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.