29 March 2017

Verb Usage to Express Future Time

At 10:02 last night, my student sent me the following message:

I'm so sorry, just let u know my assignment I put it in ur piegon hall.

When I arrived at work at 7:05 am this morning, there was no assignment in my pigeonhole. It eventually arrived at about 8:00 am (I guess).

So, here's my question: was my student lying, in the expectation that I wouldn't arrive so early so would not find out? Or is her grammatical usage flawed, and she does not distinguish between 'put' and 'will put' to express future time?

Note: we cannot refer to tense, as 'put' is an irregular verb, and it could either be present or past tense. However, it would be normal to include the modal auxiliary 'will' to refer to a future event. So I don't know if she was actually telling the truth, telling me that she intended to submit the assignment soon, or if she was lying in the hope that I would not find out about the mismatch between the stated time of submission and the actual time.

25 March 2017

batteries is free

This is the advertising billboard above a busy intersection in BSB, the capital of Brunei:

I find it amazing that people can spend so much money on making a big sign like that and not bother to get the grammar right. How difficult is it to use of plural verb with a plural subject?

23 March 2017

Impact Factor

Academic journals are ranked according to an 'Impact Factor'. This is defined as the average number of citations each paper in the journal receives within two years of its publication (see here).

Now, this might work well in biology, where the turn-around for papers is fast; but it is completely ludicrous for areas such as linguistics, as it is quite common for a delay of two years or more between the submission of a paper and its publication. If it takes two years to get a paper published, there is no way that there can be ANY citations in the two years after it is published.

This is totally absurd; but it seems that the sciences are running the show, and the fact that the way this Impact Factor is measured is ridiculous for the arts does not seem make any difference. Linguistics journals are ranked by their Impact Factor, just like scientific journals.

One of the journals I have published most with, the Journal of the International Phonetic Association (see here), gives their Impact Factor as 0.43. That means that less than half of the papers in the journal generate any citations within the first two years. Quite frankly, I am amazed that it is so high.

One of strategies journals seem to have adopted to try and boost their Impact Factor is use of 'First Read'. About two years ago, together with my PhD student Ishamina Athirah, I submitted a paper on the pronunciation of Brunei Malay, and it has finally been published in the first issue of 2017. But it was actually ready for publication in June last year and it was then made available in a First Read site.

So why the delay? My guess is that the journal put it in First Read for several months with the aim of generating some interest; so it is hoped that, now that it is fully published, there may be some citations within the two-year window.

This is very frustrating, as it was hard to make use of the material when it did not have a proper volume number or page number. Anyway, it is now published, so that is nice. You can find out some more about it from my dedicated website (see here):

I hope that the paper can offer a useful resource on the pronunciation of Brunei Malay. Maybe I'll even get a citation or two within two years!

04 March 2017

Circle Line

In my previous post about recorded messages in the Singapore MRT trains, I discussed pronunciation of 'next station' that deviates from the way that people in Britain or America might say the phrase.

Another utterance in which the pronunciation deviates from what would be expected in Britain or America involves the phrasal noun 'Circle Line' (and indeed other lines, such as 'North-East Line'). Consider this recorded utterance I heard on the MRT trains:

Change at this station for the Circle \LINE

The sentence stress is placed on 'line', becasue it is the last word in the utterance. But 'Circle Line' is a phrasal noun, and the standard pronunciation of phrasal nouns involves putting the main stress on the first element: TRAFfic lights, PARKing ticket, POST office, CARbon paper, FOOTball field, TENnis court, SWIMming pool, CIRCle line, etc.

Does this failure to use phrasal noun stress in Singapore matter? Probably not, for it is hard to imagine anyone misunderstanding 'circle LINE'. In fact, the use of falling intonation with the main stress occurring on the final item of an utterance seems to be adopted to clearly indicate the end of the utterance, so it actually has an important role in the intonation of Singapore English.

I suspect that I may be the only person in Singapore who actually notices the difference between 'CIRCle line' and 'Circle LINE'; so I I see no need for the MRT authorities to go and change their recordings. In fact, the way the utterances are said probably resonates well with local people

Next Station

In the Singapore MRT trains, the announcements are all pre-recorded using exceptionally precise pronunciation; and the phrase 'next station' is spoken very carefully, with all the medial consonants /kstst/ articulated. Five consecutive consonants!

This is quite an extraordinary achievement. No speaker from Britain or America would ever do that, and it would be much more normal to drop the medial /t/. Then the sequence would become /kst/, which is far easier.

Although the way it is said in the MRT trains sounds rather unnatural, retention of the medial /t/ probably enhances intelligibility, so it should be encouraged.

In fact, one could argue that just because speakers from places such as Britain would most probably drop the medial /t/, there is no reason for people in Singapore to follow suit if they can enhance intelligibility by articulating the /t/. So the way it is said on the MRT trains is really rather admirable.

02 March 2017

Spelling out names

In my previous post, I discussed an instance when I did not understand someone in Singapore. How about cases when someone did not understand me?

Today, there was a case when I was trying to spell out my surname, and I started D E T ..., but the woman wrote T E D. What caused this?

The problem probably arose because of variable voicing and aspiration on plosives. My /d/ is voiceless but unaspirated, while my /t/ is voiceless and fully aspirated. But many people in this part of the world have fully voiced /d/ and unaspirated /t/, which means that for them my /d/ may sound like a /t/; and they may not pick up the aspiration on my /t/.

What is of further interest is how to resolve this misunderstanding. My usual strategy is to use the international radiotelephonic alphabet: Delta Echo Tango ... But some people are not familiar with this code. In this instance when I tried to resolve the issue, the woman starting writing Delta ... So that didn't work.

I have always thought it would be really valuable if everyone learned the international code, to facilitate spelling out names and other words. But that doesn't seem to be happening.

On the other hand, I believe the local custom is to use country names: Denmark England Thailand etc. And maybe I should remember to do that.

Exit C

I am currently in Singapore. It is interesting for me to consider times when I don't understand something, and also instances when they don't understand me.

The only instance so far in which I have misunderstood something is when I asked a man in an MRT station how to get to the DBS Bank, and he replied 'Exit C'. But he said it as [esiʔsi], and I heard it as SCC. (Maybe Singapore Cricket Club?)

Three things may have contributed to this token of misunderstanding:

  • the missing /k/ in 'exit'
  • the glottal stop [ʔ] in place of /t/ at the end of 'exit'
  • a lack of distinction between the short vowel in the second syllable of 'exit' and the vowel in 'C'

My feeling is that the missing /k/ was the key factor. A glottal stop at the end of 'exit' is not unexpected (and is probably the way that I would have said the word); and, in the absence of a recording, I can't be sure about the quality of the vowels in 'exit' and 'C'. But the use of [s] for the consonants in the middle of 'exit' were problematic.

20 February 2017


I wonder if the word majoriti has a shifted meaning from its source word 'majority'. Here is an extract from an article on page M9 of the Media Permata of 18 February, 2017:

Puak Khasi, yang bilangannya tidak sampai sejuta, adalah komuniti majoriti daripada 2.5 juta pwnduduk di Maghalanya.

which might be translated as:

The Khasi people, who number less than one million, are the majority of the 2.5 million residents in Maghala.

Er ... one million is not a majority of 2.5 million. The Khasi people might be the largest group in Maghala, but they are not a majority. Or perhaps majoriti has a shifted meaning.

18 February 2017

No Overtaking

Here's one of the weirdest signs I have seen in Brunei.

Let's now have a look at the wider picture, to see where these signs are placed.

In fact, they are at the top of the short access road to the satellite station behind the Radisson Hotel in BSB. While it is popular with walkers, some of whom do their morning exercise by walking up and down this hill a few times, and others use the road to head into the Tasek forest, there are almost never any cars on it. My estimate is that maybe two or three cars a day use this road.

Sure, it's a steep hill (which is why people looking for a bit of exercise like to use it). But as there are almost no cars on it, there is no opportunity to overtake. Ever.

So why is there a no overtaking sign there? My guess is that there is a regulation somewhere that all steep hills must have these signs, and someone has followed this regulation even though it makes no sense in this case. But who knows?

10 February 2017

Pronunciation of Tutong

I have been working on the pronunciation of the indigenous languages of Brunei, hoping to make recordings available for people to listen to. Here is my effort for Tutong, a recording of the following passage:

Masa Barui Utara samo Mato Aluh bagagut pasal inayih yo paleng kuat, ado dai urang parantau sabi. Ido setujui inayih yo mala’ gama’ nih nanggalkan jubah parantau ina’, iyo dai paleng kuat. Barui Utara mbepar sakuat-kuat nih. Tapi makin kuat nih mbepar makin kuat dai atin parantau ina ngimbit jubah nih. Barui Utara pun ngalah dirih. Tiru ina’ Mato Aluh mamancar sakuat kuat nih. Sabi parantau ina’ ndo tan terus banuka nih jubah nih. Jadi Barui Utara tapaksa dai ngakun alah yo Mato Aluh ina lebih kuat kod iyo.

Making this recording posed some interesting problems. The main one was that Tutong is not a written language, so getting a Tutong speaker to read a passage fluently was not easy. But it seems to have worked out OK.

Another issue is variation in Tutong. This speaker uses [ə] in words such as lebih ('more') where others might use [a]; and he also says paleng ('most') when others would say palyeng; but variation is always an issue, and this is modern Tutong as spoken by the younger generation.

01 February 2017

Rhoticity in Brunei English

Rhoticity involves producing the [r] sound whenever 'r' occurs in the spelling, including at the end of words such as 'car' and before a consonant in words such as 'park'. RP British English is non-rhotic, as there is no [r] sound in these words.

Early accounts of the pronunciation of Brunei English written in the 1990s make no reference to rhoticity, but it is not clear if Brunei English was non-rhotic at the time or if the occurrence of [r] was not regarded as important enough to merit discussion. And it is hard to get hold of recordings to check on the extent of rhoticity at that time.

More recent accounts suggest that about half of university undergraduates have a rhotic accent, and furthermore, it is believed that the incidence of rhoticity is increasing. But how can we check this?

My PhD student, Nur Raihan Mohamad, has recorded three groups of speakers: secondary school students, university undergraduates, and in-service teachers. If we find that the younger speakers are more rhotic than the older ones, this provides evidence that rhoticity is increasing. But there is a problem with this: the school students are less well-educated than the undergraduates, and it is possible that this has an impact on rhoticity.

However, there is an alternative approach. We now have recordings of university undergraduates made between 2007 and 2010 and some more recent recordings made in 2016, so we can compare these two sets of recordings and thereby find out if rhoticity is increasing.

One issue is that knowledge of whether the recording is older or more recent might impact on judgements. So I randomised the order of 21 early recordings and 21 more recent recordings, and then Nur Raihan listened to them and judged whether each speaker was rhotic or not. (She also tried to guess whether the recording was an early one or a later one, and she was basically unable to guess that correctly.)

The results of her listening are shown in this table:

These results clearly show that rhoticity in the more recent recordings is much higher than in the earlier ones: while about half of the earlier speakers had a rhotic accent (as expected), all but two out of twenty-one of the speakers in the more recent recordings were rhotic. This is really surprising: it is rare to find such a shift in patterns of pronunciation over just seven years.

To confirm the results, we asked another research student, Sufi Redzwan, to repeat the listening. And he got exactly the same results: about half of the early recordings were rhotic, while all but two of the more recent ones were. So it is confirmed that rhoticity has increased substantially over the past few years.

This work is written up as Nur Raihan (2017) – see here.

15 January 2017

Playing extracts

One of my problems with this blog is allowing you to hear extracts of speech. While I can make pictures and videos available, speech seems to be more problematic. But let's see if the following code enables you to listen to this recording of the 'North Wind and the Sun' passage in Brunei Malay:

It seems to work! In future, maybe I'll be able to make more speech extracts available.

10 January 2017

Diphthongs in Brunei Malay

In my previous post, I discussed the number of monophthong vowels in Brunei Malay and suggested there are just three: /i, a, u/.

How about diphthongs? How many diphthongs does Brunei Malay have?

Some people would say three, [ai], [au], [oi]. Illustrative words are:

  • garai ('food stall')
  • palau ('dazed')
  • baloi ('worthwhile')

However, note that these three diphthongs can only occur at the end of a word. In cases in which they occur in the middle of a word (e.g. kain 'cloth', daun 'leaf'), these words actually have two syllables, so we can say there is a sequence of two monophthong vowels.

If a diphthong can only occur at the end of a word, with no following consonant, then we might say that it is a monophthong followed by an approximant. If words such as yang ('which') and wang ('money') can start with an approximant, we can also say that garai and palau end with an approximant.

On this basis, we analyse the three words above as: /garaj/, /palaw/ and /baluj/. So there are no diphthongs in Brunei Malay.

For further discussion of diphthongs in Brunei Malay and the chance to listen to these words, see here.

08 January 2017

Brunei Malay Vowels

How many vowels are there in Brunei Malay?

The simple answer is: three. /i/, /a/, /u/. However, things are not quite so simple. Indeed, the Brunei Malay dictionary (published by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Brunei) shows prefixes with 'e' (indicating pronunciation as [ə]). As a result, while beli (to buy) is shown as bali in Brunei Malay, its prefixed form is shown as membali.

Is this right? If Brunei Malay only has three vowels, how can prefixes have [ə]? Shouldn't the prefixed form be mambali?

The problem is that the vowel in the prefix is often not as open as [a], especially among young speakers (perhaps influenced by Standard Malay, which has six vowels, including /ə/).

Here is a plot of the three vowels, measured from the reading of a short text by a young female speaker:

Note the substantial overlap between /a/ and /u/, much of which is caused by this prefix. If we plot the prefix separately, here shown as 'e', then the overlap is reduced:

However, in some cases the prefix is produced with a more open vowel, so there seems to be substantial variation.

For more information on the pronunciation of Brunei Malay and the chance to listen to the recordings on which the analysis was based, see here.

18 December 2016

Bhutan English

In my previous post, I discussed the pronunciation of 'monk' by our guide in Bhutan. In this picture, he is on the left, wearing traditional Bhutanese dress.

He asked me how to improve his pronunciation. In fact, his English was excellent, so I was reluctant to criticise anything; but seeing as he asked for feedback, I provided him with a brief overview of some of the non-standard features of his pronunciation, including 'monk' as [mɒŋk] even though I'm not sure that it matters too much. Here are a few of the other features, some of which might be a bit more important for maintaining intelligibility.

  • /b/ and /v/ are sometimes confused, so 'visit' might be [bɪzɪt]
  • complex consonant clusters can be simplified, so the /r/ is omitted in 'extract'
  • /ɑː/ is generally used when 'a' occurs in the spelling, even when /ɔː/ is expected, including the first syllable of 'always' and 'August'
  • stress is generally on the first syllable, even for verbs where it is expected on the second syllable, such as 'subdue' and 'converted'

So, which of these is important? Confusing /b/ and /v/ can be a problem, and so can consonant cluster simplification. But what about the others? I'm not sure that /ɑː/ in 'always' would ever be misunderstood, and perhaps stress placement is not too important in English in an international setting.

In fact, the most important advice I could give him was to slow down when using difficult words. And sometimes, intelligibility can be enhanced by avoiding imitating native speakers too closely. For example:

  • 'deity' is an unusual word, so it needs to be clearly three syllables, even if native speakers might often merge the first two syllables; the first time he said it, I heard 'dainty'
  • 'eighteen' and 'eighty' are easily confused; the best way to say 'eighteen' is to stress the second syllable clearly, even when native speakers do not! For example, in the phrase 'eighteen years', native speakers tend to shift the stress to the first syllable of 'eighteen', but in order to maintain intelligibility, it is best not to do this
  • 'guava' starts with the unusual cluster /gw/, and I heard it pronounced as [gɑːvə], which is not easy to understand; to avoid this, it might be best to make it three syllables: [guˈɑːvə] (so long as stress is placed on the second syllable)

I don't know if this advice was helpful. I suspect that, like most learners of English, he was a bit alarmed at my advice to avoid imitating native speech patterns.


Last week, I was in Bhutan. It was brilliant.

While climbing up to the Tiger's Nest temple (see above), at one point we were walking behind some monks, and this led me to ponder over the pronunciation of 'monk'.

The standard pronunciation is [mʌŋk], but our guide consistently pronounced it as [mɒŋk], using what might be called a spelling pronunciation. (He sees an 'o' in the spelling and pronounces it as [ɒ] rather than [ʌ].) This gives rise to the question: should he try and change his pronunciation?

There are a number of issues here:

  • Although the pronunciation of 'monk' as [mɒŋk] does not occur in native accents of English, it is probably quite common in New Englishes. For example, I suspect it is quite common in Indian English. (I have no evidence to support this, apart from the fact that our guide said that he was taught English by teachers from India.)
  • Use of spelling pronunciation for 'o' is quite common even in native accents. For example: 'comrade' once had [ʌ] in its first syllable but now it has [ɒ]; the city of Coventry similarly once had [ʌ] but now generally has [ɒ]; and the first syllable of 'constable' seems to be going through a similar shift. Maybe one day we will all be saying 'monk' as [mɒŋk] instead of [mʌŋk], so perhaps our guide is just ahead of us in this shift.
  • There seems little danger of [mɒŋk] being misunderstood, as there is nothing it might be confused with.

For these reasons, there seems little need for our guide to change his pronunciation of 'monk'. Indeed, there are more important things to focus on. I will discuss these in my next post.

07 December 2016

Language of the Courts

In my previous post, I highlighted one of the chapters contributed by a student in our new book, The Use and Status of Language in Brunei Darussalam, published by Springer. In this post, I would like to highlight one more chapter written by a student at UBD.

Chapter 10, by Hjh Masmahirah Hj Mohd Tali, is entitled 'Coutroom Discourse: A Case Study of the Linguistic Strategies in Brunei Draussalam Courtrooms'. The author attended eleven trials in the Magistrates' Court and also the High Court in Brunei, and she transcribed the interactions that took place. It is interesting to note that the language of the court is almost entirely English, but many of the defendants don't speak English. So everything has to be translated for them. As a result there are exchanges such as the following, where J is the Judge, I is the Interpreter, and D is the defendant (from page 148 of the book):

J : Now, do you agree that this ... this ... gambling ... this ... traffic light thingy is called gambling?
I : Adakah kita mengaku bahawa perjudian ... yang ... lampu isyarat ini dikirakan menjudi?
D : Ya
J : It's gambling is it?
D : Ya
I : Yes
J : All right.

It doesn't seem ideal that so much has to be translated into Malay, and also the Malay of the Defendant has to be translated into English. There is also the question of how accurate the translation is.

01 December 2016

Language in Brunei book

In my previous post, I discussed the quandary I had in preparing a News Item for our Faculty website − specifically, whether to feature pictures of important people or to focus more on the contents of the presentations at our recent Brunei-Malaysia Forum.

I faced a similar decision regarding the News Item (see here) for the launch of our book The Use and Status of Language in Brunei Darussalam, recently published by Springer. Should I show pictures of people attending the launch (as is the custom in Brunei)? Or should I focus instead on some of the chapters in the book?

In the end, I went for the first option, partly because there were other books being launched. But now I would like to focus on the contents of some of the chapters, particularly those written by students.

Chapter 4, by Susilawati Japri, analyses the language of shop signs in a modern shopping centre in Brunei. Now, by law, all signs are supposed to include the name in Jawi, and the Jawi is supposed to be twice the size of other scripts. Here is a sign that includes Jawi, though it does not seem to be twice the size of the Rumi script:

However, not all shops follow these rules:

In fact, the research reports that 42% of the shops in the three shopping malls in the Times Square Area (near Brunei's international airport) do not include Jawi.

In my next posts, I will outline the contents of chapters written by three more students.