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.

17 February 2009

Wikipedia: Kampong Ayer

In the past, research material was mostly found in books and journals, and we could access these in a good library. Now, of course, there is lots of additional material on the Web. However, the quality of this newly-available material is extremely variable, and it is essential that we always evaluate its reliability

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which (I assume) you are all thoroughly familiar with. It includes a huge amount of data, and much of it is impressive and exceptionally valuable. However, the quality of the entries varies very greatly.

Let us look, for example, at the page on Kampong Ayer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampong_Ayer

Although there is certainly some useful information in it, there are also quite a lot of problems. First, why is there a picture of a satellite dish? How does that represent Kampong Ayer in any way at all?

One of the basic demands of Wikipedia is that material should be widely referenced. So where are the references for this entry? For example, it is stated that 39,000 people live in Kampong Ayer. How do the authors of the page know that? Did someone go out and count them? No − this figure must have been obtained from somewhere else. So where? Why are we not told? We also learn that there are 29,410 meters of foot bridges. Did someone go and measure them? If so, who?

If you look behind the page (under the 'History' tab), you will find that a whole bunch of different people contributed to it, as indeed is the norm for Wikipedia pages. Among them are Masterguyz, The Anomebot2, Sanao, and Rjwilmsi, as well as some IP addresses such as (from contributors who have not logged in properly to Wikipedia). Who are all these people? Why don't they identify themselves properly?

In reality, many Wikipedia entries represent a mish-mash of contributions from a wide range of different people, most of them unidentifiable. And this is quite a problem. It is essential to know who wrote stuff, and where it came from. Rather too often, this basic foundation is not provided by Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an exceptionally valuable resource; but be careful how much you use it. While it is excellent for initial information on a topic, you need to be very, very wary about how much you depend on it for reliable data.

15 February 2009

Norms for English

A highly contentious issue nowadays concerns the norms that should be adopted for English in places such as Brunei. Traditionally, norms have been taken from Britain or America, but increasingly when English is used so widely in so many different countries throughout the world, many people argue that it is no longer appropriate to follow external norms, and each place should have the right to develop its own style of English. For example, in his recent book (see right), Andy Kirkpatrick argues that it makes no sense for deference always to be shown to teachers who happen to be "native speakers" when there are plenty of local people in each country who have excellent English, a thorough grasp of the structure of English, lots of experience teaching it, and a good understanding of the problems involved in learning the language.

In Singapore, it is now usually accepted that it is OK to sound Singaporean so long as one uses standard grammar and also so long as one's speech is easily intelligible to people from abroad. Maybe Brunei has not yet moved in this direction to the same extent; but it is likely that Bruneians with good English will feel increasingly confident in sounding distinctly Bruneian.

One problem is that there is a lack of materials for these newly emerging varieties of English, and furthermore, teachers like to have fixed norms to refer to. For example, where are the dictionaries for Singapore English pronunciation that teachers can consult?

Maybe, in the absence of local reference and teaching materials, we can think of standard British English (RP) pronunciation as something to refer to without expecting students to mimic it too closely. Let me illustrate this with my own speech: my pronunciation is fairly standard RP, but I deviate from it in a few ways, and I am quite happy to acknowledge that these features are non-standard. For example, in words like calculate, aglorithm and balcony, I have [ʌ] (the vowel in cut) in the first syllable while all dictionaries tell me that the standard is [æ] (the vowel in cat). And I have absolutely no intention of changing my speech, even if it is a bit non-standard.

Maybe Bruneians with good English can similarly feel confident in maintaining some of their own patterns of speech: it's OK to sound Bruneian as long as you speak well.

14 February 2009

Two and Three

A recent contribution to the chat-box by 'Salsa' mentioned that two can sometimes be misunderstood as three in this part of the world.

When I first arrived in Singapore about sixteen years ago, I discovered that McDonald's was much cheaper than in the UK, and as we were a bit short of money at the time, I allowed my two children to eat there as often as they wanted. (They soon got sick of it!) The trouble was that when I ordered two hamburgers, I sometimes received three, and this puzzled me.

Similarly, when I was with my wife in KL a couple of years ago, I asked for two train tickets and was given three.

So why is my pronunciation of two so often heard as three?

There may be three contributing factors:
  • three is often pronounced with [t] at the start by people in South-East Asia
  • when I say two, I aspirate the initial [t] quite a lot; in other words, there is a puff of air after the release of the [t]. But in Malay, [t] is not aspirated − there is no puff of air. This means that my [t] may not sound like [t] to some local people.
  • I produce the vowel in two with a fronted quality. In other words, my tongue is further forward in the mouth when I say the vowel than is usual for people in Singapore, Malaysia and perhaps Brunei. The vowel in two is phonetically represented as [u:]; but if it becomes fronted, it may sound rather like [i:], the vowel in three.
It seems that these three factors combine to make my two sound more like three to some people. In the end, I learned to hold up two fingers when I said two − I dislike fast food intensely, and I did not enjoy having to eat the extra burger!

12 February 2009

Pronunciation of TH

As linguists, we aim to describe what we hear without stating what is good or bad or specifying how something "should" be pronounced.

The TH sound at the start of words such as three and thin is pronounced in different ways around the world. In most of the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, this sound is pronounced as [θ], but in London and Hong Kong it is often [f], in Ireland, New York, Singapore and Brunei it can be [t], and speakers from China and Germany may use [s]. Note that I have not suggested that any of these ways of pronouncing this TH sound is better than any of the others. They are just variant ways of realising the sound.

Of course, dictionaries will often list the "standard" pronunciation as [θ], which is a dental fricative (so the tongue is placed against or sometimes between the teeth).

However, an RBA pilot recently told me that the pronunciation of three and thousand stipulated in air-traffic communications begins with [t], and this is confirmed on Page 3, Chapter 2 of the CAP413 Radiotelephony Manual for pilots (see the image on the right; the full manual is available on-line here).

It is interesting that in this critically-important domain, the standard that is recommended for all pilots, even those from the UK and USA, is actually the pronunciation adopted by many Bruneians.

10 February 2009

Code Switching and Mixing

It is common in Brunei for local people to use a mixture of English and Malay when writing or speaking.

Linguistically, we say that there is 'code-switching' if the change from one language to another involves complete sentences or clauses; but it is 'code-mixing' if individual words and phrases of one language are included within the other. Here is an example of code-switching, from the blog of Ranoadidas (25 November 2008):
How much money do we make? Not much.. *cukup makan saja*
Here cukup makan saja means "just enough to eat". Note that here the Malay text occurs in its own clause. In fact, in this case, it is additionally marked as special using asterisks, though this kind of special marking does not generally occur.

In contrast, the following extract from the blog of Kurapak (8 February 2009) illustrates code-mixing, with in this case multiple switches between Malay and English:
Selamat berhujung minggu to all the kurapak readers.. I hope semua plans yang kan di buat atu berjalan lancar, waluapun lately ani hujun turun saja..
Here, selamat berhujung minggu means "wishing you a happy weekend", semua means "all", yang kan di buat atu berjalan lancar means "will be implemented smoothly", walaupun is "even though", and ani hujun turun saja means "it has just been raining here". My analysis of this (and the rest of the blog of Kurapak) is that it is basically Malay with quite a few English words and phrases thrown in, but .....

Analysis of code-switching and code-mixing is a fascinating topic in linguistics, and blogs offer a rich source of data.

09 February 2009


In an earlier blog (31 January), I mentioned the difficulty of finding words in a Malay dictionary. In confirmation of the fact that it is not just me being stupid, I note that there is also occasionally confusion in my dictionary (see right), even though this dictionary is mostly excellent.

For example, the word perangkaan ('statistics') is listed both under rangka ('skeleton') and also under angka ('numeral'). Now, I don't know which of these is correct, but they can't both be! And, one way or another, the word should probably not be listed twice.

One further example: pendekar ('warrior') is listed both under dekar (with no independent meaning given for dekar) and also under 'p' as a root in itself. Once more, it probably shouldn't be listed twice.

In some ways it is quite reassuring to see that the dictionary compilers occasionally get confused, just like I do.

08 February 2009


Apostrophes seem to cause lots of problems for users of English throughout the world. The basic conventions are this: an apostrophe is used either to indicate a possessive (John's book, my uncle's car) or that something is omitted (shouldn't ‒ omitted 'o' from not; John's tired ‒ omitted 'i' from is). Simple, isn't it?

Well, no, it seems. Lots of people appear to have problems. Look at this sign from the window of a restaurant in Gadong:
Despite the obvious care taken in writing the words so beautifully, there is an apostrophe before the plural 's' suffix on menu ‒ this is just a simple plural, not a possessive or a contraction, so the rule says that no apostrophe should be used.

And look another sign at the same restaurant:
Here we find an apostrophe not just with the plural noun (hours) but also with the verb (starts). The writer of these signs seems to believe that an apostrophe should be used whenever an 's' suffix occurs, regardless of what the suffix represents.

Actually, this problem is found not just with second language users of English, such as in Brunei, but in England as well. Recently, there has been an outcry because the city council in Birmingham decided to get rid of all apostrophes in its road signs (see the BBC World article), and both Language Log and World Wide Words have commented on the issue.

If apostrophes cause so many problems, maybe we should do away with them. Note that my uncles and my uncle's are pronounced the same, regardless of whether the 's' is a plural or possessive suffix, so we seem to do just fine in making sense of this distinction in speech, even when no differences are made in the pronunciation. However, one problem is that without an apostrophe, we'll would become the same as well, and she'd would become shed, so in some situations the apostrophe makes important distinctions which are represented in our pronunciation.

Anyway, it doesn't make much difference what rules we linguists and teachers try to make. One way or another, the apostrophe will disappear if common usage determines that it is not useful, no matter how much effort teachers expend in trying to preserve it.

07 February 2009

Blogging Inventiveness

In my previous blog, I discussed the style of language used in the Random Curiosity blog.

In fact, in her blog of 15 January, there are some things that puzzled me, particularly the line:
N Being lazy is part of me. LOL. Ciao~ ^>w<^
Now, I know that N is short for 'and', LOL means 'laughing out loud', and ciao is the Italian for 'bye'. But what about ^>w<^? Is this some new kind of texting abbreviation that I am not familiar with? In fact, she uses >w< quite often. For example, in her blog of 8 January, we find:
My plate. It was a buffet. LOL >w<. Didn't get the tamago sushi
So I asked her, and she explained that it is intended to represent a cat's smile (the 'w' is the mouth, and > and < are presumably the whiskers). ^>w<^ is also a cat smiley, but this time with the ears included.

It is interesting to see this kind of inventiveness occurring in blogs. I assume that only her close friends understand what is going on; but that is exactly the way language works, with groups of people developing their own special code that is likely to bemuse outsiders. And I suspect that this in-group sharing of experiences is rather closer to the spirit of most blogs than my efforts, which are aimed at a more general readership.

05 February 2009

Blogging Style

Blogs represent a new medium, and as such we haven't yet sorted out what style should be adopted. As you may have noticed, I use a fairly formal register, with full sentences (mostly), standard spelling, few typos (I hope), and no texting abbreviations (such as '4' instead of for and 'u' for you) or emoticons (such as :D for a wide smile). Partly that is because I am too old-fashioned to deal with such new-fangled things; or perhaps it is because I think my topic is awfully important and so it deserves a serious register.

In contrast, many of my fellow bloggers in Brunei and elsewhere adopt a much more casual style. For example, the Bruneian blogger who styles herself as 'Hiro' and whose blog is entitled Random Curiosity includes the following text in her entry for 28 January 2009:
Ok.Finally our pics are up thank you Leong I'll borrow some of ur pics dear! More coming i tomorrow from boss, have to wait lagi. hahaha.anyways..
This short paragraph has a number of features that make it distinct from my own style of writing:
  • inclusion of a Malay word: lagi ("more", "again")
  • abbreviations: pics, ur
  • run-on sentences: Finally our pics are up thank you Leong I'll borrow some of ur pics dear!
  • typos: coming i tomorrow
  • representation of laughter: hahaha
All these features are, of course, designed to represent a chatty, colloquial form of communication. In linguistics, we emphasise that the style of language adopted on any one occasion depends a number of factors, including who you are talking to, what you are talking about, and where you are. In this case, Hiro has chosen to adopt an informal style that is entirely appropriate for casual communication with her friends. In fact, one of the expectations of this kind of discourse is that it should be immediate, just like conversational speech, which is why typos are rarely corrected and a few spelling errors are accepted and even expected.

I think it is splendid to see that blogging has enabled such a diversity of styles, and it continues to stimulate creativity among its participants. After all, that is what language should be all about: creativity, originality, and fun. I started off by saying that blogging has not yet determined what style ought to be adopted; but in reality, it seems to be encouraging a wide range of different styles. This suggests it is emerging as a really powerful medium.

Keep on blogging!

04 February 2009

Warga Emas

On the front page of today's Malay-medium newspaper in Brunei (Media Permata, 4 February 2009), there is an article about "tiga orang warga emas" ("three senior citizens", literally "three golden folk") being involved in a fatal traffic accident on the Seria bypass. Then in the next paragraph, their ages are given as 52, 54 and 55.

How old does one need to be in order to be considered a senior citizen? In Britain, the USA and Australia, I doubt very much if people in their low-to-mid-fifties would be described as "senior citizens". So does warga emas have a broader meaning in Brunei? Maybe using the euphemistic designation "golden folk" makes it a little more attractive, so it lowers the age limit? Or perhaps the traditional respect for older people that is found in this part of the world makes such a designation more desirable?

I asked some Malay colleagues at UBD whether I might be classified as warga emas (I am 52 years old), and they unanimously agreed that I could not, and indeed one would have to be over 60 to earn this designation. Well, maybe they were just being polite. After all, I admit that my hair is getting a bit thin, and most of what is left is grey. However, I still got the strong impression that 55 and under is rather young for people to be described as warga emas.

Perhaps it was just a case of a bit of youthful exuberance on the part of the Media Permata reporter.

03 February 2009

How Many Items?

Have a look at the following sign, which occurs over one of the check-out counters in Supasave, and see if you can see anything wrong with it:

As far as I am concerned, it is fine: there is nothing at all wrong with it.

However, some old-fashioned purists insist that less occurs with mass nouns (such as rice, money and happiness) while fewer should be used with count nouns (such as books, coins and apples). And the problem is that items is a count noun. As a result, the purists suggest that it should be "6 items or fewer". In fact, last year the giant UK supermarket chain, Tesco, was forced to change all their express counter signs for exactly this reason. (You can read the BBC World article about it.)

The trouble with this is that more and more people are using less with count nouns. This is what Carter and McCarthy's excellent and thoroughly up-to-date Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide (CUP, 2006) says about it (p. 772):
Increasingly, in a wide range of spoken and written contexts, less is used with plural countable nouns.
And they give as an example:
If there were less than six students in the class, they cancelled it.
If this usage is becoming more and more acceptable, why should we worry if supermarkets adopt it? We must accept that language constantly changes, and we need to keep aware of how it is changing.

This is not to suggest that "anything goes". Indeed, there are important distinctions between count and mass nouns, and writers should learn about them so they can make use of the appropriate forms. However, if it is now acceptable for most people to use less with plural count nouns, only pedants will object to it. I think it is outrageous that Tesco was forced to waste money changing what was a perfectly good sign because of outdated notions of what is grammatical.

I suggest Supasave keep their sign. It is admirably clear and (to my mind) perfectly grammatical.

02 February 2009

Words Borrowed into Malay

Malay borrows words quite widely (just like English does). And, as is usual in borrowing, the pronunciation of the words often gets modified a little, to fit better into the phonology of the host language. For example, the English word stamp becomes setem in Malay, and voucher becomes baucar.

Here, I want to consider what happens to initial TH sounds, final [t], and the open front vowels, and how this influences the local pronunciation of English in Brunei.
  • In most traditional varieties of English, nearly all words spelled with 'th' at the start are pronounced with [θ] (or with [ð] if they are function words such as this or then). However, when they are borrowed into Malay, theory becomes teori and therapy becomes terapi. As these words are pronounced in Malay with an initial [t], it is hardly surprising if they also begin with [t] in the local variety of English. And this use of [t] instead of [θ] sometimes extends to words such as three and think which are not borrowed into Malay.

  • When words which end with a consonant cluster (a sequence of more than one consonant) are borrowed into Malay, the final sound is often omitted if it is [t]. Thus lift is borrowed as lif, and post becomes pos. Once again, if lif and pos have no final [t] in Standard Malay, it is not surprising if many Bruneians pronounce these words without [t] when they are speaking English, and this reinforces the widespread simplification of final consonant clusters in the local variety of English.

  • Finally, English has two vowels that are classified as non-close front (when they are pronounced, the jaw is quite open and the tongue is towards the front of the mouth): [e] and [æ], as in the words send and sand respectively. However, when they occur in words that are borrowed into Malay, both these sounds become [e], so taxi becomes teksi and camp becomes kem. And once more it should not surprise us if Brunei speakers of English use [e] in the first syllable of the English word taxi and furthermore if they fail to distinguish between words such as send and sand.
In conclusion, I believe that the way English words are borrowed into Malay has substantial influence on the way people in Brunei speak English. Furthermore, the influence extends beyond the pronunciation of borrowed words and impacts quite widely on Brunei English phonology.

01 February 2009

Diglossia and Language Learning

After reading my blog of 29 January about the frustrations of trying to learn Malay in Brunei because people here are unwilling to speak the language to me, my UBD colleague Sue Nair observed that she faced similar problems when trying to learn Arabic in Bahrain.

It is interesting that, just like Brunei, the Arab world exhibits widespread diglossia: Standard Arabic occurs in formal situations, and it is also the variety that is usually taught to foreigners; but in ordinary conversational settings, a more colloquial dialect is generally used. (For more on diglossia, including a discussion of how teachers in Singapore can deal with the coexistence of Standard English and Singlish, see my short article on the topic.)

Maybe people's reluctance in Bahrain to speak Arabic to foreigners is partly because they do not feel comfortable using Standard Arabic in a conversational setting, and in some cases they may not be very proficient in the standard language. And I wonder whether difficulties for foreigners to learn the local language might be quite common in diglossic societies.