29 June 2010

katok / ketuk

The national dish of Brunei is nasi katok, which literally means 'knock rice'. The idea is that you knock on the door and get whatever is on offer, though now it seems to have become standardised as steamed rice with deep fried chicken. It's a basic dish that you can get in most simple restaurants.

The Standard Malay for 'knock' is ketuk, as in mengetuk pintu rumah 'knock on the door of the house' (from an article on page 3 of today's Media Permata).

So where does katok come from? First, Brunei Malay only has three vowels rather than the six vowels of Standard Malay; so the vowel in the first syllable is /a/ rather than the /ə/ of Standard Malay (which is represented by the letter 'e').

Then, for the second syllable. In Malay, /u/ in a closed final syllable tends to have a centralised realisation that we can represent as [ʊ]. For example, the vowel in the two syllables of duduk ('sit') sound quite different, and we can show the actual pronunciation of this word as [dudʊk]. So, in fact, using 'o' to represent the vowel in the second syllable of katok is not so surprising after all.

28 June 2010


Here's an entry from my Malay dictionary suggesting that the Malay equivalent of 'ripe' (and also 'ripen') is masak:Er ... no; masak means 'cook', and the Malay for 'ripe' is matang.

This seems to be a simple error; and note that, in the illustrative sentence, mematangkan (with matang as its root) is used for 'ripen', confirming that matang is the correct equivalent for 'ripe(n)'.

There is a tendency for many people to believe that a dictionary is the ultimate authority, so if something is printed in one, it must be correct. But this example illustrates that dictionaries have errors, just like all other books. You shouldn't believe that something is necessarily true simply because it is printed.

Just one further observation about this: matang can mean 'ripe' or 'mature'; so we can say that the Malay word has a broader meaning than 'ripe'. In linguistic terms, we can say that matang is a superordinate term while the two English words 'ripe' and 'mature' are its hyponyms. If you are translating from Malay into English, you need to be careful which English word to choose.

24 June 2010

Lexical Repetition (Chinese)

In my previous post (here), I discussed the tolerance for lexical repetition in Malay and compared it with the preference to avoid such repetition in English, particularly by means of using pronouns.

A similar observation can be made when comparing Mandarin Chinese with English. Here is an extract from an article in Issue 638 of Friday Weekly, a newspaper targeted at schoolchildren in Singapore:
大 小 不 同、 各 色 各 样 的 风 筝 令 人 眼 花 缭 乱, 一 下 子 也 无 从 选 择。 虽 然 精 贵 的 风 筝 特 别 吸 引 人, 我 还 是 替 大 家 选 了 最 便 宜、 简 单 的 纸 风 筝。 理 由 是, 你 们 毕 竟 是 初 试 者, 就 先 学 会 把 简 陋 的 风 筝 送 上 天, 才 攀 缘 上 等 的 风 筝 吧。
Even if you can't read Chinese, you can probably see that 风 筝 ('kite') occurs five times.

A literal translation is
There were so many different sizes and shapes of kite to choose between that for a moment I could not make up my mind. Although the expensive kites were attractive, I decided on the cheapest and simplest kite for everyone. As you were just beginners, it was best to practice with a simple kite before progressing to a more elaborate kite.
This is not very good English because of the repetition of kite. Something like this would be much better:
There were so many different sizes and shapes of kite to choose between that for a moment I could not make up my mind. Although the expensive ones were attractive, I decided on the cheapest and simplest for everyone. As you were just beginners, it was best to practice with a simple model before progressing to something more elaborate.
This seems to read much better in English. You may note that a variety of strategies have been adopted to avoid the repetition, including use of pronouns (ones, something), ellipsis (the cheapest and simplest) and a more general term (model).

When two of the indigenous languages in Southeast Asia, Chinese and Malay, both tolerate widespread lexical repetition and may even encourage it as a means of ensuring cohesion, it is hardly surprising if the English used in places such as Singapore and Brunei is affected.

22 June 2010

Lexical Repetition

One important difference between languages, something that learners are rarely taught about, is the the degree to which lexical repetition is tolerated. In Malay, it is fine to repeat a word, but in English it is better to use a pronoun.

Here is an extract from a dialogue in my Malay textbook:Note the repetition of nenek ('grandma'). The translation is given as:While this is certainly accurate, it is not very good English, as it would be better to use 'her' rather than 'Grandma' in the last sentence.

This kind of lexical repetition is common in writing I get from students in Brunei. For example, one student wrote:
I have chosen to find a job in the government sector basically because jobs in the government sector are more secure.
Note the repetition of government sector. It would be better to write something like this:
I have chosen to find a job in the government sector basically because that kind of position is more secure.
On the other hand, if New Englishes in places such as Brunei really start to influence the style of International English, then maybe tolerance for lexical repetition will become more acceptable. We will see.

20 June 2010

beared (contd)

In my previous blog (here), I discussed the Guardian on-line edition which included the headline:
Osborne warns cuts will have to be beared
Later in the day, this headline was changed. Look at the new version:I guess it wasn't just me who noticed the use of the non-standard beared.

It is interesting to note, however, that the headline writer has still baulked at using born, and has chosen to use an active structure instead, even though this makes the headline rather hard to understand. To me, it would be best as:
Osborne warns cuts will have to be born
In the past, The Guardian was notorious for its typographical errors, and Private Eye always referred to it as The Grauniad (the joke being that they couldn't even spell their own name correctly).

But whether we regard beared as the sort of error that The Guardian is famed for, or as an innovative usage that avoids the irregular verb form born, it is still indicative of the kind of regularising change taking place all the time in English.


This is from the front page of the Guardian on-line news for 20 June 2010:Note the use of beared, where traditionally we would say born. If enough people use beared rather than born, then beared will become the standard past participle of bear.

This is a process of regularisation, where irregular forms slowly get replaced by regular ones. Once, dove was the past tense form of dive, but now most people say dived instead, because dived is regular.

I have previously noted that English usage in places such as Brunei and Singapore might be contributing to this process of language change through regularisation (e.g. here, here and here). But of course this process occurs in places such as the UK and USA as well, and it is even evident in respected newspapers such as The Guardian.

Street Theatre

One of the things I appreciated while in Cambridge these past two weeks was the lively street life. All along King's Parade and in the Market Place, there are musicians, jugglers, and various other artists doing their thing and trying to earn a bit of cash. Some of them are good, some are original, some are funny, and some of them are, well, less talented. But it all adds to the fun.

What is it that makes one act better than the others? Or more original? Or funnier? See this picture of someone playing his guitar from the inside of a litter bin: As you can see, lots of people thought this was hilarious, and they stopped to take photos and throw a few coins.

But why was this idea any better than the other acts? Why did passers-by find it so original? Indeed, I contributed some coins, and the guitarist seemed to be doing rather well.

I guess it's not fair to compare this sort of street theatre with the absence of anything similar in Brunei. For one thing, it would be too hot. Furthermore, I can't imagine people in Brunei finding an act like this particularly funny. If they saw someone trying to play a guitar from inside a litter bin, they would just think he was crazy.

So, what is it that makes something funny? I have no answer to that.

15 June 2010


One feature about Oliver's learning of language is how he clings to forms that he is convinced are right. He can learn new words quickly, so when we were playing a game of skittles, he learned missed immediately. But once he has a word for something, he is unwilling to change.

When his little sister was born four months ago, his maternal grandmother came and stayed for a while, and he calls her popo. Now we are staying, and he is convinced that his paternal grandmother is also popo. We have tried to persuade him that she is grandma; but he won't have any of it, and he keeps on calling her popo. I'm not sure he has realised that they are two different people. Do they really look alike?His Grandma is on the left, and his Popo is on the right. Maybe we need to get them both here together so he can learn to differentiate between them.

11 June 2010

Strawberries / Mouth

This is Oliver, indicating he wants a strawberry in his mouth. The value of having videos to accompany a recording is that you can (usually) work out what he is saying. In the absence of pictures, that would be tough, particularly as strawberry is pronounced as [dʒaˈbi].I have transcribed a 90 second video, and in it he says the following words:

   strawberry [dʒaˈbi]
   mouth [maʊf]
   bee [biː]
   flower [fawə]
   race [ræʃ]
   Mummy eat [mʌmi iʔ]
   boing [bæɪŋ]
   turtle [tətu]
   car race [kɑː ræʃ]

Note the two-word utterances here. We can be sure that they are two-word utterances, not fixed phrases, because mummy, eat, car, and race all occur independently.

One puzzle is why there is an [f] at the end of mouth but not at the end of off, which is pronounced as [ɒʃ], as I mentioned in my previous blog (here). It seems hard to explain this on the basis of phoneme occurrence. Maybe we need to treat words as the basic unit of phonology, and the pronunciation of each word can be unpredictable.

10 June 2010

Oliver's Words (contd)

I have previously discussed some of the early words spoken by my grandson, Oliver (here). I am now in the UK, so I am able to play with him every day and at the same time to collect data on his speech.

He is now at the two-word stage, with a few utterances of three or more words; and I will try to provide an analysis of what he says over the next few blogs.

Of course, it is never possible to collect everything, and inevitably, the most interesting utterances occur when you are not recording. But still, I will try and provide an analysis of the recordings I have made.

Analysis of child language raises some interesting questions. Among these are:
  • What is he saying? Sometimes even his parents aren't too sure about some of the words he says.
  • What is a word? Clearly, allgone is a single lexical item for him, even if the adult equivalent is two words. But what about a phrase like shoes off? This is a fixed phrase that he says quite often, so maybe it also is one item, not two.
  • How much variation is there? He says off as [ɒʃ], but is it always the same?
  • He has [f] at the start of flower [fawə]; so why not at the end of off? Does pronunciation depend on syllables, so initial consonants are completely different from finals?

04 June 2010


In the last line of my previous post (here), I suggested that words always "tell the simple truth". I intended this to be ironic. In other words, I was saying exactly the reverse of what I actually believe.

The trouble with irony is that people are apt to misunderstand it. There was recently a splendid rant (here) by a chap called Greg Laden, arguing that of course it is possible to count how many words there are in a language (something I discussed previously here), and anyone who thinks the opposite is a fool. But in writing this piece, he completely destroyed his own argument by inventing lots of new words, like curmudgeonistic, pedanticmaniacal, and jibberishosity. Now, if it is so easy to invent new words like that and still be understood, how can one possibly obtain a finite figure for the number of words in a language?

Of course, Greg Laden was being ironic: he knows perfectly well that the definition of a word can be quite elusive. Unfortunately, if you read the comments below his blog, and also some of the comments in the Language Log discussion of it (here), it seems that quite a few people missed the irony and took him seriously. In the end, someone called Nick Lamb helpfully spelled this out in one of the comments in the Language Log discussion.

In reality, language is rarely straightforward, and we often have to dig under the surface to determine the real meaning of what people say and write. I just hope that not too many people misunderstood my statement that words always tell the simple truth.

03 June 2010

The Accuracy of Pictures

Here's a picture taken from the forest trail between Tasek Lama and Markucing.It seems to show a traditional-style house nestling in the forested hills. But actually, that is not accurate.

Here's what the same building looks like from the other side. In fact, it is a huge building. It is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brunei, and we can just see the top of it from the forest trail.Pictures often deceive us. Unlike words, of course, which just tell the simple truth.


Today I looked up pantun in my Malay-English dictionary. The English definition is given as: 'pantun'. Not very helpful!

I know that pantun is some kind of Malay verse; but it would have helped if the dictionary had offered a bit of explanation.

I guess this dictionary is really meant for Malays who are learning English. Even so, I think it might have offered something more useful, as it seems to be suggesting that pantun is a word in English.

01 June 2010

Mass Hysteria

Sometimes you can understand all the words in a text and still have no idea what is going on.

On page 1 of the Media Permata of 18 May, there was a story about mass hysteria breaking out in some junior and middle schools in Brunei. Two causes for this mass hysteria were given: semangat syiling, which was accompanied by the English translation "Spirit of the Coin"; and dirasuk makhluk halus, which literally means 'tempted by thin creatures'. This all left me quite bewildered.

I asked my colleagues to explain, and apparently semangat syiling involves some kind of ritual with menstrual blood and spinning a coin; and dirasuk makhluk halus means being possessed by evil spirits. But, to be honest, I still don't get where the mass hysteria comes from.

I guess there are some things in this country that I'll never understand.


This is part of the warning sign on the entrance to the steps to the observation tower at Tasek Lama. The translation is almost word-for-word, particularly with the use of the adverb carefully being translated directly from the Malay berhati-hati.It is rare to see such poorly written English on public signs in Brunei, as usually the standard of English on signs is pretty good. And it is surprising that so much was spent making this sign without getting the English checked first.