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!