01 October 2015

wezi sar

A friend was negotiating with an Indian grass-cutter for the fellow to come and cut his grass, and he got the following text reply:

Sar tumaru tudy am wezi sar

He eventually worked it out as:

Sir, tomorrow; today am busy, sir.

I have to admit that it left me completely perplexed; but I guess that people who use text messages more frequently than me might have no problem.

27 September 2015


This is the front of a booklet written by my five-year-old granddaughter, Elsie. Can you read it?

In fact, it says 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'. To understand it, you have to realise that she gets 'd' and 'b' confused, and she just uses a single letter for 'the'. In addition, she seems to have 'f' at the start of 'three'.

This kind of creative writing, spelling things out as best she can and guessing at words she doesn't know, is actually highly encouraging. It shows she is understands the principles of phonics rather well. In time, she will sort out 'd' and 'b' and the standard spelling of all words.


I recently saw this notice on a glass door at UBD:

The usual wording would be 'CAUTION', not 'CAUTIOUS'. (In fact, the sign has now been corrected.)

But why? CAUTION is a noun, while CAUTIOUS is an adjective. So, why is a noun expected here, not an adjective? In fact, CAUTIOUS seems just as (un)grammatical as CAUTION.

My conclusion is that CAUTION is expected simply because that is the convention, and appeals to logic or grammaticality make no sense.

26 August 2015

Glasgow Subway

While I was in Glasgow, I travelled on their subway system, which consists of a simple line looping round the city.

When you catch the trains, you can take the grey line which is labelled 'Inner' or the orange line which is labelled 'Outer'.

Now, while it is technically correct that the trains along the grey line go along a track that is always on the inside of the loop compared to the trains along the orange line, that reflects an engineering point of view which is not particularly helpful for users. What customers need to know is whether the trains are going clockwise or anticlockwise, and that is far from obvious. (There is a little arrow there, showing the orange line going clockwise, but it is far from obvious, and the signs in the stations don't show it.)

I guess locals get used to it, and Inner and Outer make perfect sense once one gets used to them; but it doesn't seem very user-friendly for a first-time visitor to Glasgow.

Free Cash

I was in the UK for a few weeks recently, and everywhere I went there were notices advertising free cash.

But however many times I tried, I was unable to get hold of any of this free cash. Very frustrating.

Of course, the signs are not offering 'withdrawals of free cash'; instead, they are offering 'free withdrawals of cash'. In other words, 'free' is modifying 'withdrawal', not 'cash'. Or, using brackets, one might show it as [free [cash withdrawals]] rather than [[free cash] withdrawals].

Pity, as withdrawals of free cash sounds like a splendid idea.

28 July 2015


How do you pronounce gaol? If you are in Brunei, you might not know this spelling; but it occurs in the UK. Here is a street sign in Hereford:

In fact, it should be pronounced as /dʒeɪl/, and it is an alternative pronunciation for jail.

The problem with gaol is that it starts with 'ga', and when 'g' is followed by 'a', it is nearly always pronounced as /g/ (e.g. in gas, gap, gastric, gallant, gander, gain, gate, ...). Although 'g' can be pronounced as /dʒ/, this is only when it is followed by 'e', 'i', or 'y' (e.g. gender, generation, gel, gene; ginger, gin, Giles; gym, gyrate, gyroscope ...). Although most speakers of English are unable to state this rule explicitly, they subconsciously know it, which is why they do not expect gaol to be pronounced as /dʒeɪl/.

Although there are no residential properties on Gaol Street in Hereford, there are some offices in addition to the police station, and I was told that when people in those offices need to give their address, they often pronounce it as /gaʊl/, as saying /dʒeɪl/ is unlikely to be understood.

I suspect that the spelling jail may be a pronunciation spelling (in which the spelling of a word changes to reflect its pronunciation), but I need to check that. It is possible that gaol and jail have always been alternative spellings of the word.

20 July 2015


I saw this headline in the Times of 4 July 2015.

When I first read it, I could not understand the final word on the first word: chicest. I thought for a moment that it must be a typo for choiciest.

In fact, it means 'most chic' (where chic, pronounced /ʃi:k/, means 'fashionable'); it is just the use of the superlative suffix -est added to a fairly common adjective chic. So what's the problem? The -est suffix is fairly productive, so it should not be a problem to add it to an existing adjective.

The problem is this: in English spelling, 'c' followed by 'e' is always pronounced as /s/: cell, ceiling, centre, certain, certificate, ceremony, celestial; receive, deceive, incentive, recent, etc. So when I read the word, I initially imagined that it must be pronounced as /tʃaɪsɪst/.

In most cases, if a word ends with 'c' and then a suffix starting with 'e' is added, then 'k' is inserted: e.g. panicked, picnicked. However, in the case of chic, this is not an option, as chickest would look like something else. As a result, there is no alternative but to have 'c' followed by 'e' in chicest.

The only exceptions to the rule by which 'c' followed by 'e' is pronounced as /s/ that I can think of are: cello, in which the 'c' is pronounced as /tʃ/; and celtic, which starts with /k/ if it refers to a language (but /s/ if it is a football club). So now we seem to have one more: chicest.

21 June 2015

Signs in Japan

I was recently in Japan, where some of the signs can be quite challenging. Take this one, on the outside wall of a Buddhist temple.

I think the message is 'Live life in the present', though I'm not sure. Actually, 'Now, Life is living you' seems rather Zen, so maybe it's not so bad after all!

This one was inside the bathroom of my hotel.

I think it is saying that the alarm will go off if you have a shower with the door open; but 'Sound the alarm for steam' is maybe not the best way of expressing this.

In contrast, this one is abundantly clear, especially with the illustration to help:

Maybe we could do with this one in public restrooms in Brunei!

11 June 2015


The word jerayawara ('roadshow') is (I believe) mostly used in Brunei, though I note one entry in the Malaysian PRPM resource (here), so maybe it does sometimes get used elsewhere.

The trouble is it is almost unpronounceable: the 'r-y-w-r' sequence is really tough. Or maybe local people don't find it so difficult? I don't hear Radio Brunei newscasters stumbling over it, so maybe it is just me.

Fortunately, there is no 'l' in it, or it would be truly impossible!

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!