30 March 2010


This is an extract from the public notice at UBD that I mentioned before when discussing the use of audience to refer to an individual (here).Note the use of shutters to refer (presumably) to photographers. This is similar to the Singapore use of shutterbug to refer to a camera enthusiast, which Adam Brown (Making Sense of Singapore English, p. 114) observes is an American English word that does not occur in British English.

Of course, just like all languages, new varieties of English such as those of Brunei and Singapore regularly create new words and innovative ways of using existing words. Often, this involves borrowing from indigenous languages to reflect local food and customs, so in Brunei English we find titah for a speech by HM the Sultan and nasi katok for the basic dish of rice and fried chicken; and in Singapore we have kiasu, which is a borrowing from Hokkien meaning 'afraid to lose out'.

The difference with shutter and shutterbug is that they are not borrowings, and people who use them are often not aware that speakers from places such as Britain may not understand them.

In the context of the sign, it is probably clear to everyone what shutters means. But Bruneians should be aware of the limitations of using this word in other contexts.

29 March 2010

Bukit Udal

I just spent a great weekend at Bukit Udal, in the Tutong District of Brunei, in a trip organised by the Brunei Nature Society. The campsite is shown here.The idea is you are supposed to sleep in the wooden building in the middle of the water; but there were too many of us, so most of us actually slept in the tents that you can see on the left.

One of the great things for me (quite apart from the splendid trek through the forest on Sunday morning) was that our Dusun guide, Benson, was more than willing to speak Malay to me, and in fact he delighted in telling lots of stories about the history of the region while playing his traditional lute. Now, I can't say I understood them all, but it was fun to hear him tell them.

One basic problem with speaking Malay here is what to use as the second person singular pronoun, 'you'. My textbooks tell me it is anda, but that is way too formal. Earlier this month when we went to Bario in Malaysia, our guide suggested that kamu was best. In Bukit Udal, however, Benson insisted that kamu is a plural pronoun, and he said that kita is appropriate for singular 'you'. Indeed, that seems to be the norm in Brunei.

The trouble is that kita means 'we' in Standard Malay. It really gets quite confusing to start a conversation when you can't work out what word to use for such a basic concept as 'you'.

27 March 2010

damn(-ed) thing

In my previous blog (here), I discussed the fengshui of the Ugly Building in the middle of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. Here is another view of the damn thing.Now, you might object that I should have said 'damned thing', not 'damn thing'. After all, thing is a noun, and we expect its modifier to be an adjective; and the -ed suffix converts the verb damn into the adjective damned. (Just like the verb tire is converted into the adjective tired, the verb spoil is converted into the adjective spoiled, and so on.)

However, there is an issue here. It is actually rather common for the final /d/ in a word to be omitted if it is both preceded and followed by a consonant, and this includes instances where the word-final /d/ represents the -ed suffix. Alan Cruttenden (Gimson's Pronunciation of English, 2008, p. 304) lists the following phrases where the -ed suffix (pronounced as /t/ or /d/) in the first word is often omitted in standard British English pronunciation: mashed potatoes, finished now, pushed them, tinned meat, dined well, refused both, gazed past and many, many more.

Furthermore, there are many phrases where the omission of the final consonant (either /t/ or /d/) has become so common that the -ed that originally existed in the spelling is now no longer shown: ice cream, wax paper, pop corn and skim milk all originally had -ed on the first word but now generally do not, and Language Log (here) suggests that ice(d) tea, cream(ed) corn and whip(ped) cream may all be following suit and losing their -ed suffixes.

So I think that describing it as a 'damn thing' is just fine. I just wish someone would knock it down and plant some trees (or something) in its place.

25 March 2010


The word fengshui comes from the Chinese 风水 meaning literally 'wind' + 'water'. Now, that is its etymology in Chinese, but we should not confuse etymology with the meaning of a word. (After all, a greenhouse in English is not actually green; it is made of glass, which is colourless.)

According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary (here), fengshui refers to the Chinese practice "in which a structure or site is chosen or configured so as to harmonize with the spiritual forces that inhabit it".

One might consider how to render fengshui in English. Some dictionaries suggest 'geomancy'. The trouble with this is that not many people know that word; and I am pretty sure that far more people know fengshui itself, as a borrowed word. So my suggestion is just to use it as a borrowed word.

Whether you believe in that stuff about harmonizing with spiritual forces or not, some buildings have awful fengshui. Have a look at this building, which residents of Brunei will recognise as being right in the middle of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), the capital of Brunei. It is hideous. This building has been sitting there in its half-built, forlorn, dilapidated state for over ten years, and nobody seems to know what to do about it.

Currently, there are all kinds of fancy plans for developing BSB into a thriving, modern city. But it seems to me that all these plans will come to nothing till someone sorts out the Ugly Building that is draining all the energy out of the place.

The damn thing really is ugly.

24 March 2010

Lexical Repetition

The degree to which languages tolerate lexical repetition varies. English discourages it, and when I am writing I sometimes find myself alternating between perhaps and maybe to ensure I do not use one of them too often. But this is just stylistic, and it does not add to the clarity of what I write.

I get the impression that Malay tolerates lexical repetition much more. I saw this phrase on page 1 of the Media Permata of 25 May 2010 in an article about the control of TB:
mengikuti arahan seperti yang diarahkan
which is literally "follow the directions as directed". Note that, in the Malay, there are two words that are derived from the root arah.

In English, I suspect this would probably be "follow the instructions as directed" or something like that.

Note that there is nothing particularly wrong about lexical repetition. In fact, it is one of the ways that cohesion is maintained in a text. In contrast, English tends to use pronouns as one main way to achieve cohesion, which is one reason why there are so many more pronouns in an English text than an equivalent Malay one. However, when people in Brunei and elsewhere are writing in English, they should be aware that repetition of lexical items is discouraged, even when the words are different derivatives of the same root.

22 March 2010


Sometimes public notices can offer a rich source of material on local language patterns, though there is always the problem of determining if something represents a feature of local usage or if it is merely an error.

Here is an extract from a sign at UBD, promoting some function. Note the use of audience to refer (presumably) to a single person. In standard English, it would be more normal to offer the prize to 'a member of the audience'. (If the $10 card is really to be shared among the whole audience, that will mean each person will not be getting very much!)At first sight, this seems to reflect a shift in the use of count/noncount nouns that is common in a range of New Englishes around the world. For example, it is very common to find references to furnitures, luggages, informations and researches, even though all these nouns are regarded as noncount in standard English, so it is not possible to pluralise them.

However, audience is actually different, as it is always a count noun. In fact, in standard English it is possible to compare a good audience tonight with a less responsive audience on a previous evening. It is just that audience is a collective noun, referring to all the people, not just to individuals.

In many ways, therefore, audience is a bit like alphabet, which is also a count noun that (in standard usage) refers to a complete system of writing. One can say, for example, that Malay is represented by two different alphabets: the Roman alphabet and the Arabic-based Jawi script. However, in Brunei and Singapore one often sees alphabet used as a synonym for letter, so people might say that the word cat "has three alphabets", even though this does not make sense in standard usage.

It is not clear if the use of audience and alphabet to refer to individual entities rather than the collective whole will eventually become the norm in this part of the world.

20 March 2010


I have previously discussed the problems in finding words in a Malay dictionary (eg here). The difficulty is caused by words being shown under their root, and it is not always straightforward to identify the root. In English, there is no such problem, as words like befriend and entrust are listed under 'b' and 'e' respectively. But in Malay, you would first have to work out what the root is, so you would need to look under 'f' and 't' respectively, as the words would be listed under friend and trust.

I still sometimes get caught out. Yesterday, I saw the word berketerampilan in the newspaper, and not knowing what it meant, I tried to look it up. Now, looking under 'b' is not going to work, as clearly there is a 'ber' prefix; and 'k' won't work either, as there is a 'ke' + 'an' circumfix. Then there also seems to be a 'ter' prefix, so I started looking under 'ampil' and then under 'rampil'. In fact, the root is terampil ('skilled'), and the word means 'skillful' — in fact there is no 'ter' prefix in there.

One thing that contributed to the difficulty in this instance is that the vast majority of Malay roots are bisyllabic, which is why I first guessed that 'ampil' might be the root. In fact, in this case the actual root terampil is trisyllabic.

But maybe I shouldn't complain too much. If I can master the nightmare of looking up words in a Chinese dictionary, the challenges of a Malay dictionary are really not that daunting.

17 March 2010


I have previously discussed differentiated language in Brunei to show rank (e.g. wedding, berkenan). As might be expected, this extends to titles.

This is the label on my mailbox at UBD. Note the proliferation of titles at the start. I personally asked to have my name preceded by no titles; but I was overuled. My own preference is to avoid titles entirely. I judge my colleagues on their teaching, their scholarship, and their interaction with students and colleagues, and the existence of fancy titles has little bearing on any of those. Furthermore, some of my UBD colleagues have a PhD while others do not, and there are also a range of different professional ranks among people who are working closely together. Use of titles seems to me to create barriers between colleagues who are jointly striving to achieve the same objectives: to teach well and to conduct and publish good research.

However, I have to accept that rank, and its manifestation in terms of titles, is an integral part of Brunei society. And it is not appropriate to try and import my own liberal, western ideas of equality in a society where they may not be suited. Furthermore, I need to remember that some of the peace and stability of Brunei society that I benefit so much from originates from the respect for tradition that is found here.

I guess I should just learn to accept the titles that tend to be used together with my name when I am in Brunei.

15 March 2010


I previously commented on the use of the borrowed word aktibiti in Malay (aktibiti), and a correspondent from Malaysia suggested that the borrowed word has a more positive connotation than the Malay equivalent kegiatan.

Some evidence to support that is from an email I received today, encouraging participation by UBD staff in healthy lifestyle exercises (which are clearly regarded as a good thing). An extract is:
Beberapa aktiviti telah dikenalpasti dan sesiapa yang berminat untuk menjadi sukarelawan dalam megetuai aktibiti bolehlah menghadapkan nama mereka melalui email kepada saya.
which might be translated as:
Several activities have been identified and anyone who is interested in becoming a volunteer in leading an activity can forward their name to me through email.
Something else that is interesting in this extract is the alternation between aktibiti and aktiviti, presumably reflecting instability in the pronunciation of the word, as is expected in a newly-borrowed item. In fact, it is normal for borrowed words to adopt the phonology of the native language gradually.

For example, take the English words carriage, message, massage, collage, all of which were borrowed from French. The first two have been completely anglicised, ending with [ɪdʒ] and with the stress on the first syllable. In contrast, collage, being a more recent borrowing, still generally has its French pronunciation [kɒˈlɑːʒ] (at least, in British English), while massage is halfway to being anglicised: the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary gives [ˈmæsɑːʒ] as the preferred choice for British English (though it also suggests an alternative with [dʒ] at the end).

While a word is in the process of being nativised, instability is expected, though it is unusual to find variants in the same sentence. The special thing with Malay is that the writing system allows us to reflect on this process more easily than in English.

14 March 2010


You will have seen my flags on the right. I find them mesmerising. And I get a little thrill every time I see a new one pop up, from somewhere like Uruguay, Lithuania, or Qatar.

When I started writing this blog a little over a year ago, I was contemptuous of bloggers who expend an inordinate amount of energy worrying about how many people visit their site. If you've got something to write, do it, and don't worry about who's going to read it. After all, weren't there lots of Victorian diarists who faithfully filled out their entries every day in the expectation that nobody would ever read what they had written? And isn't a blog just an electronic equivalent of a diary?

It turned out it wasn't quite so simple. After the initial enthusiasm waned, it was hard to find sufficient inspiration to keep on coming up with new ideas. And in fact I found that I did need feedback, an indication that someone somewhere out there is reading what I am writing, and I'm not just whistling in the wind.

In the modern world, travel has become so much easier, and people move around in search of jobs and also for fun. This means we no longer live in small communities where we all know each other; and quite often we can live in a place where we know almost nobody. That is partly why networking sites such as Facebook are so successful: they provide a means for people to create a powerful virtual community, to reassure themselves that they are not alone in the world.

Now, I have never quite got the hang of Facebook: all that poking each other and sending virtual gifts seems so banal. And I simply don't want to know if someone I once met briefly a couple of years ago is just now going out for a pizza. But maybe my focus on flags is no different really from the accumulation of friends in Facebook: we are all trying to create an assurance that we are part of a wider community.

Also, I think the flags are really pretty.

12 March 2010

35 Years with a Lisp

I recently read this story on an Internet discussion group I participate in. It was told by Laura Sicola, a phonetician and pronunciation teacher at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA; and I thought I would share it with you.
I worked with a 35-year-old Korean businessman in a pronunciation class I was teaching. He had one of the strongest inter-dental lisps I have ever heard.

In providing feedback one day when we were working on dental fricatives (which, not surprisingly, he could do just fine), I mentioned the lisp, and clearly he didn't know what I was talking about. I explained simply, and he denied it, saying it was just his "poor English pronunciation." I suggested it was probably true even in his Korean and that he should ask his wife, which he did. The next day I asked what she had said and he replied:

"I said to her, do you hear something strange in my speech when I say 'Seoul' and other words with the /s/ sound? And she said, of course! So I asked her, when did you first find out? And she said, I noticed it the first time I met you. It makes you sound a bit like a child. So I said, why didn't you tell me? And she said, I thought you knew!"

He really wanted to know how to fix it, so we worked on it for an hour or so, and with diagrams and other strategies he was able to hear and produce /θ/ and /s/ very accurately. At the end, he summarized: "So, this word... (pointing to 'Seoul') should be pronounced [sol]. But I say [θol]. Is that right?" When I nodded, he closed his eyes, sighed, shook his head in disbelief and said, "I can't believe it... 35 years...!"
Maybe we phoneticians really can achieve something useful once in a while.

09 March 2010

Wedding Invitation

A couple of weeks ago, my UBD colleague Bill Duane got married to Hajah Norain Binti Marshal, a Bruneian; and they had a traditional Bruneian wedding.

Weddings are extremely important social occasions in Brunei, and the language on the invitation offers a fascinating insight into Bruneian society.

In a previous blog (berkenan), I discussed the special language needed to refer to the activities of important people such as members of the royal family. The language of a wedding invitation similarly shows differentiation for referring to members of the ruling class and others. Here is part of the invitation:

Loosely translated, this says, "We would first like to offer many thanks for the attendance of everyone at this ceremony." However, this fails to capture the intricacies of the message.

First, you have keberangkatan ('honoured attendance') to refer to the Pengirans (important aristocrats) while kehadiran ('attendance') is for the ordinary ladies and gentlemen. Next, the first person plural pronoun is also differentiated: abis peramba ('humbly we') is used when offering thanks to the Pengirans, while the common pronoun kami ('we') is for offering thanks to the others.

(My thanks to Adrian Clynes for his help in analysing the language on this invitation.)

Language in a Remote Village

This is a photo of the Kelabit village of Pa' Longan in the Bario region, taken from the top of a hill overlooking the village:

The only way to get to the village is by foot. It takes three hours along the forest path. (Well, it took us four hours, but locals do it in three.) And the only means of transporting goods are by carrying them on your back or using a buffalo sled.

Here's a buffalo pulling a sled and thereby transporting goods between Pa' Longan and Bario.

When you meet people in Pa' Longan, you are expected to introduce yourself, say where you are from, how many children you have, how old they are, and so forth. And you end up developing a little spiel that you use over and over again.

Now, maybe this could get a bit tedious after a while, but for a language learner like me, it's brilliant. I wish I could have done it in the Kelabit language; but being able to do it in Malay seemed to work just fine.

When we were walking through the village in the evening, we met a sprightly old chap chopping wood, and I gave him my little spiel. The next morning, we met him again, and he clearly did not remember us, so I introduced my wife and myself once more. Either his memory was not too good, or we foreigners all look alike!

One way or another, it was splendid practice for me. Maybe language schools should employ an old chap like that, and all students should each morning be required to introduce themselves fully before they are allowed to proceed into the building.

08 March 2010

Language on Clothes

This woman is a Kelabit, living in the village of Pa' Ukat in the Bario region, and she is pounding rice in the traditional method. (Actually, they have machinery in the village to do this, but maybe she prefers the traditional method; or perhaps it is too expensive to use the machinery.)

She speaks no English, and I am pretty sure she does not know what Planet Hollywood is; but that doesn't stop her wearing Planet Hollywood clothing. It seems that English is getting everywhere.

On the other hand, maybe it is no different from Westeners wearing t-shirts with Chinese characters on them, even though they often have no idea about the meaning of the characters. We seem to love to adorn our clothing with writing, and sometimes not knowing what it means seems to add to the charm!

06 March 2010

The Kelabit Language

The Bario region in Sarawak (Malaysia) is inhabited by the Kelabit people. Here is a picture of a Kelabit longhouse in Pa' Ukat near Bario:

Actually, most Kelabit live in separated houses now. The trouble with longhouses is that if one of the units catches fire, then they all tend to go up, so the authorities encourage people to develop separate houses instead.

Before I went to Bario, I believed that the mountains running through the centre of Borneo formed a more-or-less impenetrable barrier that created a natural border between Sarawak (Malaysia) and Kalimantan (Indonesia). But while there, I found out that the Kelabit language is closely related to the languages spoken by the Lundayeh people who live in Long Bawan over the border in Kalimantan and also the Murut who live closer to the coast in Lawas and Limbang in Sarawak as well as in Temburong, which is part of Brunei.

The languages spoken by the Kelabit, Lundayeh and Murut people can all be regarded as dialects of the same language. My informant told me that the three just differ in their melodies, which presumably refers to their intonation.

In fact, there is substantial coming and going of the people over the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan; and to get from Bario to Ba' Kelalan, which is also in Sarawak, you actually have to walk through part of Kalimantan. There are no roads — it's a two-day trek along forest paths, but that doesn't stop local people making the journey.


I just spent five wonderful days in Bario, in the north-east corner of Sarawak (Malaysia), quite close to the border with Kalimantan (Indonesia). Here is the view from the balcony of the lodge where we were staying:

One of the things that made the trip especially enjoyable for me, quite apart from the splendid trekking through the jungle, was the opportunity to converse in Malay. People there seemed quite happy to speak Malay to me, and in just a few days my spoken ability improved hugely. I got the impression that, if I were to stay somewhere like that in Malaysia for just a few weeks, I could get to be quite competent in the language. In contrast, even if I stayed in Brunei for fifty years, I doubt I would get anywhere.

One evening, I watched our guide, a Kelabit (from the Bario region), talking to the host of our lodge, a Berawan (from an area closer to Miri). As neither could speak the home language of the other, they conversed in Standard Malay, which seems to be the inter-ethnic lingua franca in most of Malaysia. And I was surprised to find that I could understand much of what they were saying.

I don't think I have ever heard Standard Malay being used conversationally in Brunei, where the inter-ethnic lingua franca is either Brunei Malay or English; and when people converse in Brunei Malay, I have no clue what they are talking about.

It was wonderful to encounter people actually using the language I have spent so much time and effort trying to learn.