves, just like businesses, it probably is. And even if it does take time away from research, I have to accept that this sort of work is what we all have to do. (Anyway, it beats being on another committee!).

Maybe some people will find it interesting and useful, who knows.

27 November 2015

Ivory Tower

It is interesting when a calque form one language into another involves a shift in meaning. In English ivory tower always has a negative connotation, suggesting a university that is cut off from reality. But look at this paragraph from page 1 of the Media Permata of 28 November:

Dua adik-beradik menarik nafas lega apabila cita-cita mereka untuk melanjutkan pelajaran ke menara gading di Malaysia tercapai dengan adanya bantuan biasiswa penuh daripada sebuah syarikat tempatan hari ini.

which might be translated as:

Two sisters breathed a sigh of relief today when their ambition to continue their studies at an ivory tower in Malaysia succeeded with the help of a full scholarship offered by a local company.

Note that menara gading ('ivory tower') does not suggest anything negative in this context. Indeed, my dictionary gives the meaning of menara gading as 'institution of higher learning'.