30 October 2010


I just saw a statistic (here) that teenage girls in the USA send an average of 135 text messages every day. I find that number mind-boggling.

Even though I am an old fogey, mostly out of touch with such new-fangled things as texting, I do know how to do it. In fact, I probably send at least one message a week! Sometimes even two.

Do my students in Brunei on average send as many as 135 messages a day? Maybe they send even more. A couple of days ago, I told my MA student that I only use my mobile phone two or three times a week, and her draw dropped in stunned incredulity. I guess there's a generation difference here. (Or maybe it's just that I'm a bit of a loner with not too many friends!)

29 October 2010


The word for 'underwear' in Brunei Malay seems to be spindit, and this is presumably from English.

But where does it come from? My colleague, Adrian Clynes, thinks it is from 'spandex'.

If it became truly indigenised, the initial /sp/ would presumably be broken into different syllables. Thus 'hospital' becomes sapitar in Brunei Malay, and 'spanner' becomes sapanar. Perhaps spindit is really sapindit, or maybe it will become that in time.

28 October 2010

More on Subject-Verb Agreement

In my previous posting, I discussed whether treating "use of these phrases" as a plural subject should be regarded as an error or not.

On further reflection, I realised that there is more to this than simple identification of the head noun. For example, both of the following sentences are perfectly OK, even though, strictly speaking, couple and pair are singular nouns:
A couple of birds were flying past.
A pair of swans were swimming in the river.
In fact, there are quite a lot of examples like that. In the following two sentences, crowd and majority are singular nouns, but there seems little problem in treating the subject as plural:
A crowd of people were singing.
The majority of the people were happy.
Maybe the possibility of treating phrases with couple, pair, crowd, and majority as plural is nowadays being extended to use. So perhaps treating "use of these phrases" as a plural subject is not an error at all.

Maybe this is an area where English is undergoing change. And perhaps this is one more area where my students are ahead of me in reflecting the ways the language is evolving.

Subject-Verb Agreement

In my previous posting, I discussed non-standard grammar usage in the writing of my students. In particular, I raised the issue of whether I should be correcting it or not. One thing I did not mention but could have is non-standard subject-verb agreement, something that is rather common in their writing.

I was reminded of this as I was reading a paper by Barbara Seidlhofer and Henry Widdowson in a recent book edited by Kumiko Murata and Jennifer Jenkins (Global Englishes in Asian Contexts: Current and Future Debates, Continuum, 2009).

Here is an abstract from page 32 of their paper:
the use of these phrases also serve to establish rapport ...
Note the use of serve which fails to agree with use, the singular noun that is the head of the subject. Traditionally, we would expect serves rather than serve.

I have a number of questions about this:
  • Did Seidlhofer and Widdowson notice this but decide to keep it anyway?
  • Did the editors notice it and decide to leave it, in keeping with a policy of being tolerant about variation in English?
  • Is this becoming the norm in English now, so maybe proximity is the deciding factor in the inflection of the verb (i.e. the plural phrases overrides the singular use because it is closer to the verb)?
  • Is this something I should allow my students to do?
I tend to indicate subject-verb agreement mismatches as an error in the writing of my students. But maybe this is not appropriate.

26 October 2010

Standards of Written English

I have just finished grading some first-year written assignments, and as I was doing this, I was wondering how much of the material I should be marking as incorrect.

Many people nowadays believe that there should be substantial latitude for the way people speak: there is no need for someone to pretend to come from the UK if they don't come from the UK, so it is fine to sound Bruneian or Singaporean just so long as you remain easily intelligible. But what about writing? How much should I allow my students to develop a local style of writing?

I often come across sentences like:
My sister, she speaks Malay at home.
My father, he uses only Brunei Malay to talk with us.
I feel that these are not well written, as it would be better to say:
My sister speaks English at home.
My father uses only Brunei Malay to talk with us.
However, placing the topic prominently out at the front of the sentence seems to be a feature of local English, not just in Brunei but in Singapore as well. So should I oppose it? Am I imposing an inner-circle bias against local norms?

Another sentence I constantly see is:
A research was carried out.
For me, this is ungrammatical, as research is a non-count noun, so it cannot be preceded by the indefinite article. But am I fighting a losing battle? Is research becoming a count noun, in this part of the world at least, to join furniture, advice, lighting and many more?

Finally, I tend to correct sentences such as this:
I stayed in Maura when I was young.
For me, stay is for a short time (like a couple of weeks), while we use live for longer periods of residence. However, in Brunei and also Singapore, stay and live seem to be synonyms.

Note that these represent three different areas: the use of prominent topic fronting is discourse; the issue with count and non-count nouns involves grammar; and the use of stay or live is lexical.

So, should I be correcting any of them? My feeling is that I should, as only by doing that will I help my students to improve their English and thereby enhance their future prospects. But I admit that I am being hypocritical, as in much of my work I insist on being descriptive, not prescriptive; and, in theory at least, I support the emergence of regional varieties of English.

I have no easy answer to this question.

21 October 2010

Paternity Leave

Any statement that a language doesn't have a word for something is nearly always flawed. For example, absurd claims have been made that Gypsies don't have a word for duty (here) while Bulgarian doesn't have a word for integrity (here), and such claims turn out to be preposterous. In fact, on Language Log Mark Lieberman says that if anyone "makes a sociolinguistic point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong" (here).

However, it does seem that sometimes a concept is not easily expressed in a particular language. I mentioned this in an early blog (here), where I suggested that Malay does not seem to have a common equivalent for preventive maintenance.

An article on page 3 of Media Permata of 22 October 2010 outlining a recent titah ('speech') by His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei discusses maternity leave, and there is a direct equivalent for this in Malay: cuti bersalin (literally 'holiday for giving birth'). However, the fourth paragraph of this article also mentions paternity leave, and it seems that there is no equivalent of this in Malay. In fact, after giving the English term, instead of offering an equivalent phrase in Malay, the article provides an explanation: "cuti khas bagi suami wanita yang baru malahirkan anak" ("special holiday for the husband of a woman who has just given birth to a child").

It does seem, therefore, that there is currently no commonly-used equivalent in Malay for paternity leave.

19 October 2010


This morning I spent three and a half hours waiting to get the extension to my Brunei Identification Card processed. Not a lot of fun. On the other hand, the room was air-conditioned and the seats were reasonably comfortable, so I was able to read my book on phonology and also grade some student assignments. In the end, it was actually quite a productive morning, even if waiting for three and a half hours in a crowded room is not exactly my favourite activity.

What I found stunning was that almost none of the hundred or so other people waiting there was reading, and I find it amazing that people can sit there for so long and feel no need or desire to use the time by reading a book. Now, some of them were intermittently chatting, so that's fine. And maybe others were resting, so I guess that's also a good use of time. But how come nobody reads a book?

Brunei has a verbal culture, and reading plays little part in it. I see my students sitting around, sometimes chatting but more often vacantly staring into space, and I wonder what I can do to get them to use the time more productively, by reading their textbooks, or reviewing their lecture notes, or preparing for class or something.

On the other hand, there is one thing about Brunei that is impressive: the patience of people who can wait for so long without complaining. You see it in the traffic as well: people will sit there for however long it takes, and nobody ever sounds their horn. Ever. And that is something that is really nice.

I'd love to find a way to encourage reading here. But at the same time I can appreciate some aspects of the easy-going attitude towards life.

17 October 2010

kurul / matuka

I find borrowings into Brunei Malay fascinating.

My first-year students told me about the quiff of hair that was worn by Elvis: in Brunei Malay, it was known as a kurul. My dictionary lists it but does not show it as derived from English, even though it pretty obviously comes from curl. The derivation is not too surprising: although Brunei Malay can have an /r/ at the end of a word (banar 'true'; basar 'big', etc), /rl/ at the end of a word would not be good, so curl is broken into two syllables.

And then there is matuka ('motorcar'). Notice the absence of a schwa (/ə/) in the second syllable, which becomes /u/ in the three-vowel /i, a, u/ system of Brunei Malay. The only surprising thing about this one is that the first syllable is /a/ rather than /u/.

11 October 2010


I have previously discussed borrowings into Brunei Malay (here), especially the ways they undergo unexpected phonological change.

Some of my students told me about an interesting one that has me baffled: kutin (from English 'tin'). Why does it have 'ku' on the front?

The use of an extra syllable can be explained, as there is a strong tendency in Malay for bisyllabic roots. But why 'ku'? I have no idea.

My UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, suggests that /ku/ is a particularly unstable sequence at the start of a word. For example kucing /kutʃiŋ/ ('cat') is ucing in Brunei Malay; but note this involves the loss of an initial /k/, not the addition of one. So the extra /ku/ at the start of kutin remains a mystery.

Maybe the word is not borrowed after all, though the colleagues I have asked all seem to believe that it is.

08 October 2010

Working in the Private Sector

It seems to be the ambition of most people in Brunei to work for the government. Presumably this is because the government treats its workers well, with good perks and also a job for life.

One side-effect of this is that people are unwilling to work in the private sector. Indeed, most students at UBD seem keen to get a government job after they graduate.

I was reminded of this when reading an assignment submitted by one of my students. In describing her family, she said:
Thus some of us work with the government as educational officer, immigration officer, army and teacher while two of my siblings only work as private company workers.
Note the use of only in reference to those who work in the private sector!

There is nowadays a realisation that the government cannot continue to try to provide jobs for everyone, and there is a need to generate a spirit of entrepeneurism. Time will tell how effective this is.


Have you ever tried to contact AirAsia? Or use their website? It's quite an experience.

I just tried to contact their "LiveChat" feedback facility. I got this message:
An online representative will be with you shortly. You are number 49 in queue. Your wait time will be approximately 171 minute(s). Thank you for waiting.
Shortly? 171 minutes? Ha! Brilliant. I guess their definition of shortly is a bit different from mine.

06 October 2010

chi feng

I have previously discussed calques, the word-for-word translation from one language into another, e.g. mouse trail (from Malay jalan tikus) and kenderaan pacuan empat roda (from English four wheel drive vehicle) (here).

In fact, there are similar calques between all the regional languages. An example is Malay makan angin (lit. 'eat wind'; "to go for a walk", "to go on vacation") becoming 吃風 (chī fēng) in Chinese, though maybe this should really be shown in Hokkien, as jia hong. I have never heard this usage in Taiwan, and I don't think it would be understood in Mainland China, but my UBD colleague Low Kok Wai tells me it is common in the Chinese spoken in Singapore.

03 October 2010

Multilingual Signs

Here is a sign I saw in a restaurant in Kuala Lurah, just over the border from Brunei in Sarawak (Malaysia).Not only are there three different languages (English, Malay, Chinese) together with some helpful pictures, but there is also multiple cross-linguistic borrowing: pai kut ('pork chop') is borrowed from Hokkien into English; and sotong ('squid') is borrowed from Malay into Chinese as 苏东. (The first character is not written quite right − but never mind, people can understand it just fine.)

I love the chaotic profusion of languages, borrowings, and drawings.