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.