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.