29 December 2018

servo, rego, etc

Traditionally, words ending in -o tended to refer to people and generally had a negative connotation: wino, psycho, wacko, etc.

However, in Australia it seems that this suffix is being adopted rather widely and it now has a neutral connotation: arrvo (afternoon), avo (avocado), servo (service station), rego (car registration number), garbo (garage collector) and probably many more.

I don't know why some words have -o while others have -ie: barbie (barbeque), hunggie (one hundred dollars), uie (a U-turn) — though I'm not sure how the last two are spelled; I guess they rarely are written, though they are very commonly spoken.

01 December 2018

hot / hard

The other day, my wife went into a restaurant and ordered a cup of doujiang ('beancurd juice') to take away. When the lady handed it to her, she said, 'Careful, it's hard.' My wife had to ask her to repeat it three times before she realised it was 'hot', not 'hard'.

There was nothing wrong with the pronunciation: the lady was probably from the Philippines, where 'hot' would be pronounced as [hɑːd], using an American accent; but, being more familiar with British pronunciation, my wife heard [hɑːd] as 'hard'.

Given the context, this kind of misunderstanding should not happen. When someone hands you a cup of liquid to take away, there are not many things she could say apart from 'it's hot'. But, surprisingly, we do sometimes make mistakes like that.

22 November 2018

Wikipedia: Brunei English

I wrote the Wikipedia page on Brunei English. But subsequently, anyone anywhere can edit the material. And sometimes complete rubbish gets added. For example, I just found the following claim in there: 'English in neighboring Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia remains rhotic".

WHAT??? Australian English remains rhotic? Australian English has never been rhotic, and it probably will never be. Presumably, the author meant 'non-rhotic'. But why do people add rubbish to publicly available pages?

That's the problem with Wikipedia: there's lots of good stuff in there; but there's also lots of rubbish.

Anyway, I fixed that. I guess I need to look at the page more often, to see what rubbish has been added, and then remove it.

Bukit Versing

A friend was arranging to meet with me in Bukit Beruang, near Tutong. But the message actually stated Bukit Versing rather than Bukit Beruang! Don't you just hate auto-correct.

Whenever I type Malay on my computer, it corrects datang to dating. Now, I can switch that one off; but how does one edit the correction options on a mobile phone? Furthermore, though one might change the language from English to Malay, that doesn't help much if you include Malay terms in an English message. I guess the only solution is to turn auto-correct off.

10 November 2018


How do you pronounce 'mischievous'?

According to Wells (2008, Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd Edition), the standard pronunciation is [ˈmɪstʃɪvəs]. However, two alternative pronunciations are also given: [mɪsˈtʃiːvəs] and [mɪsˈtʃiːvɪəs]. And a chart on page 511 of Wells (2008) shows that stress on the second syllable is most common among younger speakers, so presumably it will one day become the norm.

While overall 65% of British people and 67% of Americans prefer stress on the first syllable, this preference is much reduced for younger speakers, and it is the pronunciation pattern of younger speakers that will almost certainly win in the future.

One might further ask why this shift is occurring. It seems that it is an instance of spelling pronunciation: the spelling of a word influences the way that it is pronounced. In this case, it is highly unexpected that <ie> be pronounced as [ɪ], so speakers use the more expected [iː] instead; and then the long [iː] in the second syllable gets stressed.

That explains the [mɪsˈtʃiːvəs] pronunciation. But what about [mɪsˈtʃiːvɪəs]? My guess is that this is a result of analogy with words such as 'previous'. 'envious', 'devious', 'obvious' and 'impervious' — it seems there is a common pattern for [vɪəs] to occur at the end of an adjective.

Yesterday, I asked students in my class how they pronounced 'mischievous'. Half of them opted for [mɪsˈtʃiːvəs] while the other half went for [mɪsˈtʃiːvɪəs] — and none chose the more standard [ˈmɪstʃɪvəs]. This illustrates that speakers of English in Brunei tend to be in the forefront of the evolution of English pronunciation, as I have previously argued (see here).

05 November 2018


We often make allusions to things and events in the world about us, and sometimes we make allusions to books and films. Yesterday, my daughter sent me this picture of her partner and her taking their daughter to a party. I'm afraid I completely missed the allusion, and my wife had to explain it to me. Can you get it?

The adults are wearing the uniform of Ghostbusters, and their baby is dressed as Stay Puft the Marshmallow Man from the movie.

I was interested whether young people in Brunei would get the allusion. The film was made in 1984, so how familiar are young people with it? Today I showed the picture to my class, most of whom are aged between 20 and 24, and of the 25 students in the class, 17 understood the allusion. It surprised me that so many young people would be familiar with a movie made over 30 years ago.

30 October 2018


I was recently told that young people in Brunei write messages like this when texting:

im finna go to store

The more formal version of this would be:

I'm going to go to the store.

So, where does 'finna' come from? Apparently, it is from 'fixing to', which is a common way of expressing future time in the South of the USA (see here). But African-American speakers then pronounce 'fixing to' as 'finna'.

How did African American informal usage get into informal Brunei English? It seems to be the kind of Internet slang that is becoming used globally on platforms such as Twitter. I wonder how much else in modern text-speak is derived from African American English.

27 October 2018

Voiceless TH in China

Voiceless TH, the sound at the start of words such as 'thin' and 'three', can be something of a shibboleth: some people worry about pronouncing it as [θ], even though there is little evidence that pronouncing it as [t] (as is common in places such as Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore) has much impact on intelligibility. Indeed, plenty of people in Ireland use [t], and many people in England use [f]; so how important is use of [θ] for voiceless TH?

In China, people tend to use [s] for voiceless TH. Does that impact on intelligibility? Do listeners ever mistake 'thing' for 'sing' as a result?

Recently, while in China, I presented my analysis of thirteen five-minute conversations with students in Yangzhou. (For more information about my presentation, see here.) In those thirteen conversations, I found eighteen instances where I did not understand the speakers, and just one case involved voiceless TH. Let us consider that token in some detail. In the following transcript, Int is the Interviewer (me) while F1 is the female speaker from Yangzhou:

Int :   er lots of people want to become teachers do they?
F1 :   erm i think many girls want to
Int :   mm

I initially heard this as 'as many girls want to', so it seems that the use of [s] at the start of 'think' contributed to the misunderstanding. However, let's consider it a bit more.

Here is a spectrogram of 'i think many' from this utterance:

In fact, one can see that 'i think' is pronounced as [aɪs], and there is little evidence of a separate syllable for 'think'. In other words, the use of [s] for voiceless TH was just one factor, and if 'think' had been pronounced as [sɪŋk], it is likely that the misunderstanding would not have occurred.

My conclusion, therefore, is that variant pronouncing of voiceless TH has little impact on intelligibility.

20 October 2018

Word Origins

Nowadays, few people learn Greek. I learned the language from the age of 9 till 13, and I hated every minute of it. So thank goodness nobody suffers that kind of thing nowadays.

However, knowledge of the Greek origin of some words can be fascinating and also helpful in remembering those words.

For example, dipterocarp, the dominant tree in many of the forests of Brunei, comes from the Greek di ('two') + ptero ('wing') + carp ('fruit'). So it is a tree with fruit that has two wings. It seems to me that this kind of knowledge would help people to remember the word.

Another word using ptero is pterodactyl, which is from the Greek ptero ('wing') + dactyl ('finger'). So it is a creature with winged fingers.

And then we can consider just the dactyl part. In poetry, a dactyl is a rhythmic beat consisting of a strong beat followed by two weak beats. And the origin is this: each of our fingers has three parts, a long part (closest to the palm) and two shorter parts. So a dactyl beat is just like the structure of the finger.

Finally, we might consider another rhythmic beat, the anapest, which comes from the Greek ana ('reversed') + pest ('beat'); and the anapest is the dactyl reversed, with two short beats followed by a longer one.

I've always found it hard to remember the different kinds of beat (dactyl, anapest, iamb, trochee); but I think I will now be able to remember dactyl and anapest with no problem.

While it is splendid that nobody has to suffer four years of learning Greek like I did, maybe knowledge of the origins of a few words of English that come from Greek roots would be interesting and helpful.

19 October 2018

add oil

Chinese people say ‘jiā yóu’ (加油, "add oil")to encourage others to redouble their efforts, particularly at sporting events. It is rumoured to have started at the Macao Grand Prix in 1960, when the phrase would have been chanted in Cantonese (ga yau), though it is uncertain if that really is the origin.

Now, however, the phrase 'add oil' appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, suggesting it is a phrase in English (see here for details).

Is it really a phrase in English? I doubt if most speakers of English would currently understand it; but maybe one day it will be accepted in mainstream English.

18 October 2018

Scottish Accent

I have done lots of work on the intelligibility of English in Asia. Within this context, it is worth acknowledging that many accents of English in the UK are not intelligible to other people in the UK. Here is a clip of someone from Scotland, David Linden of the Scottish National Party, asking a question in the UK Parliament (YouTube Link). Paul Beresford, who originates from New Zealand, is completely unable to understand David Linden, even though the latter repeated the question.

Can you understand it?

The question from David Linden is this:

Mr Speaker, I know from speaking to a number of parliamentary colleagues that there are still certain aspects of the estate including the northern estate that are not great for people with disabilities; can I ask the Honourable Gentleman what work is being done to make sure that this place is made more accessible, particularly for some of our colleagues who have a disability.

We should remember that issues of intelligibility are not just found in the context of World Englishes.

16 October 2018

Language and Literature

I spent last week in Hong Kong as a guest of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Department of English Language. It is interesting to compare the undergraduate programme they offer with that offered by UBD.

We both have an English Language and Literature programme, and in many ways they are quite similar, with students taking core courses in Language and Literature at the start and then being free to choose whichever stream they prefer. But there is one big difference: I asked a number of the CUHK students if they would prefer to be doing just language or literature, and many stated that they would, most expressing a strong preference for literature. In contrast, if you ask the same question of our English Studies undergraduates at UBD, many of them will tell you that they would prefer just to be studying language.

Why does this difference occur? It seems that in Hong Kong there is a passion for reading among quite a few young people; and when asked what they would like to do in the future, many of them said they would like to read more, write poetry, or maybe get engaged in creative writing. But I don't see so much widespread enthusiasm for reading and creative writing in Brunei.

While it is encouraging for me, as a linguist, to see so many students keen to take my courses on the study of language, the lack of enthusiasm for reading fiction by most of my students is unfortunate.

13 October 2018

Wikipedia: HK English

Like everyone else, I use Wikipedia all the time to find out about things; and it has a huge amount of incredibly valuable information. However, whenever I look at a page on a topic that I know something about, I generally find the material disappointing (or worse).

The view of most of my fellow academics is, "The material is seriously flawed, so we must avoid it." But my attitude is, "The material is seriously flawed, so we should fix it."

This past week, while I was in Hong Kong, I have been trying to fix the Wikipedia page on Hong Kong English, particularly the section on Segments. Initially, this section was a jumble of stuff on vowels and consonants, sometimes repetitive, much of it simply wrong, and little of it substantiated by suitable references to established research. It was as if various people had overheard snatches of conversation, like the pronunciation of house keeping in my previous post, and they thought "Wow, that's interesting", so they went and put it into the Wikipedia page. And then you get a jumble of complete rubbish.

Anyway, I have now fixed it, mostly totally rewriting it, using a clear structure from consonants to vowels, and providing suitable references throughout. Though I say it myself, I think the revised version is better. Not perfect by any means, but better.

People complain that they change something, and then someone goes and undoes their change. But my experience is that, if everything is properly referenced, nobody will touch it. So far one person has corrected a mismatched quote, but that is all. Let's see how long the rest of it remains intact. I hope that people will continue to contribute to it, but only using properly researched material and not based on haphazard anecdotal data. (And I wish they would indicate who they are — I seem to be the only person who signs my changes using my real name.)

The rest of the article other than the section on Segments is still a real mess (apart from the section on Status, which I added). In particular, the section on Intonation is simply awful. First, it has nothing to do with intonation. Second, it consists of random anecdotal material, almost none of which is supported by references. Third, allophonic transcription is placed within phonemic slashes (e.g. /ˈkʰapʰɛt̚/), which is simply wrong. Allophonic material must be within phonetic square brackets '[]', not phonemic slashes '//'.

If I have the time and energy, I will try to fix it; I'll probably just rewrite it completely. We'll see.

Ash Keping

I have been in Hong Kong this last week. Hong Kong English is interesting; but I was not there long enough to gain many insights. I will share just one thing I overheard.

As I was leaving my room one morning, I heard one of the hotel staff knocking on a door and saying what I heard as 'ash keping', and I had to think carefully before I realised it was, of course, 'house keeping'.

I could summarise the phonetics of it: missing [h] at the start, a monophthong vowel instead of [aʊ] in 'house', [ʃ] instead of [s] at the end of 'house', and stress on the second syllable of 'keeping'. (I would need a proper recording to verify all these things; we need to be careful about anecdotal evidence. More about that in my next post.)

But what struck me was this: there's only a few things she could have been saying: 'Good morning', 'Can I clean your room?', etc. And 'house keeping' is one of that small list. However, even in that context, I failed to understand it. It seems that misunderstandings can sometimes be quite surprising.

Finally, I have sometimes suggested that word stress may not be important in maintaining intelligibility in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), but it occurred to me that it was the shifted stress on 'keeping' that was key. However, is that right? Maybe it was the combination of all the things I have listed above, and maybe stress shift was minor. Alternatively, perhaps stress shift is only important for people like me from the UK or USA, and ELF speakers from most of the rest of the world would not have had such a problem.

01 June 2018


I love this cartoon:

At UBD, we have no teaching between mid-May and the start of August; and that is the time I can get most done.

I think I will show this cartoon to all students who are thinking of doing research, and I will ask them: do you look forward to the vacation as a time when you can get more research done? If not, you should not embark on research.

I also wonder how many students at UBD use the vacation as a time to prepare for their modules next semester. My guess is: not many. I almost never have undergraduates come and see me to ask what they should read over the vacation to prepare for next semester. In which case they should not be aspiring to continue with research.

31 May 2018


The Wikipedia page on Kedayan (here) claims it is "the de facto national language of Brunei", which is rather startling, as most people in Brunei consider themselves to be speakers of Brunei Malay.

In addition, the Wikipedia page claims that there are 530,000 people living in Brunei, which seems a bit excessive. A more reliable estimate of the population (here) is about 433,000 at the end of May 2018.

I guess Wikipedia is not always accurate!

23 May 2018

More than 5 hours

Here's a paragraph from page 1 of the Media Permata of 23 May, 2018:

Najib, yang juga Anggota Parlimen Pekan, mengesahkan perkara itu selepas hadir memberi keterangan lebih lima jam di ibu pejabat SPRM di sini, hari ini. Beliau berkata proces merekod keterangan hari ini mangambil masa antara 10 pagi hingga 2:15 petang.

which migh be tranlated as:

Najib, who is also the Member of Parliament for Pekan, confirmed this issue after being present to give evidence for more than five hours at the head office of SPRM here today. He said the process of recording the evidence today lasted from 10 in the morning till 2:15 in the afternoon.

Are all journalists innumerate? You don't need a higher degree in mathematics to see that 10:00 am to 2:15 pm is not more than 5 hours. So why do they print that?