31 December 2010

Guan Yin

What do you see in this picture?Well, all right, so it's the photo of a mountain (taken from the doorway of a Buddhist temple in Danshui, a bit north of Taipei).

But do you see the head of a reclining goddess, with the forehead on the right, and the main peaks in the middle constituting the nose and mouth? This hill is named after Guan Yin, a prominent deity in Taiwan.

I've heard before about this hill before, but I had never seen its outline so clearly.

I guess how you interpret this outline is up to you. Maybe some people just see a hill.

New Characters

In a recent post (here), I commented on new words that have been created in Taiwan, by means of combining existing characters. A less common way of coining new words is to invent new characters. The character 夯 fits into this category, though it may have been around for ten years or so. Here it is as the fourth characters in an advertisement for the Floral Exhibition currently on in Taipei.It seems to be pronounced hāng and it means 'brilliant' or 'hot'.

Here it is again, on the sign for a bar. In both cases, its highly expressive quality is highlighted by it being shown in red.

One question I have in cases like this is how new characters would be shown in Unicode, which aims to include every character one might need in all languages. What would they do about newly-invented characters? In this case, 夯 has been around long enough that it is included in the Unicode set of characters (which is why I am able to show it in my text). But let us now look at another character creation, this one on the sign for a Taiwanese bookshop. The four large characters at the bottom say 'Taiwan's bookshop', but the third of these, pronounced 'e' and equivalent in meaning to the possessive 的 in Mandarin, is a non-standard character. As far as I can see, it does not exist in Unicode. So how would it be added? Is there a space for extra characters? And even if there is, it would be out of sequence. Here's where it should belong, immediately before the character shown in blue (location: hex 5168), but there isn't space for it. So how are newly created characters dealt with in Unicode?

28 December 2010

The History of Researches

In a previous posting (here), I discussed the relative frequency of 'my research' and 'my researches' in a large corpus of contemporary American English.

Just recently, Google Books have made available a search facility based on 5.2 million digitized books, in a facility they call 'Books Ngram Viewer' (here). (For a detailed discussion of it, see David Crystal's DCblog.) And this allows us to compare the occurrence of research with that of researches since the year 1800.

In the following plot, the blue line shows the relative frequency of 'my research' while the red line shows that for 'my researches' from 1800 till 2000.
This suggests that my assumption that researches is a modern development (which may be influenced by usage in places such as Brunei and Singapore) is not quite correct. In fact, it seems that researches was overwhelimingly more common until about 1940 when the use of the word as a non-count noun became more usual.

I love the development of on-line utilities like this that allow one to investigate things oneself at the touch of a button.

25 December 2010


There is a new word that is now being used widely in Taiwan: 霸凌 bàlíng, which is a borrowing from the English word bullying. You can hear it every day many times on the news, as they discuss the case of a school principle who failed to handle the cases of bullying in her school and was forced to step down.

Although there is already a Chinese word for 'to bully', 欺負 qīfù, this new word 霸凌 has a narrower meaning, referring specifically to bullying in school.

What is interesting about this word is that it is not just a new borrowing from English but it also carries meaning from the two characters. It is more usual for borrowings just to carry the phonetic value of the characters but not their meaning, so for example 巴士 bāshì ('bus') carries no meaning from the individual characters. However, for 霸凌, the two characters mean 'tyrant' and 'maltreat', so you might say that the word is both a borrowing and an indigenous coinage.

23 December 2010


I am just reading an interesting book by Xu Zhichang, Chinese English (Open University Press, HK, 2010), in which he describes the lexis, syntax, and discourse of Chinese English.

One of the sources of data in the book is a set of interviews with undergraduates in Beijing in which they were asked about their hometown; and the wording of one of the responses caught my attention. The interviewee said that he came from a small city in Hebei province, and:
Maybe it is isn't very busy. But I think it's very beautiful. (p. 128)
Now, I would use and rather than but, as to me, being not very busy is beautiful. I always find crowds problematic, which is one reason why living in Brunei suits me well. In contrast, in Chinese culture, crowds are often something to be appreciated.

There is a Chinese phrase 看熱鬧 kàn rènào which is literally 'watch the noisy bustle', and it means to go out and enjoy the noisy crowds on the street. It is rather difficult to translate into English, as noisy crowds are less often regarded as something you can enjoy in western culture.

20 December 2010

Taiwan's Aborigines

Languages always undergo change, and one of the reasons for change is the adoption of more suitable terms to refer to people in order to respect their sensitivities and avoid insulting them. For example, when I was young, people used to refer to Red Indians, but nowadays that is not regarded as appropriate, and we talk about Native Americans instead.

In Taiwan, it is exactly the same. When I was here thirty years ago, the aboriginal tribes were referred to as 山地人 shān dì rén ('mountain people'). But the problem with this is that these people never used to live in the mountains until the arrival of the Han Chinese who chased them out of the plains, so calling them 'mountain people' is rather insulting. As a result, they are now referred to as 原住民 yuán zhù mín ('original folk'), and this is far better.

Of interest to people in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia is that the language they speak is related to Malay. In fact, it is generally believed that Taiwan is the origin of the Austronesian languages. You might say that Malay comes from Taiwan.

One of the ways to demonstrate this is to consider diversity. If you look at English, you will find that there are lots of different varieties in England, and often one town (such as Newcastle) has a completely different accent from the neighbouring town (Sunderland). In contrast, in Australia there is much less regional diversity, so there is not much difference in the speech of those from Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. In just the same way, there is considerable diversity between the Aboriginal languages in Taiwan, though they are still all Austronesian. In contrst, there is less diversity between the different varieties of Malay.

17 December 2010

Taiwan Currency

One of the interesting things I have done here in Taiwan is to talk at length to a blind chap, about how he deals with things here, and some of the frustrations he faces. I asked him about money, and how he knows how much a note is worth. And he told me it is easy. Here is an image of a $1000 note (worth about $50 n Brunei or Singapore):Do you see the metalic strip on the right? It has the number 1000 in raised characters, especially to allow blind people to know how much it is worth.

I wonder how many countries do this. It seems so simple, but I'm not sure that many countries do it. They really do seem to do some things quite well in Taiwan.

15 December 2010

Language in Taiwan

I am now in Taipei for the next two weeks. One of the things I love is being surrounded by Chinese. There are about 100 TV channels, pretty much all of them in Chinese (Mandarin), with no mixing in English. Ever. You can sometimes hear a bit of Taiwanese (Hokkien) mixed in, and I've heard some Hakka, but never English, which suits me just fine.

In Brunei, I mostly watch Astro Awani, and even its Malay-medium news broadcasts have quite a lot of English, particularly when they interview Malaysian politicians, bankers, or doctors. Similarly for the Malaysian TV1 channel. (I can't receive RTB, so I can't comment on the Brunei channels.) Now, I know that mixing is normal, and maybe the regular inclusion of English segments is constructive for developing the language ability of people, but I personally find it really irritating. I can already speak English, so I don't want to hear it on the TV. Furthermore, I detest the way that Astro Awani keep on repeating the same tedious English-language advertisements for their own programmes every single hour. They seem to be doing their best to annoy viewers.

I just love being surrounded with Chinese for these two weeks. I wish I could get the same for Malay when I am in Brunei, but I guess that is not going to happen.

13 December 2010

Lack of Rhoticity

A UBD colleague, someone who like me comes from the south of England, asked me about Macau, and I replied that it is basically one big casino with a few outlets to support the gambling, such as pawn shops.

We talked a bit more and then he said, "Oh, I see, that sort of pawn." He had heard it as porn! Even though pawn makes much more sense in the context.

Of course, if I spoke with a rhotic accent (like an American), that kind of confusion would be unlikely to occur, as pawn and porn would be quite distinct.

It does strike me that my accent is not the clearest way of speaking. And I would recommend that anyone who has rhoticity in their pronunciation should keep it. Maybe I should learn to speak with a rhotic accent in order to enhance the intelligibility of my speech.

10 December 2010

Falling Demand for English

One of the interesting papers at the ESEA conference in Macau was by David Graddol. It included a graph for projected falling demand for English language classes in the near future (from page 99 of his 2006 book English Next):In recent years, the demand for English language classes has been mushrooming, but this is projected to decline as an increasing proportion of young children learn English in school and do not need to attend classes later in life.

David Graddol had some stunning animated graphics in his presentation. I asked him how he managed to get them, and he told them he coded them himself in Javascript. I wish I could write code like that!

09 December 2010

Falling Standards (?)

I am currently at the English in South East Asia (ESEA) conference in Macau, and there are plenty of good papers and lots of interesting people to talk to.

One paper I attended yesterday was by Isabel Martin from the Philippines, and she mentioned the widespread perception of falling standards of English in her country. But are standards really falling? What evidence is there?

The belief that standards of English are deteriorating seems to occur throughout the world, but there seems little evidence for it. For existence, there is a common belief in Singapore that English is getting worse, but is it really? Fifty years ago, English was only learned by a small elite, and maybe they achieved high standards. Nowadays, English is learned by everybody in Singapore, and it makes no sense to compare the standards of the whole population with those of a small elite many years ago.

And what about the Philippines? While it is certaily true that lots of people use Taglish (the mixture of Tagalog and English) and this presumably has a substantial effect on the English that is found there, at the same time there is lots of pressure to learn excellent English, partly because of the opportunities for those with good English of getting well-paid jobs in the call-centre industry. It is hard for me to believe that standards there really are falling.

07 December 2010

More on Researches

A few weeks ago, I wrote (here) about the use of the plural researches, specifically about whether this use that is common in places such as Brunei might be extending into standard English in places such as the USA; and I quoted data from the COCA corpus showing that there are 13 instances of 'my researches' and 20 of 'his researches'.

But what does this mean? Is 13 tokens in a corpus of 410 million words a lot or not? Does it indicate a pattern or just a few isolated instances?

To put it into perspective, we can compare it with 'my research' and 'his research'. The search for "my|your|his|our|their researches" finds a total of 47 instances. In comparison, a search for "my|your|his|our|their research" finds a total of 4787 instances. So it seems that the plural use of researches is about 100 times less common than the singular research in contemporary American English. In other words, singular research predominates.

We can ask several more questions:
  • Is plural researches increasing in frequency?
  • Does plural researches maybe represent some specialist use of the term?
  • What kind of texts does researches tend to occur in?
Clearly, there is lots and lots that can be done with a fantastic on-line resource like COCA.

One final issue: furnitures only finds four tokens (compared with 12,943 for furniture). So clearly the plural use of furnitures, something that is also common in this part of the world, has not become established in American English.

02 December 2010

Speaking like a Native

My UBD colleague, Ann Elgar, is from England, and she tells a story about when she was 19 and could speak German really well. She was travelling around Germany at the time, and she bought a train ticket to go to Cologne. Despite reading the instructions really carefully, she managed to buy the wrong kind of ticket. When the ticket inspector came along, he insisted that she would have to pay the price of a full ticket, and if she refused to do this, he would have her arrested by the transport police when they reached their destination. She argued back that she should not have to pay the full price of a new ticket as the instructions were not clear. After a long, protracted argument, eventually another passenger intervened and asked her how old she was and where she was from. When she replied that she was 19 and from England, the other passenger berated the ticket inspector for giving so much trouble to such a young visitor to Germany. At this point, the ticket inspector apologised, saying he had no idea that she was not German. And she was allowed to proceed with her journey with no further problems.

The moral of this story is that it sometimes does not pay to speak a foreign language too well.

01 December 2010

Jangan Tolak Rezeki

Food is really important in Brunei culture, and it is rude to reject food if it is offered to you. My UBD colleague, Malai Ayla Surya Malai Hj Abdullah, tells me that there is a common saying in Malay, "Jangan tolak rezeki", which might be translated as 'Don't reject good fortune'. In other words, if you are offered something such as food, it could bring bad luck on you if you do not eat it.

She also tells a folk tale about a grain of rice and a mountain of gold. One day, when a fisherman finished his lunch, there was one uneaten grain of rice which he tossed into the river. Feeling dejected, this grain of rice started weeping. Then, as it was floating along in the water, it met a mountain of gold which asked it, "Why are you crying?" When the grain of rice explained that a Bruneian person had declined to eat it and had thrown it away, the mountain of gold said, "I was just going to Brunei. But now I won't, as the people there may not value me. I'd better go somewhere else instead." And this story illustrates why you should never spurn good fortune that comes your way, including food.

29 November 2010

More on two/three

When I sent my previous post to Rich Homer, the flight instructor I mentioned earlier, he replied with the following story which I will quote verbatim:
... about 4 weeks ago I was flying from Labuan airfield back to Brunei with a Bruneian student pilot. The Air Traffic Controller asked us what altitude we wanted to transit back to Brunei at. My student pilot answered saying that we wanted 2000ft. Labuan ATC replied "roger, cleared to transit at 3000ft". My Bruneian student acknowledging the clearance replied "....cleared to 2000ft...". I was now a little bit confused so I said to ATC "...what altitude do you want us to transit at....?". ATC replied "...whatever altitude suits you best..." (or words to that affect). So I said in my British accent "....request 2000ft...". ATC replied "...roger cleared to transit at 3000ft...". Slightly aspirated myself I replied ".....cleared to transit at TREE TOUSAND FEET..." and got on with the rest of the flight.
It is interesting that he believed the best way to sort out the misunderstanding was to use his British accent; but this proved to be no help.

In her work on ELF-based teaching, Jennifer Jenkins stresses the importance of accommodation, adapting your speech to the needs of your listeners. In this case, the instructor did not know how to accommodate to the needs of the listener, so he emphasised his British accent instead. Unfortunately, this was not helpful.

I have explained to him that, if this occurs again, he might pronounce two more like 'do', using something similar to a [d] as the initial consonant. He might also use a fully back [u:] vowel rather than the fronted vowel we tend to use in Britain. Let's hope that this knowledge might help avoid a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding in the future.

26 November 2010

Pronunciation of 'two'

In my previous blog, I mentioned the discussion I had with Rich Homer about confusion between altitude and attitude.

When we started chatting and he asked me what I do, I replied that I do research on vowel measurement, which he found hilarious. (Maybe he heard a /b/ rather than a /v/ at the start?) But then we started talking about problems with speech in Brunei, and he said that people here often mistake his two for three, which he finds hard to understand.

Actually, it's not too difficult to explain it. You need to know three things:
  • In the UK, we tend to have a fronted /u:/ vowel, whereas in Brunei it is a fully back vowel. So it is not surprising if people in Brunei hear a British /u:/ as /i:/.
  • People in Brunei tend to have [t] rather than [θ] at the start of words such as thing and three. So in Brunei, three often starts with [tr].
  • In Malay, an initial /t/ is unaspirated, so two sounds a bit like do in Britain. As a result, an aspirated /t/ at the start of two can easily be misheard as [tr].
When you put these three things together, it is not difficult to explain why two might be heard as three; and a bit of knowledge about phonetics (including the measurement of vowels for the fronting of /u:/) can actually turn out to be useful!

24 November 2010

altitude / attitude

Last night, I was talking to a chap from the UK called Rich Homer who teaches flying to trainee pilots in Brunei, and he told me that confusion between some English words can be a problem here, because of local patterns of pronunciation. When I asked him for some examples, he suggested that altitude and attitude can be confused.

This sounded surprising to me, as I couldn't think of any situation when these two words might be mixed up, so context should always sort it out. But apparently attitude has a technical meaning in flying, as it refers to the tilt of a plane. For example, Concorde used to land with its nose up in the air, and this would be described as its attitude. So you can see that an instructor might ask a student about the altitude of the plane and be given its attitude instead, or vice versa.

What is interesting here is that the problem may be occurring because the /l/ in altitude is being omitted, presumably by a process of L-vocalisation (the /l/ is being pronounced as a vowel). However, though L-vocalisation is common in many New Varieties of English, including that of Singapore, it is also found in the UK, particularly in London English. So this confusion between altitude and attitude is actually liable to happen for speakers throughout the world, not just in South-East Asia. I find it stunning that the aviation industry can use such similar words for such a crucial distinction.

One other consideration is relevant here: in her recent PhD thesis, Salbrina Sharbawi suggested that L-vocalisation does not occur in Brunei English, partly because final /l/ is common in Malay (in words such as ambil 'take' and kapal 'ship') and is not usually vocalised in Malay. So in fact, it is possible that it is the UK instructor's pronunciation that is causing the problem and not the pronunciation of his students.

23 November 2010

hor in the speech of Singapore children

I have just finished reading an interesting article by Goh and Ho (2009), describing the speech of children in Singapore.

The study analyses the speech of three six-year-old children who are referred to as A, B and C. The one with the most developed speech is B, and I will quote his narration of a story (p. 53) in full:
One day hor ... one day hor ... got one ... a girl hor she got wear one purple hat ... then suddenly the wind blow away to one tall tree ... so the elephant ... After that, hor, got one elephant ... but the elephant's trunk not long enough, then she asked the monkey. Then the monkey go and take. Then hor she asked the money take her hat so the monkey climbed on the tree to take her hat for her. Then after that she said, 'Thank you'. Finished.
On reading this, I note how articulate this child is, even if he does have five tokens of the pragmatic particle hor (from Hokkien) and also some non-standard word-usage. And one might note that the 84 words that he uses in retelling his story are far more than those by the other two children (39 words and 22 words). In fact, I might even conclude that the use of hor helps child B to tell his story successfully, and I would expect that, in time, he will learn to avoid such particles when writing and when speaking in formal situations.

While the authors of this article also note the greater fluency of child B compared to the other two, they ask "whether or not he would be intelligible to a non-Singaporean listener" (p. 50) and they conclude that "there should be a strong emphasis on the teaching of standard spoken English in Singapore schools from Primary 1" (p. 52).

While they are absolutely right that it is essential for Singapore students to gain a good command of standard English, I wonder if one really needs to worry about this for six-year-old children. And it seems to me that an obsession with standard English and the avoidance of any errors can stifle the creative joy of using language.

Let us now consider the full narrative of one of the other children in this study, child C (p. 53):
The boy kicked a ball and he fell down into the water er ... Into the water ... erm ... one man saved him ... and people clapped...
There aren't too many errors there, but there's not much language either.

So which sample indicates more advanced language development? Quite clearly it is from child B. And I think a strong argument could be made that his regular use of hor is actually an indication that he is developing sophisticated pragmatic linguistic behaviour. I can't see that it is anything to be concerned about.


Goh, C. C. M, & Ho, G. (2009). Talking beyond the here-and-now: Singaporean preschoolers' use of decontextualized lanuguage. In R. E. Silver, C. C. M. Goh, & L. Alsagoff (Eds.), Language learning in new English contexts (pp. 32-54). London: Continuum.

20 November 2010

Football Idioms

When we are using English as an International Language (or 'English as a Lingua Franca', ELF), Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should avoid use of idioms. For example, she notes that to chill out causes problems for international users of English, and it would be better instead to use relax (Jenkins, 2009, p. 45).

I wonder about this, as it seems to me that, if we avoid all colourful idiomatic phrases, our language becomes incredibly bland. Sometimes I think we should instead be looking to enrich the language, by adopting new idioms from around the world, rather than avoiding idiomatic usage. On the other hand, Jenkins is absolutely right, that we must always be sensitive about how we express ourselves, and if we see that listeners are failing to understand something, we should endeavour to rephrase our ideas in more straightforward terms.

I was thinking about idiomatic usage as I was watching an English Premier League game last night, Arsenal v. Tottenham. And I noted down the following idiosyncratic football idioms from the commentators:
  • Arshavin was on his bike
  • Arshavin wasn't going to allow him to get up a head of steam
  • Arsenal can put it to bed before half time.
  • in comparison with the Manchester derby a couple of weeks ago, chalk and cheese
  • credit again to Gallas for slamming the door shut
  • that would be a real feather in the cap for Harry Redknapp
Football commentary is full of these phrases, some of which seem to be idiosyncratic for football. Are they clichés, reflecting the tedious usage of commentators who don't have the time or imagination to think up something fresh and original? Or are they part of the colourful, idiosyncratic language associated especially with football commentary?

One way or another, I feel sorry for foreign language learners who struggle to grasp what is going on. A very common phrase in football commentary is under the cosh, to indicate that a team is under a lot of pressure; and I can imagine a learner of English looking up cosh, finding it is some kind of weapon, and then puzzling over this phrase. In reality, most native speakers who know the phrase under the cosh have no clue what a cosh is.

So, should we avoid using such phrases in international settings? My feeling is that it's fine to use them just so long as you are always sensitive about the potential for being misunderstood and are then prepared to rephrase yourself using other terms. In linguistics, we say this is part of accommodation, and it is an essential skill for successful international communication.


Jenkins, J. (2009). Exploring attitudes towards English as a Lingua Franca in the East Asian context. In K. Murata & J. Jenkins (Eds.) Global Englishes in Asian contexts: Current and future debates (pp. 40-56). Basingstoke, UK: Continuum.

17 November 2010

APA Style

As editor of our FASS journal South East Asia: A Multidisciplinary Journal, I need to apply a consistent formatting system, and we are using the APA style. Just today, my UBD colleague, Gary Jones, gave me a copy of the APA style book (published in 2005):Quite apart from the observation that a tome with 212 pages is hardly concise, there are some startling comments on grammar. For example, see if you can guess what they think is wrong with the following two sentences from page 14, both of which are labelled as "incorrect":
  • These data only provide a partial answer.
  • The participants were tested using this procedure.
The answers are that, in the first, the word only "should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies", and that, in the second, there is a "dangling modifier", as there is no obvious subject for using. The suggested correct versions are:
  • These data provide only a partial answer.
  • Using this procedure, I tested the participants.
This is absolute nonsense. There is nothing at all wrong with either of the sentences, and it is stunning to see such rubbish promoted by people who clearly have no clue.

Language Log has a long history of campaigning against such idiocy from self-professed style experts (eg here). It looks like the APA style book is a prime candidate for their analysis.

16 November 2010

A Jolly Hangman

I was interested to read (here) that the British author Alan Shandrake has been jailed for six weeks for writing a book about the death penalty in Singapore.

The authorities in Singapore are concerned about the contents of this book. However, there seems no better way to guarantee it gets maximum publicity than to imprison its author. (This is sometimes known as the 'Streisand Effect', after attempts in 2003 by Barbara Streisand to restrict access to pictures of her house had exactly the opposite effect, by ensuring that lots and lots of people had a good look at the pictures that had upset her.)

Now, if I could get someone to ban my Edinburgh University Press book on Singapore English, that would do wonders for sales. I might even consider traveling especially to Singapore to promote it if I could guarantee to be arrested! Surely someone important somewhere must have been just a little bit annoyed by things I said?

13 November 2010


My UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, tells me that in Malay there is a common expression:
Anda anak keberapa.
which might be translated as "Among your siblings, which number are you?" Note how difficult it is to ask this question in English.

Similarly, in Chinese, you can ask:
你   在   家 中       排 行   第几
ni   zai jia-zhong paihang di-ji
you at house-in   rank which-number
My dictionary glosses 排行 as "one's seniority among brothers and sisters", which is a good explanation even if it is rather clumsy in English.

Why does English lack a word for this? The first thing to note is that seniority among brothers and sisters is less important in the English-speaking world than in East Asian societies. For example, Both Malay and Chinese differentiate older and younger brother (Malay: abang/adik; Chinese: 哥哥/弟弟) while English does not. So it is not entirely surprising that English does not have a word for one's family ranking.

However, there is a wider issue here, something that has been discussed by Arnold Zwicky in his blog (here): you can state "Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States", but how do you ask a question of this? "Which numbered president of the United States is Barack Obama?" is not grammatical.

It seems that English lacks an expression for asking "which number". Some people have suggested manyeth, so you might ask "Which manyeth president is Barack Obama?", but this has not caught on.

We usually say that, even if a language does not have a word for something, one can almost always express the concept by some other means. But it really does seem that English has no easy way to ask this question.

Try another example: "It is now the eleventh month of the year." Now try and make that into a question. "Which month of the year is it now?" probably gives you the answer "November", not "The eleventh".

09 November 2010

Linking [r]

In British English, we do not usually have an /r/ at the end of a word. But if the next word begins with a vowel, a word-final 'r' may be pronounced as what we call a 'linking [r]'. As a result, "four eggs" may be pronounced as [fɔːregz].

However, there is a question of whether this linking [r] is identical to a full /r/. For example, is "your eyes" pronounced exactly the same as "your rise"? Are both pronounced as [jɔːraɪz]? Or is the linking [r] that can occur at the end of your a bit less prominent than the initial /r/ that occurs in rise?

I was reminded of this when I was discussing translation with a colleague, and I suggested that one day automatic interpretation might be possible, perhaps with a device just like the bablefish that is described in Douglas Adams' futuristic Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. My colleague said, "You just put it in your ear". Then, after thinking for a moment, he said, "Let me say that more carefully" and repeated the sentence with a pause between your and ear, thereby eliminating any possibility of a linking [r].

If "your ear" is said fast and the linking [r] becomes the same as a word-initial /r/, then the phrase "You put it in your ear" becomes a bit unfortunate.

08 November 2010


I always tell my students that research is a non-count noun, so *my researches and *a research are incorrect. But is this true?

I noted the following extract from an article on page A5 of The Brunei Times of 7 November 2010, which suggests that research is nowadays changing and becoming a count noun.
But what about in the English found in other countries, such as the UK or USA?

Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly straightforward to check such things. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is available on-line (here), offering immediate searches on 410 million words of contemporary American English.

A search on "researches" is not much good, as the word can be used as a third-person singular present-tense verb. So I searched instead for "my researches". And I found 13 instances of this sequence:
  • and my researches and forecasts will allow us to ...
  • that I include my researches on micro-adaptations ...
  • in all my researches, I find none prior to them ...
  • push my researches up to the very spring-head ...
  • During my researches in the Leviathanic histories, ...
  • those who helped me in my researches in Lebanon ...
  • I drew my own conclusions from my researches.
  • from my researches I find it doubtful that ...
  • after I had finished my researches on the Marquis de ...
  • My researches did reveal that John H. Fouch was ...
  • I also noted in my researches into such dubious matters ...
  • is in the nature of my researches and in the nature of ...
  • From my researches, which included an interview with
In fact, a search for "his researches" found even more: 20.

It seems, therefore, that research is nowadays being used quite widely as a count noun. Maybe I should no longer correct the writing of my students.

05 November 2010

kiasu in Brunei?

Singaporeans are famed for being kiasu, a Hokkien word meaning 'fear of losing out'. For example, people in Singapore seem to be willing to queue up for hours to get some special offer or free handout.

What about Brunei? What is the equivalent of kiasu in Malay?

One possible answer is that the pace of life in Brunei is somewhat less intense, and as people are a bit more laid-back, they do not exhibit kiasu behaviour so often.

However, the desire to get a special offer or handout seems almost a universal human trait. In Britain, for example, you can see people queuing up for hours and then jostling with each other to get the best bargains in New Year sales. And Brunei is probably no exception in this respect.

Currently, there is a special offer for a free selection of Brunei Halal food worth about $10, using this coupon in the Media Permata local newspaper. (Tawaran Istimewa means 'special offer'.)
On page 1 of Media Permata of 6 November, I read about people queuing up for 30 minutes before the shop opened to get their special offer, and one person is described as:
beliau tidak ketinggalan untuk menukar kupon dengan produk-produk Brunei Halal
which might be translated as:
he did not want to be left behind in exchanging his coupon for Brunei Halal products
So maybe tidak tinggalan ('not left behind') is the Malay equivalent of kiasu.

04 November 2010


There is an interesting discussion by John Wells on his Phonetic Blog (here) about the way spelling can influence pronunciation. For example:
  • forehead used to be pronounced as /ˈfɒrɪd/ (so it rhymed with horrid), but now it is usually /ˈfɔːhed/
  • scallop was once /ˈskɒləp/ but now for most people it is /ˈskæləp/
  • falcon used to be /ˈfɔːkən/ but now increasingly it is /ˈfælkən/
  • the 't' in often was once generally silent, but the word seems increasingly to be /ˈɒftən/
The incidence of such "spelling pronunciations" seems to be even greater in places such as Brunei. For example, salmon almost always has an /l/ in it, even though the 'l' is traditionally silent; and subtle generally has a /b/, even though the /b/ would be silent for most people in Britain or the USA.

Another spelling pronunciation I hear very commonly in Brunei is company with /ɒ/ rather than /ʌ/ in the first syllable. In fact, in recordings of undergraduates at UBD, I found that 13 out of 20 have /ɒ/ in the first syllable of this word.

This is not entirely surprising. In fact, the English town Coventry was once pronounced with /ʌ/ in the first syllable but now it generally has /ɒ/; and similarly the /ʌ/ in the first syllable of constable is now /ɒ/ for some speakers.

I suspect that Bruneians are actually at the forefront of linguistic change in the way they pronounce company. In fifty years time, everyone will be saying it that way, except perhaps for a few old-fashioned traditionalists in Britain.

02 November 2010


Two different people have told me about this instance of army slang in Brunei: putmama meaning 'food warmer'. It doesn't seem to occur outside of the army, as my first-year undergraduates have heard of wamar (from 'warmer'), but not putmama.

My guess is that it hints at being rude, as is perhaps not surprising for army slang. The mama part could also mean 'mother'; and the put? I'll let you work out for yourself what that might be.

30 October 2010


I just saw a statistic (here) that teenage girls in the USA send an average of 135 text messages every day. I find that number mind-boggling.

Even though I am an old fogey, mostly out of touch with such new-fangled things as texting, I do know how to do it. In fact, I probably send at least one message a week! Sometimes even two.

Do my students in Brunei on average send as many as 135 messages a day? Maybe they send even more. A couple of days ago, I told my MA student that I only use my mobile phone two or three times a week, and her draw dropped in stunned incredulity. I guess there's a generation difference here. (Or maybe it's just that I'm a bit of a loner with not too many friends!)

29 October 2010


The word for 'underwear' in Brunei Malay seems to be spindit, and this is presumably from English.

But where does it come from? My colleague, Adrian Clynes, thinks it is from 'spandex'.

If it became truly indigenised, the initial /sp/ would presumably be broken into different syllables. Thus 'hospital' becomes sapitar in Brunei Malay, and 'spanner' becomes sapanar. Perhaps spindit is really sapindit, or maybe it will become that in time.

28 October 2010

More on Subject-Verb Agreement

In my previous posting, I discussed whether treating "use of these phrases" as a plural subject should be regarded as an error or not.

On further reflection, I realised that there is more to this than simple identification of the head noun. For example, both of the following sentences are perfectly OK, even though, strictly speaking, couple and pair are singular nouns:
A couple of birds were flying past.
A pair of swans were swimming in the river.
In fact, there are quite a lot of examples like that. In the following two sentences, crowd and majority are singular nouns, but there seems little problem in treating the subject as plural:
A crowd of people were singing.
The majority of the people were happy.
Maybe the possibility of treating phrases with couple, pair, crowd, and majority as plural is nowadays being extended to use. So perhaps treating "use of these phrases" as a plural subject is not an error at all.

Maybe this is an area where English is undergoing change. And perhaps this is one more area where my students are ahead of me in reflecting the ways the language is evolving.

Subject-Verb Agreement

In my previous posting, I discussed non-standard grammar usage in the writing of my students. In particular, I raised the issue of whether I should be correcting it or not. One thing I did not mention but could have is non-standard subject-verb agreement, something that is rather common in their writing.

I was reminded of this as I was reading a paper by Barbara Seidlhofer and Henry Widdowson in a recent book edited by Kumiko Murata and Jennifer Jenkins (Global Englishes in Asian Contexts: Current and Future Debates, Continuum, 2009).

Here is an abstract from page 32 of their paper:
the use of these phrases also serve to establish rapport ...
Note the use of serve which fails to agree with use, the singular noun that is the head of the subject. Traditionally, we would expect serves rather than serve.

I have a number of questions about this:
  • Did Seidlhofer and Widdowson notice this but decide to keep it anyway?
  • Did the editors notice it and decide to leave it, in keeping with a policy of being tolerant about variation in English?
  • Is this becoming the norm in English now, so maybe proximity is the deciding factor in the inflection of the verb (i.e. the plural phrases overrides the singular use because it is closer to the verb)?
  • Is this something I should allow my students to do?
I tend to indicate subject-verb agreement mismatches as an error in the writing of my students. But maybe this is not appropriate.

26 October 2010

Standards of Written English

I have just finished grading some first-year written assignments, and as I was doing this, I was wondering how much of the material I should be marking as incorrect.

Many people nowadays believe that there should be substantial latitude for the way people speak: there is no need for someone to pretend to come from the UK if they don't come from the UK, so it is fine to sound Bruneian or Singaporean just so long as you remain easily intelligible. But what about writing? How much should I allow my students to develop a local style of writing?

I often come across sentences like:
My sister, she speaks Malay at home.
My father, he uses only Brunei Malay to talk with us.
I feel that these are not well written, as it would be better to say:
My sister speaks English at home.
My father uses only Brunei Malay to talk with us.
However, placing the topic prominently out at the front of the sentence seems to be a feature of local English, not just in Brunei but in Singapore as well. So should I oppose it? Am I imposing an inner-circle bias against local norms?

Another sentence I constantly see is:
A research was carried out.
For me, this is ungrammatical, as research is a non-count noun, so it cannot be preceded by the indefinite article. But am I fighting a losing battle? Is research becoming a count noun, in this part of the world at least, to join furniture, advice, lighting and many more?

Finally, I tend to correct sentences such as this:
I stayed in Maura when I was young.
For me, stay is for a short time (like a couple of weeks), while we use live for longer periods of residence. However, in Brunei and also Singapore, stay and live seem to be synonyms.

Note that these represent three different areas: the use of prominent topic fronting is discourse; the issue with count and non-count nouns involves grammar; and the use of stay or live is lexical.

So, should I be correcting any of them? My feeling is that I should, as only by doing that will I help my students to improve their English and thereby enhance their future prospects. But I admit that I am being hypocritical, as in much of my work I insist on being descriptive, not prescriptive; and, in theory at least, I support the emergence of regional varieties of English.

I have no easy answer to this question.

21 October 2010

Paternity Leave

Any statement that a language doesn't have a word for something is nearly always flawed. For example, absurd claims have been made that Gypsies don't have a word for duty (here) while Bulgarian doesn't have a word for integrity (here), and such claims turn out to be preposterous. In fact, on Language Log Mark Lieberman says that if anyone "makes a sociolinguistic point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong" (here).

However, it does seem that sometimes a concept is not easily expressed in a particular language. I mentioned this in an early blog (here), where I suggested that Malay does not seem to have a common equivalent for preventive maintenance.

An article on page 3 of Media Permata of 22 October 2010 outlining a recent titah ('speech') by His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei discusses maternity leave, and there is a direct equivalent for this in Malay: cuti bersalin (literally 'holiday for giving birth'). However, the fourth paragraph of this article also mentions paternity leave, and it seems that there is no equivalent of this in Malay. In fact, after giving the English term, instead of offering an equivalent phrase in Malay, the article provides an explanation: "cuti khas bagi suami wanita yang baru malahirkan anak" ("special holiday for the husband of a woman who has just given birth to a child").

It does seem, therefore, that there is currently no commonly-used equivalent in Malay for paternity leave.

19 October 2010


This morning I spent three and a half hours waiting to get the extension to my Brunei Identification Card processed. Not a lot of fun. On the other hand, the room was air-conditioned and the seats were reasonably comfortable, so I was able to read my book on phonology and also grade some student assignments. In the end, it was actually quite a productive morning, even if waiting for three and a half hours in a crowded room is not exactly my favourite activity.

What I found stunning was that almost none of the hundred or so other people waiting there was reading, and I find it amazing that people can sit there for so long and feel no need or desire to use the time by reading a book. Now, some of them were intermittently chatting, so that's fine. And maybe others were resting, so I guess that's also a good use of time. But how come nobody reads a book?

Brunei has a verbal culture, and reading plays little part in it. I see my students sitting around, sometimes chatting but more often vacantly staring into space, and I wonder what I can do to get them to use the time more productively, by reading their textbooks, or reviewing their lecture notes, or preparing for class or something.

On the other hand, there is one thing about Brunei that is impressive: the patience of people who can wait for so long without complaining. You see it in the traffic as well: people will sit there for however long it takes, and nobody ever sounds their horn. Ever. And that is something that is really nice.

I'd love to find a way to encourage reading here. But at the same time I can appreciate some aspects of the easy-going attitude towards life.

17 October 2010

kurul / matuka

I find borrowings into Brunei Malay fascinating.

My first-year students told me about the quiff of hair that was worn by Elvis: in Brunei Malay, it was known as a kurul. My dictionary lists it but does not show it as derived from English, even though it pretty obviously comes from curl. The derivation is not too surprising: although Brunei Malay can have an /r/ at the end of a word (banar 'true'; basar 'big', etc), /rl/ at the end of a word would not be good, so curl is broken into two syllables.

And then there is matuka ('motorcar'). Notice the absence of a schwa (/ə/) in the second syllable, which becomes /u/ in the three-vowel /i, a, u/ system of Brunei Malay. The only surprising thing about this one is that the first syllable is /a/ rather than /u/.

11 October 2010


I have previously discussed borrowings into Brunei Malay (here), especially the ways they undergo unexpected phonological change.

Some of my students told me about an interesting one that has me baffled: kutin (from English 'tin'). Why does it have 'ku' on the front?

The use of an extra syllable can be explained, as there is a strong tendency in Malay for bisyllabic roots. But why 'ku'? I have no idea.

My UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, suggests that /ku/ is a particularly unstable sequence at the start of a word. For example kucing /kutʃiŋ/ ('cat') is ucing in Brunei Malay; but note this involves the loss of an initial /k/, not the addition of one. So the extra /ku/ at the start of kutin remains a mystery.

Maybe the word is not borrowed after all, though the colleagues I have asked all seem to believe that it is.

08 October 2010

Working in the Private Sector

It seems to be the ambition of most people in Brunei to work for the government. Presumably this is because the government treats its workers well, with good perks and also a job for life.

One side-effect of this is that people are unwilling to work in the private sector. Indeed, most students at UBD seem keen to get a government job after they graduate.

I was reminded of this when reading an assignment submitted by one of my students. In describing her family, she said:
Thus some of us work with the government as educational officer, immigration officer, army and teacher while two of my siblings only work as private company workers.
Note the use of only in reference to those who work in the private sector!

There is nowadays a realisation that the government cannot continue to try to provide jobs for everyone, and there is a need to generate a spirit of entrepeneurism. Time will tell how effective this is.


Have you ever tried to contact AirAsia? Or use their website? It's quite an experience.

I just tried to contact their "LiveChat" feedback facility. I got this message:
An online representative will be with you shortly. You are number 49 in queue. Your wait time will be approximately 171 minute(s). Thank you for waiting.
Shortly? 171 minutes? Ha! Brilliant. I guess their definition of shortly is a bit different from mine.

06 October 2010

chi feng

I have previously discussed calques, the word-for-word translation from one language into another, e.g. mouse trail (from Malay jalan tikus) and kenderaan pacuan empat roda (from English four wheel drive vehicle) (here).

In fact, there are similar calques between all the regional languages. An example is Malay makan angin (lit. 'eat wind'; "to go for a walk", "to go on vacation") becoming 吃風 (chī fēng) in Chinese, though maybe this should really be shown in Hokkien, as jia hong. I have never heard this usage in Taiwan, and I don't think it would be understood in Mainland China, but my UBD colleague Low Kok Wai tells me it is common in the Chinese spoken in Singapore.

03 October 2010

Multilingual Signs

Here is a sign I saw in a restaurant in Kuala Lurah, just over the border from Brunei in Sarawak (Malaysia).Not only are there three different languages (English, Malay, Chinese) together with some helpful pictures, but there is also multiple cross-linguistic borrowing: pai kut ('pork chop') is borrowed from Hokkien into English; and sotong ('squid') is borrowed from Malay into Chinese as 苏东. (The first character is not written quite right − but never mind, people can understand it just fine.)

I love the chaotic profusion of languages, borrowings, and drawings.

30 September 2010


A word that seems to get used rather a lot in Brunei is poklen, to describe someone who is unsophisticated, a kind of 'country bumpkin'. Maybe the Singapore equivalent is a-beng.

There used to be a Wikipedia page which claimed that poklen came from Portland. It stated that most people supported fashionable English football teams such as Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool, but others went to the other extreme and supported Portland, the least fashionable team. The trouble with this is that there is no team called Portland. Portsmouth, yes, and one can sympathise with the poor souls who continue to support Portsmouth. But Portland does not exist and never has existed. In other words, the story is a complete myth. (Thankfully, the Wikipedia page has now been removed.)

A more credible explanation was told me by my UBD colleague, Salbrina Sharbawi. She says poklen comes from Falklands, which are rather remote islands in the south Atlantic. The initial /f/ becoming /p/ makes sense, as Malay does not have a /f/, except in a few words borrowed from Arabic such as faham ('to understand') and fikir ('to think').

Does poklen really come from Falklands? We'll probably never know for certain.

28 September 2010

baucar, pancit, mancis

In my previous post, I suggested that borrowings into Brunei Malay often undergo substantial phonological change, while those into Standard Malay are usually more direct. However, there are exceptions: baucar ('voucher'), pancit ('punctured') and mancis ('match') are not at all transparent.

First, baucar. The initial /v/ of English becomes /b/ in Malay because /v/ is not a native sound in Malay. However, some borrowings do maintain the /v/, including visa and vasksin ('vaccine'). I'm not sure what the difference is. Perhaps baucar has been in the language for longer, so it has become more nativised. My colleague, Adrian Clynes, suggests it may also be because baucar is a common word, while only people who travel abroad need visas, and vaksin is a medical term.

Then there's pancit. This one caught me out when I saw it in the newspaper, even in the context of a car stuck on the shoulder of the highway; but once you realise that the final /t/ comes from the -ed suffix in English, maybe it's not so strange after all.

Finally, mancis. This seems to come from the plural, 'matches', which perhaps makes sense as we rarely see matches on their own. But where does the /n/ come from? That has me baffled.

23 September 2010

English Borrowings

There are lots of borrowings from English into Standard Malay, but most borrowed words remain reasonably transparent: lif ('lift'), pos ('post'), psikologi ('psychology'), aktiviti ('activity'), ekonomi ('economy'), kem ('camp'), setem ('stamp'), arkib ('archive'), etc.

In contrast some of the borrowings into Brunei Malay undergo rather a lot of phonological change. My dictionary shows borrowings from English with 'Ig' (short for 'Inggeris'), and it can be fun to go through and try to work out what the original words were.

For example, gustan ('reverse') seems to come from 'go astern', guhit ('go forward') is presumably from 'go ahead', isbuk ('fridge') is from 'ice-box', and stimbai ('to get ready') is derived from 'stand by'.

Occasionally, the dictionary fails to mark some with 'Ig', possibly because the origin is too well hidden. Thus parimpan is from 'frying pan', but the dictionary does not mark it as from English.

Often the representation of a borrowed word gives some insight into the phonology of Brunei Malay. For example, the English 'ice cream' becomes sakirim, illustrating the tendency for a consonant-vowel syllable and the avoidance of the /skr/ cluster.

In other cases, the reason for the change is hard to determine. For example, 'ticket' becomes kikit. Maybe there is a tendency for consonants to be repeated, which might explain why the medial /k/ occurs at the start as well. But takut ('fear') is a perfectly good indigenous word, and it has a /t/-/k/-/t/ sequence. My colleague, Adrian Clynes, suggests that words indicating strong emotions often break the rules of phonology, and maybe takut fits into this category.

This seems a fascinating topic for further investigation.

20 September 2010

More on Intonation

In my previous post, I discussed the learning of English intonation, particularly the presentation given in Zhenjiang by Francis Nolan and also the use in China of John Wells's book on intonation.

John Wells has discussed this issue in his own blog (here), agreeing with my contention that there is no need for learners of English to try to imitate every single feature of British intonation, particularly the fine detail such as the tones at the start of an intonational phrase that are covered in later chapters of the book.

I am trying to learn Malay, and I try to imitate the recordings I have as closely as possible. On the other hand, I have no delusions that I will ever sound like a native speaker, especially given my limited opportunities to actually speak Malay to anyone; and I don't particularly want to sound like a native speaker. My goal is to achieve clear, fluent speech, to be able to say whatever I want clearly and intelligibly. And I feel that that should be the goal of learners of English. It really doesn't make a lot of sense to try and pretend you come from England if you don't.

Francis Nolan made another astute point in connection with this: if you speak perfect RP English, with all the tonal distinctions of a native speaker, then listeners will expect you also to be familiar with all aspects of English culture. They will expect you to know who Ena Sharples was, and they will feel free to make obscure allusions to Monty Python sketches. If you are not familiar with such things, then you are better off speaking well, clearly, and fluently with a little bit of a non-native accent.

17 September 2010

British Intonation

In his presentation at the recent conference held at the Jiangsu University of Science and Technology, Francis Nolan argued that, when speaking English, it is important to get the focus of information right using standard sentence stress, and it is also important to get lexical stress right as otherwise people will not be able to understand the words. However, it is not so important to imitate the finer distinctions of the intonational tunes of native speakers, partly because there is a huge amount of variation in tone usage in Britain and elsewhere, so listeners are accustomed to hearing substantial differences among the people they talk to. To support this, he played lots of data from speakers from around the UK and Ireland, and I thought he made a very convincing case.

The next day, some participants came up and thanked him for his wonderful presentation and then asked him to explain the difference between a high head and a rising head in an intonational phrase. In other words, they were asking about details that he had been arguing really don't make a lot of difference.

When he tried to make this point once more, they insisted that the difference must be important, as it is shown in English Intonation: An Introduction by John Wells.

I don't remember the exact examples they used, but I believe they were from page 225 of the book, which discusses possible responses to the question "Where are your essays?":The text in the book observes that (i) shows emotional involvement, (ii) is factual and unemotional, (iii) is a protest, and (iv) is an emphatic protest.

While this is almost certainly an accurate description of the intonational patterns of native speakers of RP British English, there is no way that listeners will misunderstand the message if a non-native speaker uses a rising head rather than a high head. But the questioner was adamant that the distinction is absolutely vital. It is in the book by John Wells, she insisted, so it must be important.

I doubt very much if John Wells has ever argued that learners of English need to imitate every single nuance of the RP system of intonation. But it seems impossible to get this message across in China.

One further issue is pertinent here: it is extremely difficult, without sounding condescending, to convey the message that learners of English do not need to imitate British English so closely. And I don't know how to get round this. It is something I strongly believe, but at the same time I am aware that I probably sound quite patronising when I say it.

However, it really is true: if you speak clearly and well, so listeners can understand everything you say with ease, then they will be paying attention to what you are saying rather than how you say it. And while it is absolutely vital always to speak clearly and well, there is no need to try and pretend that you come from England.

Pronunciation Norms in China

In July, while I was at the University of Regensburg in Germany, I discussed the pronunciation norms I encountered (here), observing that German speakers of English adhere quite strictly to an external norm, usually that of either the UK or USA, and there is little acceptance in the possibility of a localised pronunciation norm. In contrast, in an outer-circle place such as Singapore, there is more widespread acceptance that it is OK to sound Singaporean just so long as you speak clearly and well. In fact, in Singapore, for a local person to sound completely British sounds rather absurd.

Like Germany, China is in the expanding circle, and there is a strong focus towards native norms of pronunciation, either British or American. Sometimes this borders on the obsessive, with speakers attempting to achieve every last nuance of RP patterns of intonation, even though minor differences in a rising or level head to an intonational phrase really don't make that much difference. I'll discuss this issue again in my next posting, in connection with the reaction to the presentation by the other keynote speaker at the conference I was attending in Zhenjiang, Francis Nolan of Cambridge University.

However, there is one feature of native speech that people in China are reluctant to imitate. In my presentation, I pointed out (playing lots of examples) that BBC announcers regularly omit the word-final /t/ or /d/ in phrases like 'last night', 'most people' and 'world class'. But people in China are convinced that this is lazy pronunciation and generally avoid it. So, in fact, there are limitations to the degree to which they imitate native patterns of speech.

(If you want to read my paper that analyses /t,d/ deletion in BBC speech, it is available on-line here.)

16 September 2010

same hue

It is really too easy to find signs in China that are poorly translated; and this will be the last post I will do on that topic.

Some mis-translations can be revealing about the speech of the sign-writer, such as the use of 'sport' instead of 'spot' in my previous post. And others can indicate a dependence on looking things up in a dictionary without checking with someone who has reasonable competence in English, such as my earlier post about 'Disperses the channel'. But this one near a pagoda in the Jinshan Park in Zhenjiang has me baffled:While there is nothing too much wrong with the English, the Chinese actually says "river sky one glance", the idea being that you can get a panoramic view from the top of the pagoda, taking in everything in a single glance. So where does 'hue' come from?

It seems that the sign writer in this case does not understand Chinese, and has mistaken the character 览 to mean 'colour' ('hue') rather than the true meaning 'to glance'. Very strange!

14 September 2010

Scenic Sport

In my previous post, I mentioned the poor English of signs in China, often caused by depending on a dictionary rather than someone with reasonable competence in English.

However, in this sign, the writer has clearly not used a dictionary, as any dictionary would tell you it should be spot rather than sport.Before I went to China, I was under the impression that most learners of English in China follow an American model. However, it is unlikely that anyone with an American accent would confuse sport and spot, because of the /r/ in sport. In contrast, someone whose pronunciation was based on British English might well make this mistake, as there is no /r/ in sport in a Southern British accent, and the two words can easily be confused by a speaker with no vowel length distinctions. In fact, pronouncing sport and spot identically is common in Singapore. (Maybe the sign-writer actually came from Singapore!)

I was told while I was there that many young people aspire to speak American English, because it is regarded as modern and cool and also because they watch lots of Amercan films (sorry, movies). But the overwhelming majority of speakers still aim for a British accent.

13 September 2010

English in China

I have just spent five days in China, as a guest of the Jiangsu University of Science and Technology in Zhenjiang (Jiangsu Province). This is the entrance gate of the campus.One of the reasons I have not written any entries in the past week is that my blog cannot be accessed from China, and that is something I confirmed while I was there. The site is blocked. Well, I guess it means that nobody there can get offended by anything I say!

It has become almost an international sport to comment on the poor English found on signs in China, so I feel I should contribute my own offerings. This sign is in a scenic park in Zhenjiang. 'Escape Route' might have been a better translation into English. My guess is that 'Disperses the channel' arises because someone looked up the words in a dictionary and failed to consult anyone who can actually speak English.

05 September 2010

agak (again)

In my previous post, I discussed the dictionary entry for the Malay word agak and suggested that 'pretty' was not a very good gloss for it.

In fact, there are some further issues regarding this entry; and for this, I should show the entry in full:This shows that, with the appropriate prefix, agak means 'to guess'.

The issue here is that the core meaning of agak is 'guess' or 'estimate'. (I have confirmed this by asking various Malay colleagues at UBD.) But the most common meaning of the word is 'quite' or 'very' (or 'pretty', if you go with my dictionary). So, which should be shown in the dictionary: the core meaning, or the most common meaning?

This is a conundrum encountered by all lexicographers. For example, Judy Gilbert, an American pronunciation teacher and writer, has suggested a similar issue with the English word summit: its core meaning is 'the top of a mountain'; but its most common meaning nowadays is 'a meeting between national leaders'. So, which of these should be given priority in a dictionary?

My own belief is that they should both be listed, with 'top of a mountain' clearly shown as the core meaning, but 'important meeting' also listed.

However, one way or another, the gloss of agak as 'pretty' is pretty bad!

29 August 2010


In my previous posting, I discussed the entry in my dictionary for the Malay word lumayan and suggested that it is misleading to give 'handsome' as the English equivalent.

Here is another entry which I regard as rather strange.The problem with this is that, in English, pretty as an adverb premodifying an adjective ('pretty good', 'pretty strange, 'pretty sure', ...) only occurs in informal usage, and the dictionary fails to mention this. Furthermore, this is not the basic meaning of pretty.

I feel it would have been better to offer 'quite' or 'very' as the English equivalent of agak.

26 August 2010


Here's a rather surprising entry in my Malay-English dictionary:The trouble with this is that, in English, the word handsome in the sense of 'lucrative' really only occurs together with the word profit. It is almost like a fixed phrase, and so glossing the word lumayan as handsome is rather misleading.

Now, one shouldn't make statements like I have just done without first checking one's facts, preferably in a large corpus of modern data. I don't have easy access to one of those, but a quick-and-easy way of checking things is to search for the phrase (in double quotes) in Google. And that gives the following results:
93,800 : handsome profit
15,300 : handsome prize
 6,860 : handsome cost
 4,860 : handsome wage
 2,020 : handsome advantage
This suggests that, although handsome can sometimes occur with other words, handsome profit is by far the most common collocation, so my claim that it is a fixed phrase is partially confirmed.

The trouble with dictionaries is that they don't tend to show collocational information like that. Now, to its credit, my dictionary does offer an example sentence, and indeed, most of the illustrative sentences it gives are incredibly valuable. Even so, I feel that giving the English equivalent of lumayan as handsome is a bit misleading.

24 August 2010

that'll teach you

My daughter lives in Australia. When I asked her about the recent election, she told me that she had had trouble voting, maybe because she had only registered during the last hour of the last day of the registration period. In response I said to her, "That'll teach you to leave things till the last moment."

Just think about that sentence. If I teach you to play the piano, I hope that my teaching will help you to improve a bit; and if I teach you phonetics, I also expect you to learn something about phonetics.

So why do we say "That'll teach you to ...." when what we mean is exactly the opposite. What I really meant was: That will give you a good lesson NOT to leave things to the last moment.

So why do we say exactly the opposite of what we mean? And how come people understand a sentence like the one I used without batting an eyelid, and usually without noticing that there might be something peculiar about it?

Language is sometimes a deep mystery!

20 August 2010


When teaching introductory morphology, I occasionally discuss the word structure of Malay, to enable students to appreciate that the linguistic analysis of language does not apply just to English.

One important issue for Malay morphology is identifying the root of a word; and I ask my students what the root of penyelia ('supervisor') is.

The answer is: selia. And you have to know this if you want to find the word in a dictionary. The problem here is that selia does not exist as an independent morpheme, so we might describe it as a bound root. Here is the entry in my Collins dictionary:What is rather surprising is that most of my first-year students do not know this, and they look bemused when I tell them that selia is the root. This indicates that they would not be able to use a Malay dictionary to look up the meaning of a word such as this.

I find this very strange. I always have an English dictionary available, and I regularly check the meaning or pronunciation of English words. But speakers of Malay in Brunei do not seem to do this for their own language.

19 August 2010


In my previous post, I discussed the advantage of Malay spelling, as 'ngg' indicates the pronunciation /ŋg/ while 'ng' indicates /ŋ/, whereas English spelling provides no help over this distinction. Indeed, Malay spelling is much more transparent than English spelling. However there are some exceptions.

Pronunciation is generally not shown in Malay dictionaries, presumably on the assumption that it can be predicted from the spelling. But one problem is that the letter 'e' in Malay can be pronounced /e/ or /ə/, and it is often not possible to guess which one. So, for example, perang can be pronounced /pəraŋ/, in which case it means 'war', or it can be pronounced /peraŋ/, in which case it means 'brown'. The Kamus Dwibahasa published by Oxford shows these two words as follows:This gives no indication that the two words might be pronounced differently, which seems a real problem. I believe that, in failing to provide this information, this dictionary is flawed.

In contrast, some dictionaries do show the distinction. Here are the same two words in Collins Easy Learning Kamus DwibahasaThis is much more helpful, as /e/ is indicated using an acute accent over the letter: 'é'. It seems, therefore, that the Collins dictionary is far superior.

There are plenty of other contrasts like this:
  • bela ('to keep') vs béla ('to defend')
  • beri ('to give') vs béri ('berry')
  • semak ('undergrowth') vs sémak ('to check')
and doubtless many more. The Collins dictionary helpfully shows all these distinctions, while the Oxford one does not.

14 August 2010


There is a sign at Tasek Lama advising people to be careful in following the Jungle Trail because of landslides. Originally, it was spelt "Junggle Trail" (though this has now been corrected).

What is interesting about this is that the use of 'ngg' would be correct in Malay, as 'ng' is pronounced /ŋ/ while 'ngg' is pronounced /ŋg/ − a very useful distinction. In contrast, English spelling does not show whether a word is pronounced with /ŋ/ or /ŋg/ in the middle. For example singer and banger both have /ŋ/, while finger and anger both have /ŋg/, but there is no help from the spelling to show this.

The reason for the different pronunciations in English is morphological: both singer and banger consist of two morphemes (with a derivational -er suffix on the end to convert the verbs sing and bang into nouns), while finger and anger are single morphemes.

It seems that /ŋ/ occurs with morphologically complex words while /ŋg/ occurs with single morphemes. But even this is not quite right, as longer (which is long+er, i.e. two morphemes) has /ŋg/. The answer here seems to be that the -er suffix in longer is inflectional rather than derivational − long is an adjective and longer is also an adjective, so the -er suffix in this case has not changed the word class. But why the addition of a derivational suffix should leave the end of the word as /ŋ/ while an inflectional suffix should result in an added /g/ is beyond me.

As is so often the case, nothing is simple with English, and we need to get into all kinds of technical details to explain something that seems at first sight to be simple. I rather like the way Malay shows the difference between /ŋ/ and /ŋg/ in the spelling.

11 August 2010

it's mean

In Brunei, people often say "it's mean" and "that's mean", instead of the standard "it means" and "that means".

I am not quite sure why the /s/ gets shifted from the end of the verb mean to the earlier word. I guess one contributory factor is that it's and that's are both common; but that still does not explain the reanalysis of "it means" and "that means". After all, putting the /s/ on the earlier word does not seem to make it any easier to say.

Or does it? Is the sequence /ts/ somehow easier than /ns/? Perhaps it is − I'll have to think about that.

One other issue we can consider: if the modified pronunciation becomes really common, perhaps it will become the norm. Then we can observe a change in process rather than something we might describe as an error. To become really established, we would have to find it occurring in other varieties of English. Does that happen? It would be really interesting to find out.

08 August 2010


In Standard Malay (Bahasa Melayu), pernah is used for the perfective (roughly equivalent to English have). But what about in Brunei Malay?

My colleagues suggest that pernah does exist in Brunei Malay; but if so, how is it pronounced? In theory, Brunei Malay only has three vowels: /i, a, u/, and my dictonary of Brunei Malay lists the word as parnah; but UBD colleagues I have asked reject parnah and claim they say pernah. If so, is the use of a central vowel an influence from Standard Malay? And if so, did the word parnah really exist in traditional Brunei Malay?

I was just looking for examples from BruDirect, where Brunei Malay seems to be used increasingly often; and I found this:
mama ku ane ada pernah memohon yayasan
"my mother has applied to yayasan (a charitable fund)"
However, it is hard to know what this tells us, as the language usage on BruDirect is so mixed, so it is hard to determine whether a particular usage is Brunei Malay or not.

06 August 2010

subtle salmon

A topic I have discussed before is how use of English around the world, including places such as Brunei and Singapore, might be influencing changes that are occurring in English generally. For example, I have suggested that the following may one day become standard usage, and this trend might be hastened by the frequency of occurrence in New Englishes:
no shoes and slippers (see here)
fruits and veggie (see here)
last evening (see here)
These all involve changes in grammar; but pronunciation also evolves over time. One common trend is that spelling can influence the way words are pronounced. For example, when I was young, forehead was pronounced as /fɒrɪd/ (rhyming with horrid), but nowadays it is more commonly said as /fɔ:hed/, reflecting its spelling; and similarly often seems increasingly to be said with a /t/ in the middle, though for me this /t/ is silent.

In this connection, there was an interesting recent discussion about ELF Pronunciation on Language Log (here) (where 'ELF' stands for English as a Lingua Franca), suggesting that /l/ is nowadays commonly pronounced in salmon and also that /b/ occurs in subtle, particularly among non-native speakers of English. I suspect that such new ways of pronouncing these words will become the norm in English quite soon, and it will only be old-fashioned people like me that persist with a silent /l/ and /b/ respectively.

It would be interesting to find out how people in Brunei pronounce salmon and subtle. I predict that few speakers have silent /l/ or /b/ in them. And those speakers who do use spelling pronunciations for these words might feel reassured to know that they are probably at the forefront of a world-wide trend.