26 January 2010

Anak Damit Awda

In my previous blog, I discussed the Malay warning on a packet of cigarettes in Brunei. In fact, there is more that can be considered about the language in this warning, in addition to the use of membahayakan.

First, the equivalent for 'baby' in this warning is anak damit (literally: 'small child'; damit is the Brunei Malay word for 'small'). The Standard Malay word for 'baby' is bayi, but this cannot be used here as it means 'pig' in Brunei Malay. And that is why anak damit is used instead.

Second, the second person pronoun is awda. The Standard Malay second person pronoun is anda, but that sounds quite formal and alien in Brunei. Instead, the pronoun awda has been created as a combination of awang ('Mr') and dayang ('Miss'). This new pronoun is used in all official language, though I'm not sure how widely it occurs among the general public.

Tobacco Warning

When dealing with two languages, it is interesting sometimes to compare the translated versions of texts, to see whether the two versions have the same meaning. Here is the English version of the health warning on a packet of cigarettes in Brunei:
And here is the Malay version of the warning on the same packet of cigarettes:

It seems that the Malay version is less intense: it says that cigarette smoke endangers (membahayakan) your baby, while the English version says it harms your baby.

Is this deliberate? Has a decision been made to tone down the message in Malay? Or is the difference just accidental? I guess we'll never know.

(My thanks to Adrian Clynes for giving me this example.)

24 January 2010


Brunei has recently introduced new vehicle registrations with three initial letters, rather than the two that were previously used. So lots of people are proudly driving around in their brand new cars with the 'BAA' registration.

In Singapore, when registrations with the letters 'SEA', 'SEB', 'SEC', etc were being used, they had to skip 'X' for obvious reasons. And it is fun to speculate which ones Brunei will decide to skip.

I imagine 'BAB' and 'BAC' will not be a problem. But 'BAD'? Will that one be used? And what about 'BAE' which sounds uncomfortably close to the Brunei Malay word for 'pig' ― will they decide to skip that? I predict that 'BAI' may be skipped for the same reason.

I imagine that the one all Bruneians will love best will be 'BAH'!

22 January 2010

Taboo Words

In my previous blog, I discussed the pronunciation of Thailand, specifically how it might be influenced by the meaning of [tai] in Malay.

In fact, language usage can often be influenced by taboo words. For example, the traditional English word for 'rabbit' was coney (which rhymed with money), but it dropped out of use because [kʌni] sounded a bit rude; and in America, people generally refer to a male hen as a rooster instead of cock because of the alternative meaning of the latter. (I'm not quite sure why people in Britain seem to be less squeamish about the use of cock for the farm animal, but never mind.)

In Singapore, people generally say cannot rather than can't, and I suspect this is because many speakers make no distinction between long and short vowels, and it is a bit unfortunate if the vowel in can't is heard as [ʌ]. Also in Singapore, people seem to talk about a bedsheet rather than a sheet, and it is possible that this is because, once again as a result of no distinction between long and short vowels, the vowel in sheet might be heard as [ɪ].

The difference with Thailand is that it is cross-linguistic, with a word in Malay potentially influencing the use of English. I suspect that this is quite common, but my knowledge of taboo words in Malay is rather limited. (Well, my access to Malay is mainly through newspapers and TV news-reports, and the occurrence of taboo words in genres such as those is a bit limited!) Perhaps the best way to investigate this would be for speakers of Malay to think of taboo words in Malay and then consider if there are any similar-sounding words in English that they might avoid or alter in some way.

19 January 2010


Almost every word which starts with the letters 'th' is pronounced with a dental fricative, either [θ] or [ð], in most varieties of British and American English. Exceptions are the names Thai, Thailand, Thames, Thomas and Theresa, and the herb thyme, all of which are pronounced with [t] at the start.

In this part of the world, Thai and Thailand are sometimes pronounced with [θ] at the start. I always assumed this was hypercorrection: speakers have learned that standard pronunciation has a dental fricative whenever 'th' occurs, and so they sometimes apply this rule where it does not in fact apply.

However, one of my UBD colleagues offered an alternative explanation: in Malay, tahi means 'faeces'; and in ordinary speech, the [h] may be omitted so the word is pronounced as [tai]. It is therefore possible that people are using [θ] at the start of Thai and Thailand to avoid sounding rude.

06 January 2010


In my previous entry, I discussed the pronunciation of 'next station' in the Singapore MRT announcements. One other feature of the pronunciation of the recordings on the North-East line that struck me is for the word closing (as in 'Doors closing.'), particularly the vowel in the first syllable.

The vowel in the first syllable of closing might be pronounced in three ways:
  • [əʊ] : the old-fashioned, traditional RP British way
  • [oʊ] : with some diphthongal movement, but not very much; a bit like how Americans would pronounce it
  • [o:] : a long monophthong, which sounds very Singaporean
The announcer uses the first of these, which to me sounds rather ridiculous. It sounds like she is trying to pretend to be the Queen of England!

Unlike the careful enunciation of 'next station', which I argued enhances intelligibility, I see no value in using [əʊ] for closing. It seems to me that either [oʊ] or [o:] would be far more appropriate in the context of Singapore.

One other thing that surprised me is that the hyper-correct pronunciation of closing occurs in the utterance 'Doors closing' (in which there is no article and no auxiliary verb ― it would be rather more standard to say 'The doors are closing'). The use of a very careful pronunciation of closing in this abbreviated utterance with non-standard grammar sounds rather strange to me.

05 January 2010

next station

I am currently in Singapore for a few days. I am travelling by MRT quite a bit, and I find the pronunciation of the announcements on the trains interesting.

Between each station, the recorded voice announces the next station. In doing so, she uses the phrase 'next station'. In the middle of this phrase, we find the consonant sequence /kstst/, which is a cluster of five consonants. In ordinary speech, virtually everyone, not just in Singapore and Brunei but in Britain and America as well, would omit the /t/ at the end of 'next', as it is normal for all speakers to omit a final /t/ or /d/ under some circumstances. (Specifically, a final /t/ or /d/ is often omitted when it is both preceded and followed by another consonant, so the /t/ is generally dropped in phrases like 'best man' and 'last Monday'.)

But the speaker for the announcements on the North-East MRT line pronounces the final /t/ in 'next' very carefully, even though this sounds rather unnatural.

However, one could argue that this style of pronunciation enhances the intelligibility of the announcement. So perhaps she has actually got it right. In places like Singapore where there are lots of foreigners trying to understand the English that is spoken, maybe sometimes it is right to speak extra carefully if this can improve intelligibility, even if it ends up sounding a bit unnatural.