27 December 2009


SPN stands for Sistem Pendidikan Negara ('National Education System'), and SPN21 is the new education system for the 21st century that has recently been introduced in Brunei.

One quite major change is that, from now on, mathematics and science will be taught in English from the start of primary school, whereas in the past, Malay was the medium of instruction for the first three years of primary school. Table 3 on page 41 of the SPN21 book published by the Ministry of Education shows this:This is quite a substantial change and it may have a big impact on language usage in Brunei. But what is quite surprising is that there is no discussion of the rationale for this change anywhere in the SPN21 book.

The only relevant material I can find anywhere in the book concerning this issue is the top of page 15, which says:

    "SPN21 also addresses concerns on:
  • The need to sustain and strengthen performance in Bahasa Melayu
  • Low English Language proficiency
  • Poor performances in mathematics and the sciences"
Only time will tell whether the changes will help improve performance in English. Furthermore, it is unclear if using English as the medium of instruction for mathematics and science will help improve performance in those subjects.

19 December 2009

Mixing in BruDirect

I find the material in the "Have Your Say" section of BruDirect fascinating, as it offers a window onto how language is used in Brunei. In particular, the mix of English and Malay is interesting: even in the English-medium section, there is regular use of Malay, and in the Malay-medium section, there is a lot of English as well.

This seems to confirm that Brunei really is becoming a bilingual society, and (at least for those who are computer literate), it is expected that people should be able to understand both these languages.

To investigate the extent of mixing, I looked at the language used in ten separate discussion threads where the original posting was in English and there were ten or more contributions in each thread. I then classified each of these contributions as:
  • E : English only
  • M : Malay only
  • E(M) : English with some Malay
  • M(E) : Malay with some English
  • E+M : an even mix of the two languages
The results of the 143 contributions are shown below.

It can be seen that there are about the same number of English-dominated contributions (66) as Malay-dominated ones (64).

These figures confirm that mixing between the two languages is extremely common in an Internet forum such as BruDirect.

18 December 2009

Keramunting / Karamunting

Because Brunei Malay is not usually written down, the spelling is sometimes uncertain. This particularly affects an unstressed syllable near the start of a word, which may be written with 'e' or with 'a'. Look at the following picture, taken of two signs along the Tasek Lama / Markucing forest trail:

Even though the two signs are next to each other, they do not agree on how to spell the name of the place: should it have 'e' or 'a' in the first syllable?

12 December 2009


I have previously discussed (eg 20 Feb 09) the work of Jennifer Jenkins, and her insistence that speakers of English in places such as Brunei do not need to mimic the accent of people from Inner-Circle places such as Britain. In her book English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity (OUP, 2007), she proposes a Lingua Franca Core (LFC) of just those features of pronunciation that are essential for international communication, and she suggests that speakers should be free to choose how to pronounce sounds that are outside the LFC according to the locally prevailing accent.

This seems to make a lot of sense, as slavishly mimicking a British or American accent does not seem to be appropriate for most learners of English in the modern world. The problem lies with which sounds are included within the LFC and which are not.

Jenkins suggests that vowel quality (eg the distinction between send and sand) should be excluded, but vowel length (eg the distinction between the long vowel in pool and the short vowel in pull) be included; but many teachers are likely to disagree with this, if only because there are far more words that are differentiated by means of the /e/~/æ/ distinction than the /u:/~/ʊ/ one. In reality, it seems that agreeing on any set of sounds that can be excluded from the LFC is always going to be tough.

Recently in the Philippines, I heard someone pronounce comfortable as [kʌmfətəbəl], ie with four syllables rather than the three that are usually suggested in dictionaries; and it occurred to me that this pronunciation could never be misunderstood by anyone, so why should anyone worry about it? Furthermore, if comfortable is pronounced as three syllables (as I tend to say it), it contains the consonant cluster [mft] in the middle, which is really quite tough. (In fact, ending a syllable with [mf] only occurs very rarely in English, for example in the medical term lymph and the colloquial word bumpf.)

So, if comfortable with four syllables is easier to say and can be understood by everyone, why not encourage it? I suspect that it will become the international norm one day, regardless of what Inner-Circle speakers from places such as Britain think.

05 December 2009


In my previous post, I discussed a paper from a recent conference on English in South-East Asia that was held in Manila last week.

Another interesting paper was by Prof Azirah Hashim from Universiti Malaya in KL, talking about the occurrence of the word amok in English. It seems that this word was borrowed into English as early as the 16th century, and that its meaning has shifted somewhat from its origins in Malay.

You might think it strange that someone could focus their research on the occurrence of a single word. But in fact this research touches on many fascinating topics. For example:
  • history – how is it that the word was borrowed into English at a time when there was little or no contact between the English and Malay peoples?
  • sociology – if amok is the best known instance of a word borrowed from Malay into English, how does that influence the attitudes of people in the West towards Malays? Do people have the misconception that Malays have a tendency to go crazy?
  • semantics – originally, amok could refer to a sickness, as the cause of people acting strangely. Now, however (at least in English), amok just refers to craziness. It is valuable to study how this shift in meaning occurred.
  • usage – in English, we use the word almost exclusively in the phrase run amok. By studying this, we can gain an insight into collocational patterns of usage.
It is interesting to see how many fascinating insights can be gained from the detailed investigation of a single word. People who are considering a research topic might learn from this: sometimes a narrow topic can be extremely productive.

04 December 2009


Last week, I was at a conference on English in South-East Asia in Manila, and there were many interesting papers, some of which I would like to mention.

A paper by Lim Beng Soon of SIM University in Singapore discussed loanwords in the correspondence from the 1920s and 30s of Tun Dato' Sir Tan Cheng Lock, a prominent member of the Peranakan community of Malasia at the time. Something that interested me is the origin of the word Peranakan, a group of people who are otherwise sometimes known as 'Straits-born Chinese'.

Clearly, the root of the word is anak, meaning 'child'. But then, what does it indicate a child of? Lim Beng Soon suggests that Peranakan is a short form of Peranakan Cina ('child of China'), and he says there may be other possibilities, such as Peranakan Jawi, where Jawi means something like 'foreign'.

My dictionary glosses peranakan as 'mixed parentage'. And my UBD colleague Nur Azam tells me that, in Brunei at least, peranakan can also refer to the womb.

I guess the word is a polyseme (a word with a number of distinct but related meanings).

23 November 2009

Measure Words

In a previous blog (22 Oct, 'pieces'), I discussed the use of pieces with a count noun like apples, suggesting the distinction between count and mass nouns is getting shifted in places like Brunei.

My colleague Ayla has suggested that the use of pieces with a count noun might be influenced by the Malay use of measure words, such as buah for big things like houses, orang for people, and biji for fruit such as apples; and I am sure this is correct.

We might further note that use of pieces with count nouns also occurs quite regularly in Singapore English, and the influence there might be not so much from Malay but from Chinese, which also has an elaborate system of measure words, including 本 for books, 张 for flat things such as paper, and 个 for other things such as people.

In fact, seeing as the English of Brunei and Singapore both exhibit this feature of using pieces with count nouns, it is possible that the use of measure words in two of the the main indigenous languages of the region, Malay and Chinese, has conspired to influence the local varieties of English.

To check whether this is true or not, we would need to investigate varieties of English in places where the local languages do not have measure words and see whether pieces also gets used in this way. An interesting research project for someone!

22 November 2009

Mengurangkan Had Kelajuan

On page 4 of the Media Permata of 21/22 November 2009, there is a report of efforts by Brunei Shell Petroleum to raise road safety as part of their Tell-A-Friend initiative. Some of the concepts being promoted are ...
... mamakai tali pinggang keselamatan, tidak memandu sambil bertelefon dan mengurangkan had kelajuan.
The first two of these are straightforward: wear a seatbelt; and don't drive while using a telephone. But the third is a bit surprising, as it literally means "reduce the speed limit". Now, one might try and get one's friends to reduce their speed, but reduce the speed limit?

What is even more surprising about this is that I have shown it to some local people and asked them what is strange about it, and they do not notice anything. It seems that mengurangkan had kelajuan has become a fixed phrase which has come to mean "reduce one's speed". In fact, my colleague Adrian Clynes tells me there is a sign along the coastal highway that says: "Kurangkan Had Kelajuan".

Perhaps this is just one more example of the oddity of language, which so often just does not make any sense. In British English we say "I couldn't care less", but Americans say "I could care less", and these two utterances mean exactly the same thing even though they are direct opposites! So maybe one should not try to analyse the logical meaning of words too closely. And it seems that mengurangkan had kelajuan really has come to mean "reduce your speed" even if that is not what it literally says.

09 November 2009


In my blog of 28 October, I mentioned the dictionary of Brunei Malay I have bought; and in my blog of 4 November, I discussed some issues regarding the entries for aku and saya. Today, I want to discuss some more issues regarding the way Brunei Malay is represented in the dictionary.

Brunei Malay is characterised by just three vowels, /i,a,u/, in contrast with the six vowels of Standard Malay, /i,e,a,o,u,ə/. In particular, note that the last of these, /ə/ is absent from Brunei Malay. As a result, it should be possible to represent Brunei Malay words using three vowel letters, and 'e' and 'o' should be redundant. However, look at the entry for buat:Note that both berbuat and membuat use the letter 'e'.

An alternative representation of berbuat for Brunei Malay would be babuat. However, just as with aku and saya, the dictionary compilers seem to be de-emphasising the differences between Brunei Malay and Standard Malay.

Younger speakers of Brunei Malay might object that they don't say this word with a fully open [a] vowel in the first syllable. But this could be handled by means of phonology: we could represent the word as babuat and state that /a/ is pronounced with a central allophone close to [ə] when it occurs in a verbal prefix. In other words, there are just three vowel phonemes, /i,a,u/, but they get pronounced in various ways according to the phonological environment.

04 November 2009


In my previous blog, I mentioned the dictionary of Brunei Malay that I recently bought. Some of the entries are worth considering.

Have a look at the entry for aku (the first person singular pronoun). It seems the ultimate in circularity: aku is defined as 'aku'!Of course, this is not quite as silly as it seems, as what it is saying is that the Brunei Malay word aku is the same as the same word in Standard Malay.

But there is a bit of a problem here, as most people feel that there is a difference: in Brunei Malay, aku is widely used, but in Standard Malay it carries more of a tone of informality, as the more formal first person singular pronoun is saya.

So, let's look at the entry for saya. We find that the dictionary also seems to suggest there is no difference. I have asked my students about this, and they are adamant that saya is almost never used in Brunei Malay.

The problem is that the dictionary, in giving formal definitions of the meanings of words, fails to tell us how often the words are used, by whom, and under what circumstances. This is a drawback shared by most dictionaries. Perhaps it is inevitable, as a full description of the use of every word would make the book somewhat unwieldy.

One other issue is that the compilers of this dictionary appear to be suggesting that there is not too much difference between Brunei Malay and Standard Malay. I will discuss this some more in a further blog.

28 October 2009

Brunei Malay Dictionary

I recently managed to buy a Brunei Malay dictionary (shown on the right) from the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in BSB. It is Brunei Malay to Standard Malay, which in many ways is quite helpful as it aims to show the differences between these two varieties of Malay.

There are quite a lot of issues in this dictionary about how to represent Brunei Malay, and I will comment on these in later blogs. For the moment I would just like to say that it is a splendid resource, something I really treasure.

22 October 2009


In English, count nouns refer to things that are countable, such as books and pens, while mass nouns refer to uncountable things, like coffee or sugar. In Standard English, furniture, luggage, advice, and research are all mass nouns.

The purpose of the phrase piece of is to allow us to count a mass noun, so we can say "a piece of furniture", "two pieces of luggage", etc.

However, look at the sign on the right in a Brunei supermarket. Note that piece is being used to refer to apples, even though apple is normally a count noun. In Standard English, we would say "ten apples", not *"ten pieces of apple" (unless we are referring to sliced fruit).

Two changes seem to be happening in New Varieties of English, such as that of Brunei:
  • logically countable things, like furniture and luggage, are being treated as count nouns
  • piece can be used together with a count noun such as apple
Both these changes are extremely common in New Varieties of English, for example in Singapore as well as Brunei. It is not clear if they will become acceptable as part of standard World English in the future, but this seems quite likely, as, in reality, treating furniture and luggage as mass nouns is not very logical when it is perfectly easy to count them. Furthermore, I think everyone can understand the sign shown above perfectly easily, even if it is not (yet) completely grammatical in Standard English.

21 October 2009


In my blog of 29 September, I discussed the neutralisation of /i,e/ and also /u,o/ in closed final syllables in Malay (i.e. syllables with a final consonant), which is why kampung and kampong are alternative spellings for the Malay word for 'village'.

It seems, though, that /r/ does not count as a final consonant for this rule, so telur ('egg') is not the same as telor ('accent').

The distinction between 'u' and 'o' is not always maintained in writing in Brunei, however, as it gets influenced by the three-vowel system of Brunei Malay: /i, a, u/.

On page 2 of the Media Permata of 20 October 2009, I found mention of telor masin ('salty accent' ???). I guess local readers would not be confused by this, as they would immediately read it as telur masin ('salty eggs'). But it is rather confusing for a learner like me.

In fact, there are rather a lot of unexpected words in this newspaper. On the same page, there is mention of Persingan Global, and it took me a while to figure out that Persingan is a typo for Persaingan ('competition'). Trying to learn Malay in Brunei really can be frustrating at times!

08 October 2009


We usually describe morphemes such as dis-, un- and in- as prefixes: they cannot occur on their own as they are only found attached to stems. So we have trust becoming distrust, lock becoming unlock, and complete becoming incomplete. Because they can occur on their own, trust, lock and complete are called free morphemes, while prefixes such as dis-, un- and in- are described as bound morphemes.

However, what about words like disgust, unfurl and inept? They seem to have the same prefixes; but gust, furl and ept don't seem to exist as free morphemes. For example, we don't usually praise someone by saying, "You are ept". This is why gust, furl and ept are sometimes called bound stems.

However, sometimes their status can change; and it seems that nowadays some people can indeed talk about "furling an umbrella". Ludwig Tan has just sent me this photograph promoting a hair salon in Singapore:
Note that kempt is usually regarded as a bound stem, as although unkempt is quite common, we do not generally find the word without its un- prefix.

However, this writer is pushing the boundaries of language (something that marketing people often do). I am pretty sure this is deliberate and not a mistake, and it is indeed an effective way of getting attention. This is the kind of way that language evolves and new words emerge. Of course, it happens all the time in all societies, and this is a fine example of how English in Singapore is contributing to the evolution of the language. In fact, it is possible that new varieties of English, such as those of Singapore and Brunei, are hastening the changes, by developing new modes of expression, introducing new words, and generally extending the boundaries of how we can use the language.

29 September 2009

'e' vs 'i' and 'o' vs 'u'

In my previous posting, I discussed the vowel in the third syllable of kebersehan. In fact, use of 'e' or 'i' in the closed final syllable of a Malay root is arbitrary; nowadays, standard spelling specifies 'i', but in the past it was often 'e'. And the 1949 edition of The Prinicples of the International Phonetic Association shows lebih ('more') as [ləbeh] for its Malay trasncription of the North Wind and the Sun passage, suggesting the vowel in the second syllable to be quite open.

Similarly for the back vowel, 'o' or 'u' in closed final syllables. That is why we have the modern spelling kampung, but traditionally it was kampong. And the same applies to place names: we have Jurong in Singapore and Jerudong and Tutong in Brunei, but all of these would have a 'u' in the final syllable if modern spelling were used.

02 September 2009


Have a look at this sign, by the side of a road near the centre of BSB, the capital of Brunei. It means "Take care of cleanliness". What is interesting is the spelling kebersehan, as the Standard Malay spelling would be kebersihan, with 'i' rather than 'e' in the third syllable.

This reflects two things:
  • In Brunei, there are only three vowels, so /i/ and /e/ are not distinguished.
  • In Standard Malay, final /i/ in a closed syllable (such as in the root bersih) tends to be quite open, so it might be regarded as an allophone of /e/ rather than /i/.
Note, for example with regard to the second point, that terimah kasih ('thank you') is often said with [e] in the final syllable.

Nevertheless, it is quite surprising that non-standard spelling is used on this sign, especially as kebersihan is quite common on signs around Brunei.

12 August 2009

Confusable Words

In my previous blog, I mentioned the strange confusion between oral and aural. In fact, there are lots of words in English which are pronounced the same or nearly the same even though they are opposites. For example, hypertension means high blood pressure, but hypotension means low blood pressure, and although I can differentiate them, generally they would both be /haɪpətenʃn/. Bizarre!

In fact, languages often do not seem to do a very good job of differentiating words that need to be distinct. In Mandarin Chinese, 'four' 四 is (with a falling tone) while 'ten' 十 is shí (with a rising tone). Unfortunately, in much of southern China and also in Taiwan, there is no distinction between the initial sounds represented by the Pinyin letters 's' and 'sh', so these two words are only distinguished by tone. And it is usual in Taiwan to use the fingers to help indicate which number is intended, which is not so good if you are buying vegetables in the market and carrying lots of bags.

What about Malay? Does it have words that are easily confused like this? I bet it does. Anyway, I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which Malay words are easily confusable.

11 August 2009


One of the basic requirements of language is to differentiate concepts, especially things which may be confusable. So why is it that for many speakers of English (including me) oral and aural are pronounced exactly the same (i.e. they are homophones)? If I tell you that we have an /ɔ:rəl/ exam tomorrow, you have no way of telling whether it is a listening (aural) test or a speaking (oral) test.

John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2008, p. 57) tells me that aural can be pronounced as /aʊrəl/ in order to differentiate it from oral; but the fact remains that it usually is not.

09 August 2009

Purple Haze Mondegreen

There was recently a discussion on the Language Log site of a cartoon by Jems (Language Log).
From a linguistic point of view, there are three things of interest here:
  • What does it mean?
  • Why does the title refer to Purple Haze?
  • What is a mondegreen?
First, to explain the joke: The chicken said "This guy is falling", but the other two animals mis-heard it as "The sky is falling" which is why they did not try to save the chicken.

Next, Purple Haze. This is the name of a song recorded by Jimi Hendrix in 1967. It includes the lyrics "I kiss the sky" which people often heard as "I kiss this guy". In fact, this became so well established that Jimi Hendrix actually sometimes deliberately sang it that way.

Finally, a mondegreen is a phrase that is misunderstood because it is mis-parsed. (It was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright who, when she was young, misheard the phrase "and laid him on the green" from a poem as "and Lady Mondegreen".)

What is interesting about this is the levels of allusion − reference to something else without which you cannot understand what is going on.

I have explained it all here; but I think that the way we write stuff nowadays is being substantially influenced by the Internet. Language Log did not attempt to explain the joke, or the allusions to Jimi Hendrix, or what a mondegreen is, partly because it is assumed that readers will already know all of this, but also because it is assumed that people can easily find it out themselves. And the assumption that this kind of information is easily available at the click of a button is maybe fundamentally changing the way we represent language on the web.

I guess in reality I should not have explained the joke or the allusions!

17 June 2009

Clear and Dark /l/

In phonemic analysis, we say that a single phoneme, such as /l/, can often be pronounced in different ways, and we call each of these variants an allophone and show it in square brackets [].

A classic example of allophones is clear and dark /l/. In English, a dark /l/, which we show as [ɫ], occurs at the end of a word such as full; but a clear /l/, which we show as [l], occurs at the start of a word such as like. Note that you can predict which one occurs according to its position in the word, which means they must be allophones, not different phonemes.

Between two vowels, such as in really or silly, British English has [l] (a clear /l/) but American English has [ɫ] (a dark /l/). Note that you can still predict which one occurs so long as you know which variety of English is being spoken.

What about /l/ in Malay? An interesting issue here is that a dark /l/ occurs between vowels only for words with an obvious Arabic origin, particularly Allah. This poses a problem for phonemic analysis, and we might even have to conclude that clear and dark /l/ are different phonemes in Malay.

21 May 2009

Language Death

In my previous posting, based on the recent research of Paolo Caluzzi, I discussed the status of various minority languages in Brunei and suggested that loss of a language, something that is almost complete for Belait, is a pity.

But why should we care about language extinction? Surely, if everyone spoke the same language, wouldn't that enable us all to understand each other, with the result that all disputes could be resolved amicably?

Actually, no. As David Crystal points out in his book Language Death (CUP, 2000 − for a review, see here), many of the most brutal civil wars in the history of the world have been between people who understood each perfectly well, including the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the American Civil War. It seems that mutual understanding sometimes actually excerbates the bitterness of disputes!

But quite apart from this, why should we worry about languages dying out?

Many linguists argue that language diversity is just like biological diversity, and the loss of a language, together with all the cultural history and traditions that it encapsulates, is just as devastating as the loss of a species of fauna or flora.

However, it is true that many lay people do not ascribe to this view, and so we need to consider a more practical reason for promoting efforts to preserve language diversity, an economic argument that may be particularly relevant for Brunei.

One of the key growth areas in the economy, one that Brunei has clearly targeted, is ecotourism. But if tourists are to travel to distant places, they want to see interesting cultures with a rich variety. They do not want to find a bland society where everyone thinks, acts and speaks the same. And this is why the preservation of minority languages and different ways of life is so important for the future of Brunei: each language represents an incredibly rich resource that we cannot afford to lose. Once a language is extinct, it is almost impossible to revive it, and when it is gone, our society is impoverished.

19 May 2009

Iban and Murut

Last night, I went to a fascinating talk by my UBD colleague, Paolo Coluzzi, about the status of the Iban and Murut languages in Temburong, the eastern enclave of Brunei.

Based on some detailed surveys conducted among the Iban and Murut communities living in Temburong, Paolo concluded that the two languages are reasonably vibrant, in the sense that most of the people speak them with their friends and with their children, and also the overwhelming majority of the people are proud to be able to speak their heritage languages.

This situation with regard to Iban and Murut contrasts sharply with the status of Tutong and Belait, two other minority languages in Brunei, both of which are under serious threat of dying away. In fact, in the case of Belait, the language is pretty much moribund already.

So why the difference? Paolo concluded that there are a number of factors, including:
  • The Iban and Murut people tend to live separate from Malays, maintaining their own traditions. In contrast, other minorities, such as the Kedayan, Dusun, Tutong and Belait, tend to mix more with Malays, including frequent intermarriage, and then they are more likely to use Brunei Malay with their children.

  • There is support for Iban and Murut languages and cultures from Sarawak, in the form of books, music and radio broadcasts. In contrast, there is little support of this nature for the other minority languages in Brunei.
A separate issue is whether we should care about minority languages dying out. If everyone in Brunei spoke the same language, wouldn't that create a more cohesive society? I'll discuss this issue in greater depth in a posting tomorrow.

07 May 2009

Standard Brunei Malay

Standard Brunei Malay is similar to Standard Malay in Malaysia and Singapore, but not identical. Here I will focus on pronunciation.

Two areas that show some variation are the occurrence of [r] and the pronunciation of the vowel at the end of a word such as saya ('I').

In Brunei, most speakers pronounce [r] wherever 'r' occurs in the spelling, including at the end of words such as benar ('true') and besar ('big'). However, some speakers in Malaysia, particularly in Johor and also in Singapore, only pronounce an [r] when it occurs before a vowel, such as in rendah ('low') or beras ('uncooked rice').

The vowel that is spelled with an 'a' at the end of words such as saya and masa ('time') is pronounced by some people in Malaysia as [ə], the mid-central vowel that occurs at the start of the English word ago and at the end of comma. In contrast, many speakers in Brunei use [ɑ], a more open vowel that is similar to the one that occurs in the English word calm.

The trouble with this is that [ə] at the end of saya sounds foreign and unnatural in Brunei while [ɑ] sounds uneducated. As a result, it seems that newsreaders opt for something halfway between, with the intention of sounding educated but not too unnatural.

30 April 2009


Tautology is the unnecessary repetition of some words. (Well, I'll admit that that sentence might itself be regarded as tautologous − repetition is probably always unnecessary!)

A classic example is 'free gift' − gifts are always free. But that doesn't stop the phrase being used rather often.

It seems to me that Malay tolerates tautology a bit more than English, perhaps as a rhetorical device to achieve emphasis. For example, in the Media Permata (1 May 2009, p. 5), I saw:
semangat patriotik dan cintakan negara
  spirit     patriotic   and   love     country
"spirit of patriotism and love of one's country"
Surely love of one's country and patriotism are the same thing? But note that, in this example, one of the terms is a borrowed word while the other is an indigenous Malay phrase, and I wonder if this kind of repetition is especially common when a borrowed word is involved.

One way or another, writers in English need to be careful to avoid tautology. In student assignments, I constantly see expressions such as "communication with other countries abroad" and "I will investigate this issue and find out more about it". And, in recent assignments, lots of students told me that they "distributed a questionnaire to classmates and asked them to fill it in" − what else would one do with a questionnaire? Eat it?

22 April 2009


One of my UBD colleagues, Aznah, observed that she sometimes gets mistaken for a student by officials, and then they can be quite brusque in dealing with her. (I wish I looked young enough for people to mistake me for a student − but never mind.)

Another of my colleagues, Salbrina, said that the way she deals with a situation like this is to use the word saya ('I').

The way I interpret it (with some help from Aznah and Salbrina) is this: there are two first person singular pronouns in Brunei, the informal one aku and the more formal Standard Malay equivalent saya. By using saya, the speaker is indicating that she wants the interaction to be formal; and by exercising this choice, she is emphasising that she has the authority to determine whether the conversation should be formal or not. And this is why use of saya is effective in getting officials to show respect to a member of the academic staff at UBD. (It is, of course, a great pity that students are not shown the same respect; but that's another issue.)

It is interesting to see how the use of a single pronoun can influence an interaction in this way. But it is quite common in the languages of the world. English is unusual in having pronouns which do not generally indicate levels of formality or deference.

21 April 2009

's' suffix

As most of my linguistics students at UBD know, an 's' suffix can be pronounced in three different ways: /s/, /z/ or /ɪz/. The final one occurs after words that end in /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʧ/ or /ʤ/; but let's focus on the first two, /s/ and /z/.

/z/ occurs after a voiced sound, so we find dogs /dɒgz/ and homes /həʊmz/. But /s/ occurs after voiceless sounds, resulting in cats /kæts/ and cakes /keɪks/.

Signwriters in Singapore have discovered the use of /z/ as the spelling of the plural 's', but then they tend to use it in all cases, without considering whether the suffix is actually pronounced as /z/ or not.

First, let's look at a sign where the /z/ is phonetically correct, as bag ends with /ɡ/, which is voiced:
However, the next one (on the outside of an ice-cream parlour) is not quite right, as scoop ends with /p/, which is voiceless, so the final 's' should be /s/:
And similarly, have a look at the following sign for a hairdresser's, where the plural of cut should really end with /s/, not /z/:
I guess it doesn't matter too much. The signs are designed to be creative and eye-catching, and the writers are not trying to take a phonetics exam. Maybe we should just celebrate the opportunity for students of linguistics to test their knowledge and see which signs get it right!

(My thanks, once again, to Ludwig Tan for sending me these photos.)

19 April 2009


In my blog a few days ago (7 April 2009), I discussed words that can have two opposite meanings. One of the examples I suggested was sanction, which can either mean to promote or to forbid.

I was just reading Txting: the gr8 db8, by David Crystal (OUP, 2008), and on page 28, in a discussion about the use of SMS by men to initiate divorce, I found the following sentence:
In some countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, an initial legal sanction of the practice caused such an outcry that the decision was quickly revoked.
When I read this, I honestly could not work out if there was official support for the practice, or if it was being forbidden. My guess is the former, because I suspect that "sanction of" generally involves approval. But it does illustrate ambiguity involving the word sanction.

15 April 2009


Sometimes words change their meaning quite substantially in context.

My dictionary tells me that kental means "curdled". But how about this wording in the Media Permata (16 April, 2009, p. 40):
Frank Lampard memuji semangat kental Chelsea
"Frank Lampard praised spirit ????? Chelsea"
Now, the spirit of Chelsea was splendid, invigorating, and heroic in managing to overcome the challenge of Liverpool and thereby progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League. But curdled?

It seems that, in the context of semangat, kental means "strong-willed" rather than curdled.

Anyway, let's all celebrate a fine match and a splendid result for Chelsea.

14 April 2009


Another picture sent me by Ludwig Tan in Singapore is this one:Standard English would have closed, with a 'd' on the end; but the omission of the final consonant is common in Singapore and probably elsewhere. And there is a tendency for English teachers to wring their hands in despair at this kind of non-standard usage.

On the other hand, maybe we should think about this a bit more. We can use open as both a verb and an adjective with no need to add a suffix:
Please open the door. (Verb)
The door is already open. (Adj)
So why can't we do the same with close? Why do we need a suffix when it used as an adjective?
Please close the door. (Verb)
The door is already closed. (Adj)
In reality, there is sometimes little logic to English usage, and one's heart goes out to people struggling to learn it.

13 April 2009


My former colleague at NIE in Singapore, Ludwig Tan, has sent me some splendid photographs that are relevant for pronunciation, and he has given me permission to use some of them in my blogs. Have a look at the sign below, advertising a shuttle bus operating in the centre of Singapore:
Notice that shuttle bus in the message is spelt as shutter bus below the orange image on the left. How can this spelling error occur?

In Singapore, an /l/ that occurs at the end of a word (a "dark" /l/) tends to be pronounced as a vowel, or "vocalised". We call this "L-vocalisation". The process is actually quite common in varieties of English around the world, and it is found for example in Estuary English, the style of pronunciation that is supposedly influenced by London English and seems to be spreading throughout Britain.

In Singapore, L-vocalisation is particularly common, and sometimes the final /l/ is omitted entirely, so school can be pronounced as /skuː/. Similarly, little and litter may sound the same, and, as we see above, shuttle may sound like shutter, with the result that some writers confuse the two words.

Does L-vocalisation occur in Brunei? I'm not sure, but my feeling is it is not so widespread, partly because /l/ is a common final sound in Malay (while it does not occur as a final sound in Chinese).

11 April 2009

Language in Context

Have a look at the picture on the right. At first sight it seems to be a perfect match for the image that we at UBD are trying to project for our newly-revamped degree program, which uses the slogan 'Generation Next' to present the idea that the degree is for young people eager to move forward.

Indeed, the image on the right uses a similar slogan overlaid on a picture of a vibrant, dynamic, smiling young couple who clearly have a bright future in front of them.

However, the way I have presented this image is misleading, as I cut it out from something else. Let's now consider the full image, shown a bit further down on the right.

Now you can see that actually this slogan is part of a promotion for a brand of whiskey − not the sort of thing that UBD would be too pleased to be associated with! In fact, the word spirit is here being used with two distinct meanings: one is the spirit of youth and energy; the other is a kind of drink.

This neatly illustrates the fact that language belongs in context, and the interpretation of a phrase can crucially depend on the context in which it is used. Whenever we look at the meaning of some words, we need to consider where, when and how they occur, because this context often, perhaps always, has a strong influence on the way that the words should be interpreted.

Over the past few decades, there has been an unfortunate tendency for many linguists to overlook context. Most prominent is the work of followers of Chomsky, in a school often termed Generative Grammar. While I have no intention of deriding the work of Chomsky, as he has provided many profound insights into the nature of language processing in the brain and also the ways that infants acquire their abilities in language, the research of generative grammarians is nearly always based on artificial sentences in isolation. Some of these sentences are labelled as well-formed while others are claimed to be ungrammatical; and I often feel uncomfortable with this, as many of them seem to be marginal. And presenting them out of context also seems to me to a major problem.

10 April 2009


There is a really interesting illustration of the importance of commas in ensuring that what you write makes sense, submitted by Geoff Pullum in the Language Log of 9 April 2009.

First, read this extract from The Economist of 4 April 2009, p. 11:
Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.
Now ask yourself this: who had to pay the bill? Was it the client and the taxpayer? Or was it the parent company, the client and the taxpayer?

In fact, the intended meaning is the latter: the parent company was supposed to be included as one of the parties that had to pick up the bill. And this meaning would have been expressed so much more clearly if there had been a comma in the final clause of the extract:
... when they failed, the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.
The problem here is that fail can be either an intransitive verb (so it has no object) or a transitive verb (with an object). In the intended meaning of this extract, fail is an intransitive verb: when the companies failed, various parties had to do something about it. But when there is no comma after failed, our first instinct is to treat the noun following it as its object.

When we write, we should always be sensitive to possible ambiguity. Sometimes, adding punctuation can make things clearer. In other cases, it is best to re-word what we have written to ensure the intended meaning emerges properly.

One other thing about this example: at times, a bit of grammatical terminology (concerning transitive/intransitive verbs) can help one to see and also explain ambiguity.

07 April 2009


A weird category of word is one which has two meanings that are almost exact opposites of each other. A classic case in English is sanction, which can mean "to encourage" or else "to prevent someone from getting something".

Another word with two almost directly opposite meanings is fast: if you tie a boat up fast, it is not going anywhere; but if you sail it fast, it is going somewhere rather quickly.

A few homophones have opposite meanings, though they may be spelled differently (so they are not homographs). For example, raise means "to lift up", but raze means "to destroy" (as in to raze a city); and both raise and raze are pronounced /reɪz/.

For me, prescribe and proscribe are pretty much homophones, as I usually have a schwa (/ə/) in the first syllable of both. But the first one means "to recommend", and the second one means "to forbid".

Are there are such "auto-antonyms" in Malay? Well, maybe tinggal fits the description quite well, as it can mean "to live" or else "to leave". For example, durnia means "the world", and if you had never seen the phase meninggal durnia before, you might not be able to guess if it meant "to stay in the world" or "to depart from the world". In fact, of course, it is the latter, as it is the general euphemism in Malay for "to die".

06 April 2009


Last week, as I was travelling back from the United States, I was waiting for about one hour in Denver airport. There were about 50 other people there, and what struck me was that almost everyone was reading something. Most seemed to be reading fiction, but a few had newspapers or magazines.

That is something one almost never sees in Brunei − if you find yourself waiting for a while in a government office, you will note that almost nobody is reading. (It is also true in Singapore: look at the people on the MRT, and you will see that very few are reading.)

What makes one place a culture where people like to read? And how does one encourage a reading culture? Maybe you can argue that Brunei has an oral culture, so people prefer to chat rather than read, and perhaps this socialisation is something to be valued. I have heard it said that, in Brunei, people who like to read are sometimes regarded as antisocial. But it does make it a bit frustrating to teach at a university where so many of the students do not seem to enjoy reading.

02 April 2009

Language Usage : Others

In previous blogs (23 March, 31 March), I discussed the language use patterns of 40 first-year UBD undergraduates who identified themselves as 'Malay'.

The best languages of the five respondents who identified themselves as something other than pure Malay are shown below:

Note that the Malay/Kedayan, the Dusun/Belait, and one of the Chinese respondents indicated Brunei Malay (BM) as their best language. Of these five respondents, only one of the Chinese did not indicate any ability in Brunei Malay.

It is also interesting to consider the language that the 40 Malays stated they use with Chinese friends: nearly half of them (18) indicated a mixture of Brunei Malay and English, while the same number (18) indicated English alone.

In conclusion, it seems that Brunei Malay is the most common lingua franca in Brunei, even among non-Malays, though English also has an important role.

31 March 2009

Language Usage with Whom

In my previous blog (23 March), I discussed a ranking of the best languages of 40 Malay first-year undergraduates at UBD. Here I will show the results for the language they claim to use with their grandparents, their parents, and their siblings.

In answering these questions, the students were asked to indicate which language they generally use with each person, but they were encouraged to show more than one language if they usually mix or switch with each person. The results are shown here, with BM indicating Brunei Malay, SM = Standard Malay, and E = English.

This gives some kind of indication of how language usage is changing over time. Note that Brunei Malay is used by nearly everyone with their grandparents, but there is a little more usage of English with parents and also with siblings.

The summary shown in the table does not indicate whether there is mixing or different languages are used with different people. For example, BM/E might indicate that the respondents speak one language with one parent and another language with the other parent, or they might mix languages with both. In fact, in all the responses, only one person indicated use of English without mixing with anyone: she claimed to use English most of the time with her maternal grandparents and her father. All other instances of English involved mixing.

This usage table confirms that Brunei Malay is firmly established in Brunei, that although English is used a little more among younger people, there is no danger (yet) of it supplanting Brunei Malay as the home language, and that very few people use Standard Malay at home.

23 March 2009

Language Usage in Brunei

At the start of this semester, I got my first-year students to fill in a questionnaire about their language usage. They were asked to list the languages they speak in order of ability. In doing this, they were instructed to list Brunei Malay separately from Standard Malay. (A few of them didn't do this.) In addition, they were asked to indicate what language they use with who.

45 students completed the questionnaire, 31 females and 14 males. They were aged between 19 and 23 (average 20.1). 40 identified themselves as Malay, three as Chinese, one as Malay-Kedayan and one as Belait-Dusun.

All of them were studying an English-medium degree at UBD, 23 in the BA program mostly majoring in English, and 22 doing a degree in education, though none of these trainee teachers were majoring in English.

Here I will discuss the results for best languages for the Malays. (I will consider the other ethnic groups in later blogs.) The results for best, second and third language are shown in the following table:This clearly shows that, even in English-medium university programmes, Brunei Malay remains the language of choice for most undergraduates at UBD, and English is the third language for the majority. It seems that, currently at least, fears that English might displace Malay as the main language spoken in Brunei are unfounded.

22 March 2009

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis contends that we are controlled by the language we speak. It originated from the study of a speaker of the Native American Hopi language by Benjamin Whorf, who claimed that the world viewpoints of this Hopi speaker were fundamentally affected by his language.

This hypothesis is now largely discredited. It used to be claimed that Eskimo languages had lots of words for 'snow', and this fundamentally influenced the ways that Eskimos perceived snow. But quite apart from the fact that it is not clear if Eskimo languages really do have lots of words for snow, in fact speakers of English are perfectly capable of describing all kinds of different snow if they want to. Similarly, Malay has three words for rice: padi (if it is still growing in the field); beras (if it is for sale in a shop); and nasi (if it is already cooked). But the fact that we only have the single word rice in English does not mean we perceive rice differently.

Similarly, we don't have a word for that sense of tingling anticipation when you are about to open an exam paper, but we can certainly describe the sensation; and we don't have a word in English for the skin between the thumb and and the forefinger, but that doesn't stop us talking about it if we want to.

I was discussing this issue in my Year 2 linguistics class at UBD yesterday, and my exchange student from China, Wei Lan (Viola), told me that Chinese does have a word for this piece of skin: 虎 口 (hŭkŏu, literally 'tiger's mouth', apparently from the shape of the hand if you hold it open on its side). The reason that Chinese has a word for it is that it is an important pressure point in acupuncture and other kinds of traditional Chinese medicine.

This neatly illustrates a weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: although we are not necessarily controlled by our language, it does reflect the society we live in, as we tend to have ways of expressing things that are important to us. Malay has three words for rice because rice has always been an important part of the diet in this part of the world; and Chinese has words for certain pressure points on the body which English has (so far) not developed words for.

21 March 2009


In my second-year linguistics class at UBD today, I was talking about how English varies around the world. To illustrate the differences between UK and US English, I mentioned the car, where we have the following differences (amongst others):
  • windscreen (UK) / windshield (USA)
  • bonnet (UK) / hood (USA)
  • boot (UK) / trunk (USA)
My students pointed out that, in Brunei, the bonnet of a car is at the back, not the front (as in British English); and my colleagues confirmed this.

This surprised me, and it led me to wonder about three things:
  • Does the bonnet occur at the front of a car in any other varieties of English?
  • Where does this shift in meaning originate from?
  • How many other idiosyncratic word usages are there like this in Brunei English?

20 March 2009

Blog and Email Styles

In my blog of yesterday (19 March), I discussed innovative language and code-mixing in a Brunei blog. One of my colleagues asked me if I criticise this kind of language usage as "wrong". My answer to that is an emphatic "NO".

In linguistics, we emphasise flexibility, because language usage should always be appropriate for the situation. A bathing suit is fine on the beach, but it is not so suitable when you go out for dinner in a posh restaurant; and in just the same way, innovative, abbreviated, code-mixed language is absolutely fine for informal communication between friends, but it would not be suitable in, say, an academic assignment. As long as students understand this, I encourage innovative styles of writing.

I believe that blogging is a powerful medium that can accommodate a range of different styles. And I don't believe the medium should dictate the style, as that should depend on who you are writing for, what you are writing about, and what the purpose is.

Similarly, for emails: you have to see who you are sending the message to and what the purpose of the message is. I recently received the following in an email message from a student:
I need 2 ask u how can I explain my Q.3 n 4? Cuz i try 2 use bar chrt,but how cn i calclte? So cn i just list the most reson stated by the stdnts?
I'm afraid that I wrote back saying that the question should be phrased in proper English before I would be willing to answer it. Am I wrong here? Has this abbreviated style of writing become the accepted way of sending emails? Am I being old-fashioned? Am I fighting a desperate losing battle against modern trends? (After all, I am probably the only person in the world who uses full sentences and even proper capitalisation in SMS messages! But then I don't send out too many of those.)

Once again, I think that email is a powerful medium that allows for a range of styles, and you have to see who you are writing to and what you are writing about. I don't claim that the usage in the email message above is "wrong"; it is just inappropriate when asking for academic advice from your university lecturer, and I felt it my duty as a teacher to point that out.

19 March 2009

Mixing in Blogs

Language mixing is a fascinating phenomenon; but it is often hard to obtain data. People code-mix and switch all the time, but if you put a microphone in front of them, they tend to seize up and become far more formal. Secretly recording people is one possibility, but it is highly unethical and it is not something I would ever do. In fact, obtaining genuine conversational data is always quite a challenge.

Blogs therefore offer a valuable insight into informal use of language. Of course, they are not the same as conversational data; but maybe the instances of language-mixing and switching might be similar.

I have previously (7 Feb 2009, 5 Feb 2009) discussed some of the features of the Random Curiosity blog, which often exhibits quite innovative text usage, such as cat smileys. Here is a more recent extract, from her blog of 9 March 2009, where she is commenting on how busy she is, especially with the shifts she is doing in an exhibition at UBD:
They want us to die kah work from 2-10pm..(*coughs although got shift) XD XD XD. Any whos~ Well....will be busy working, doing assignments and (the hell) presentation. Gila~sometimes they think we are super people ka?
It is interesting to see the use of the Malay question particle kah/ka (which, she assures me, are variants of the same thing), and also gila (meaning 'crazy').

I will need to investigate further, to see if kah is regularly incorporated into English blogs in Brunei.

17 March 2009

Mengambil Bahagian

I have previously (e.g. 24 February & 25 February) discussed calques, in which phrases from one language get converted word-for-word into another language.

A phrase that perplexed me for a while was mengambil bahagian, until I translated it back into English and realised that it means "to take part". An example of the use of this phrase is found in Media Permata (16 March, p. 2), where it is explained that holders of social visit passes to Brunei are not allowed to ....
mengambil bahagian dalam sebarang bentuk pekerja bergaji
take        part         in         any     shape   work   paid
"take part in any kind of paid work"
Confirmation that this usage is not just something found in the Brunei media is obtained by doing a Google search on "mengambil bahagian", which yields 320,000 hits. (OK, I'll admit I didn't check them all!) And many of them are to Malaysian sites, including the first one which is a link to an on-line form entitled Permohonan Oleh Pegawai-Pegawai Awam Untuk Mengambil Bahagian Aktiviti Politik (click here) ("application form for public officers to take part in political activities").

On a slightly different note, how should calque be pronounced? The
authoritative Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, by John Wells, gives [kælk] with the vowel in TRAP, but I say it as [kʌlk], with the vowel in STRUT. This is the same idiosyncrasy in my pronunciation that I have discussed earlier (15 Feb 2009). In fact, John Wells has also discussed this unusual pronunciation in his own blog of 1 Nov 2007 (JW Blog Nov 2007) and found no evidence of anyone else having it.

So I guess my pronunciation of some words is a bit non-standard. However, it doesn't seem to create any misunderstandings, and most people don't even notice it, so I have no intention of changing.

We all have an idiolect, our own idiosyncratic way of speaking that marks us as different from everyone else. I hope you can also discover the unique features of your idiolect.

16 March 2009


I recently saw the following sign in the Temple of Literature in Hanoi:

The most obvious question is: what does it mean? Well, the online Encyclopædia Britannica defines stela as:
standing stone slab used in the ancient world primarily as a grave marker but also for dedication, commemoration, and demarcation
and the plural of stela is stelae (so the word is mispelt on the sign, though I guess not too many people notice that).

According to Lonely Planet, there are 82 stelae still present in the temple of Literature, and they were made in celebration whenever someone passed the highest exam (and so became a 'doctor'). A picture of one of them is on the right.

Though visitors seem to be quite obedient in not writing, drawing, stepping or sitting on the stelae, that doesn't stop them stroking the head of the turtle at the base ‒ local people seem to believe that stroking the head of a turtle, even a stone one, gives you good luck.

Anyway, one more thing we might note: as there were lots of doctors, the possessive of doctors should be doctors', with the apostrophe after the 's', not before it. It is interesting to note that users of English in Vietnam have problems with apostrophes, just like people in Brunei. (See my blog of 8 February on the issue.)

14 March 2009

Bi-syllabicity in Malay

In the Media Permata of 14 March 2009 (pp. 1/2), there is an announcement of a competition to name a new strand of rice in Brunei. One of the stipulations is that the proposed name should mempunyai dua suku kata ('have two syllables'). This is a nice reflection of the underlying bi-syllabic nature of Malay.

Although there are a few monosyllabic roots, such as sah ('valid') and had ('limit'), these are the exception rather than the rule; and, as discussed earlier (11 March), when affixes are added to these monosyllabic roots, an extra syllable is added, so we get mengesahkan ('to confirm') and mengehadkan ('to limit').

One word that confused me in this respect is mengemukakan ('to put forward'). The root is muka ('face'), which is already bisyllabic. So why is the extra syllable added? After all, no similar extra syllable is added when memulakan ('to start') is created out of mula ('start'), and muka and mula would seem to have a very similar phonological shape. Adrian Clynes tells me this is because the root of mengemukakan is actually ke muka, where ke ('to') is a preposition.

11 March 2009

Diphthongs in Malay

In a recent blog (8 March) I observed that final consonants cannot occur after a diphthong in Vietnamese; and this raises the possibility that vowels such as [ai] and [au] are not diphthongs at all but monophthongs followed by an approximant. And the same can be said about Malay. Let's think about this some more.

First, let's consider an English word such as pie, which phonetically is usually shown as [paɪ]. If you say it backwards, you get yup, which we write phonetically as [jʌp], where [j] is the approximant that occurs at the start of yes. Now, if yup is regarded as starting with an approximant, perhaps we should say that pie actually ends with an approximant; so if pie is yup backwards, maybe its pronunciation should really be shown as [pʌj].

The same applies to Malay. We seem to have diphthongs at the end of words such as capai ('to achieve'); but maybe this is not a diphthong at all, but a monophthong followed by the approximant [j] (usually written as 'y' in Malay spelling). So perhaps capai would be better written as capay. Similarly, kau ('I') might be better written as kaw.

Evidence supporting this analysis (provided by my colleague Adrian Clynes) is that words like kait ('hook') and baik ('good') are basically two syllables, not one, because the syllable structure of Malay is CVC (consonant vowel consonant), and you can't have two consonants at the end of a syllable in Malay.

How do we know this? Well, the most important thing is native speaker intuitions, as many speakers of Malay seem to feel that words like kait and baik are two syllables. But further evidence can be found by considering morphology. If you take a monosyllabic root, such as had ('limit') or sah ('valid') and add the meng- prefix, an extra syllable gets inserted; so you get mengehadkan ('to limit') and mengesahkan ('to confirm'). But the same doesn't happen for bisyllabic roots, such as kait and baikmengaitkan ('to link') and membaiki ('to improve') are perfectly well-formed, without the need for an extra syllable.

Sorry this is a bit heavy! But even if you find the analysis a bit complicated, just remember this: sah and baik seem to be treated differently, because baik is actually two syllables; and this is because the [a] and [i] in words such as baik occur in different syllables. In contrast, the second syllable of capai probably has a monophthong vowel followed by an approximant. In conclusion, there are no diphthongs in Malay.

10 March 2009


In a couple of my recent blogs, I have written things that I would strongly criticise if I saw them written by one of my students.

In my blog of 8 March (Code-Mixing), I wrote "Modern linguistic analysis suggests that code-mixing is the norm in language usage around the world". Well, which linguistic analysis? Where can people find out more about it? You should always try to avoid such vague, woolly claims.

A good source for more information on code-mixing in global Englishes is the book shown on the right, by Alastair Pennycook (Routledge, 2007), who discusses manifestations of hip-hop from around the world and argues that the regular code-mixing and switching found in the lyrics of rap music in places such as Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Brazil and Tanzania is actually the norm for the way that English is used nowadays.

Another claim that I made which is crying out for more information is in my blog from 8 March (Pronunciation in Vietnam), where I made all sorts of observations about the structure of Vietnamese syllables.

So, am I suggesting that I mastered the language sufficiently well in just one week to enable me to analyse its syllable structure? No, of course not. Actually, I read about the syllable structure of Vietnamese, as well as the pronunciation of English by people from Vietnam, in the book shown on the right, by Jette Hansen (Continuum, 2005), who analyses the pronunciation of two Vietnamese immigrants to the United States.

The problem is that I hope my blog can be light and reasonably easy to read, so I don't want it to be all clogged up with formal referencing and stuff like that. I haven't worked out how to achieve this and still show proper acknowledgement of sources. For the time being, I am using pictures of books as a kind of referencing ‒ at least that cheers up the blog a bit! But I admit that this is not a particularly good solution.

One way or another, it is vitally important to ensure you always acknowledge sources properly, and never pretend that some piece of analysis is yours when it is not. Furthermore, giving a good reference or two enhances the value of your work immensely.

08 March 2009


Today is a national holiday in Brunei, to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

According to the local Malay language newspaper Media Permata (9 March 2009, page 1), in his titah ('royal speech') to celebrate the event, His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei emphasised that constant pursuit of religious knowledge is important....

  untuk kita dapat survive selaku bangsa dan negara yang aman jaya
     for    us   can  survive    as    race    and country which peaceful
   "for us to be able to survive as a people and country that is peaceful"

I found this interesting linguistically. Why is the English word survive included in this titah?

Modern linguistic analysis suggests that code-mixing is the norm in language usage around the world, and such mixing of codes may be particularly common in South-East Asia. Indeed, it has been suggested that an emphasis on linguistic purity, sticking to a single language, might be a product of European nineteenth-century ideology, associated with the emergence of individual nation-states each with its own distinct language. So maybe His Majesty is just following common local usage in mixing a word of English into his titah.

One other thing: this example can be regarded as mixing not borrowing, because survive retains its English spelling. But if it were borrowed into Malay, what would it become? Maybe servaiv? That doesn't look quite right.

I note that archive becomes arkib in Malay ‒ note that the final [v] in the English becomes [b] in Malay, as [v] is a rare sound that only occurs in initial position in a few borrowed words: visa, van, vitamin ... So, what about the middle [v] from survive? Would that remain as [v] in Malay? And also, what about the vowel in the second syllable? Would it become [i] or [ai]?

Pronunciation in Vietnam

While I was in Vietnam this past week, I was struck by a feature of the local pronunciation of English. They tend to omit the final consonant in the following words:
house, rice, nice, size, five
However, the final consonant tends to be produced in words such as these:
bus, please, because, yes, have
What can explain this phenomenon? At first glance, it seems just random: the final consonant is omitted in some words but not others. However, actually it is possible to find a rule that captures the pattern: the vowel in the first set of words is a diphthong (consisting of two qualities, either [au] or [ai]) while the second set of words have monophthongs (so the vowel only has a single quality ‒ the vowel does not change much during its duration, no matter how slowly it is spoken).

This is because in Vietnamese, a diphthong can never be followed by a consonant. Final consonants do occur, but only after monophthongs. And this affects their pronunciation of English.

Actually, the same is found in Malay: in the syllable structure of Malay, a diphthong cannot be followed by a consonant. (We need to think about this a bit further, as it suggests that words such as baik ('good'), kain ('cloth') and kaum ('tribe') have two syllables. I will discuss this in a later blog.)

I would expect to find that the English of non-proficient speakers of the language in Brunei exhibits final consonant omission more often after diphthongs than monophthongs; but I will have to get more data to confirm if this is true or not.

27 February 2009


When someone is talking, we indicate that we are paying attention by means of what are called 'backchannels'. These can involve gestures, such as nodding or smiling; but in English, the most common verbal backchannels are yup/yeah or mmm.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to the Brunei radio, and the anchor person used saya ('I') as a backchannel to encourage his interviewee to continue. This rather surprised me, as I have never come across the use of a first person pronoun as a backchannel; but my UBD colleague, Noor Azam, confirmed that it is common in Malay.

I wonder if Malay is unique in this respect, in the use of the first person pronoun as a standard form of backchannel.

25 February 2009

More Calques

In yesterday's blog ('Mouse Trails'), I discussed calques such as kenderaan pacuan empat roda from the English four wheel drive vehicle.

In fact, calques can be at the word level as well as the phrase level. For example, the root of kemudahan ('facility') is mudah ('easy'), and this seems very closely parallel to the English word facility being derived from the root facile.

Recently, Lee Kuan Yew has been visiting Brunei, and in today's Media Permata newspaper I saw him described as negarawan ('statesman') for which the root is, of course, negara ('country'); and this is very similar to the way that the English word statesman is derived by the addition of a suffix to state.

Of course, I have no evidence that kemudahan and negarawan really are calques from English. But the similarity of the derivation of these words to their English counterparts seems too close to be coincidental.

24 February 2009

Mouse Trails

When a word from one language gets adopted into another language, we call this 'borrowing'. For example, lift is borrowed into Malay as lif. There are also a few borrowings in the other direction: orangutan comes from Malay (literally "forest person"), and so does amok.

In contrast, if a phrase is adopted from one language into another, but each item is translated word-by-word, we call this a 'calque'. There are quite a few calques from English into Malay. For example, kenderaan pacuan empat roda is a direct calque from the English four-wheel drive vehicle; and mengambil gambar seems likely to have come from take a picture.

A nice example of a calque in the other direction is found on the front page of the Borneo Bulletin of 17 February, 2009:

Mouse trails along the border pose a challenge to Brunei's law enforcement personnel as smuggling of contraband continues unabated.

It seems that mouse trails comes directly from the Malay jalan tikus. It offers a good example of how the English that is used in Brunei may be becoming nativised, in order to represent local conditions as well as social customs.

(My thanks to my UBD colleague, Adian Clynes, for showing me this example.)

Preventive Maintenance

Recently, when one of the lifts in my apartment block was being fixed, the following notice appeared outside it:It is interesting to note that, while the English says "preventive maintenance in progress", the Malay says "lif sedang di-servis", which means "the lift is being serviced". Is there no equivalent in Malay for preventive maintenance?

It is dangerous to start claiming that a particular language lacks a word for something. Mark Lieberman observes that whenever anyone makes this kind of statement, they are nearly always wrong. (See Language Log, 28 January 2009.) For example, the preposterous claim has often been made that Gypsies don't have a word for duty or for possession, and this turns out to be total nonsense. (See Language Log, 30 January 2009.)

However, while it is almost certainly true that you can express just about any concept you like in any human language, it does seem that Malay does not have a commonly-used equivalent for preventive maintenance. Now, maintenance is penyelenggaraan, but my Malay colleagues at UBD have confirmed that they could not think of an easy way of saying preventive maintenance in Malay, though certainly it would be possible to express the concept in a full phrase.

So perhaps we can conclude that the difference in the translation found on this sign reflects something about priorities in Bruneian culture.

21 February 2009

Prawo Jazdy

Today's blog has nothing to do with Brunei. But it is so splendidly absurd that I thought I'd share it with you anyway.

Recently, police in the Irish Republic kept on getting reports of a persistent traffic offender who went by the name of Prawo Jazdy. But they had enormous difficulty in tracking down this elusive fellow because every time he got booked, he seemed to have changed his address.

Eventually, someone discovered that 'prawo jazdy' actually means 'driving license' in Polish. (On Polish licenses, they show the name of the driver further down on the card.)

If they had just consulted a linguist, the Irish authorities could have saved themselves an awful lot of time and energy.

(For the full story, see BBC World.)

20 February 2009

English as a Lingua Franca

A theme I have discussed before (eg 15 February) is what norms should be adopted for English in places such as Brunei. One quite radical, and rather controversial, proposal is that of Jennifer Jenkins, especially in her 2007 book (see right).

Jenkins observes that the overwhelming majority of speakers of English nowadays do not come from the traditional "native speaker" English countries, such as Britain, the USA, or Australia. Instead, they are from places such as China, Japan, India, Singapore, Nigeria, Brazil, France, Germany, and Brunei. Furthermore, most of their interactions in English are likely to be with other non-native speakers, and they may actually never need to talk to a native speaker. As a result, she proposes that the teaching of English should be based on English as Lingua Franca (ELF), the kind of English that is used by non-native speakers in international settings.

The problem with this is, of course, that there is a shortage of materials, both teaching and reference, for ELF. While efforts are now being made to develop such materials, and also to codify the grammar of ELF, it seems that teachers still have little option but to continue to make use of the existing materials from places such as Britain.

Nevertheless, there is likely to be an increasing adoption of an international perspective in the teaching of English, partly because training students to interact with people from Britain is not very useful when most of the people they will need to speak to in English do not come from Britain.

A vital skill in the modern world is the ability to adapt one's speaking and listening to the needs of others − in linguistics we call this 'accommodation'. Increasingly, teaching materials are likely to include a greater range of data from all kinds of different speakers, not just the polished recordings of a few native speakers. And when students are exposed to this rich variety of data, they will be well prepared to deal with visitors to Brunei from all corners of the world.

19 February 2009


Last night over dinner I said to my wife:
whatever happens today tomorrow is gone
I intended this to mean that the events of today are over by tomorrow, as tomorrow is a new day. In other words, I intended it to have the following structure, with whatever happens today as the subject of is gone and tomorrow as an adverb of time:
[whatever happens today]S [tomorrow]Adv is gone
However, my wife misunderstood it, as she took it to mean that, regardless of the events of today, tomorrow is hopeless. So she interpreted whatever happens today as an adverb clause and tomorrow as the subject of is gone:
[whatever happens today]AdvCl [tomorrow]S is gone
In fact, both these interpretations are possible, as the utterance is ambiguous.

We should always try to avoid ambiguity in what we say and write. Of course, this is difficult when speaking, because we do not usually have much opportunity to plan things; but in writing, we should keep a sharp lookout for anything that might be misinterpreted, and we should rephrase it wherever necessary. In this case, it would have been better to say:
whatever happens today is gone by tomorrow
That is how I would have stated it if I had had the chance to plan the utterance properly.