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.

05 August 2010

orang biskut

Playful language can be lots of fun. One of the best known collections of playful language is Cockney Rhyming Slang, which originated in London. For example, people there might say "I am going up the apples for a cup of rosie", which means "I am going up the stairs for a cup of tea". The origin of this is as follows: apples and pears rhymes with stairs, and then it gets shortened to apples; and Rosie Lea rhymes with tea, which gets shortened to rosie. Not surprisingly, people not familiar with this usage can be totally baffled!

Some instances even get established as (semi-)standard, and people are generally not aware of the origins. For example, we say "to blow a raspberry", and this comes from raspberry tart, which rhymes with fart; people sometimes talk about "a load of cobblers", and this originates from cobbler's awls which rhymes with balls; and in England, it is common to refer to someone disparagingly as a "right berk", and berk derives from Berkeley Hunt which rhymes with ..... I'll let you work that one out.

But it is probable that all languages have some form of playful usage. One of my UDB colleagues told me that when she was studying in London, Malaysians called Bruneians orang minyak ('oil people'), in reference to the main source of wealth in Brunei; in retaliation, Bruneians referred to Malaysians as orang tin, as tin mining was historically a highly lucrative industry in Malaya. This then got converted to orang biskut (as an abbreviated from of biscuit tin). It is fascinating to see how similar this process is to Cockney Rhyming Slang, though I suspect it is common in playful language usage throughout the world and was not influenced by the fact that they were in London at the time.

03 August 2010

Falling Standards?

There seems to be a widespread belief in places such as Brunei, Singapore and virtually everywhere that standards in English are falling, and something urgently needs to be done to correct this disastrous trend. In fact, the same concern is found in the UK. But is there any actual evidence that standards are falling?

Have a look at the following headline, from The Guardian dated 3 August 2010 (here), discussing recent results for Sats, the standardised tests administered in British schools. First note that the main headline, which proclaims that standards are falling, seems to conflict with the sub-headline, the first part of which suggests that things are actually improving:Let us consider the claim that standards are falling a bit more. The article actually says that the proportion of children leaving primary school in England with a reading ability appropriate to their age group has slipped from 16% to 14%, but at the same time the proportion of those with a reading ability better than expected has increased from 47% to 51%. In other words, more students are failing, but also more students are excelling, and the change in the latter percentage is actually greater than the former.

This indicates a mixed picture. It suggests that there is an increasing divide between those who are doing well and those who are not. But a simplistic conclusion that standards are dropping seems a blatant misrepresentation of the facts.

Why do journalists always like to focus on bad news? And why is there such a persistent belief throughout the world that standards are falling?

Last Evening

I just read an e-mail message which included the following sentence:
Heartiest congratulations to Estate on their well-won victory at last evening’s UBD Inter-Faculty Futsal Tournament.
It would be easy to classify last evening as a mistake, as we don't say that in English. But why don't we? We can say last night and we can also refer to last Monday, last week, last month ... so why not last evening?

This seems to be one of those idiosyncratic features of English usage which are hard to explain. Furthermore, this is the sort of irregularity in the language which is likely to change over the course of time.

I predict that, in the future, the use of last evening will become perfectly standard. Furthermore, I believe that English usage in places such as Brunei will contribute to this kind of change, particularly by speeding up the process and thereby ironing out some of the irregularities.

In fact, the more I read that sentence about last evening, the more I am beginning to believe that it might in fact already be acceptable. Maybe it is my language that is out of date!

02 August 2010

Mouse Trail

I have previously discussed calques (here), in which the parts of a word or phrase are translated item-by-item from one language into another. For example, the Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2002, p.314) gives the example of the English word almighty, which apparently comes from the Latin omni+potens; and A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (Blackwell, 2003, p.61) suggests that the English phrase power politics comes from the German Machtpolitik and also that the English Superman comes from the German Übermensch.

I previously mentioned the occurrence in English in Brunei of mouse trail, which is a calque from Malay jalan tikus to refer to illegal paths through the forest, often used for smuggling goods. I just saw this headline in the Borneo Bulletin, with mouse trail in the headline.It is interesting to see that this calque occurs commonly in Brunei, and that it is used without explanation, in the expectation that local readers will know what it means.

There must be some other calques from Malay into the English written and spoken in Brunei, but I cannot think of any at the moment.