26 February 2010

USA vs. the Rest

In my previous post, I discussed the possible influences of New Englishes on the future evolution of English. And I sent a summary of these ideas to a web-based linguistic discussion group I participate in.

Rather predictably, there were a few howls of protests from some folk in the USA. One even objected to linguistic professors who get involved in 'democratization chic' always 'rooting ... for the underdog' and suggesting 'every isolated incident of diffusion must be part of a trend'.

Sometimes it really does seem that the USA is totally isolated from the rest of the world. Indeed, students and visitors to the USA had better realise that they need to deal with the English that is used there, as Americans have little time or patience for new-fangled ideas about 'New Englishes' or anything else that might be going on in the rest of the world.

Just yesterday, there was a discussion on the change of Toyoda (the family name) to Toyota (the name of the car) on Language Log, and the writer made the unwise statement that 'in English Toyota and Toyoda tend to be pronounced much the same'. Now, this is only true in (some varieties of) American English, something that was quickly pointed out in the Comments section. But soon after, another contributor noted:
US English-speaking population: 300 million+
UK English-speaking population 60 million
What about the millions of speakers of English in Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Nigeria .... ?

It really sometimes seems that people in the USA are not aware of what is going on in the rest of the world. There are millions and millions of speakers of English who do not live in the USA or the UK, but many folk in the USA seem to feel that these people are irrelevant.

24 February 2010

shoes and slippers

I recently saw this sign on the outside of a building in Brunei:
Now, a purist might object that this is ungrammatical and argue that it should say: 'No shoes or slippers' rather than 'No shoes and slippers', for the rule in Standard English is that or rather than and is used after a negative. Furthermore, some might argue that there is a useful distinction between 'No A and B' (which indicates that either A or B is OK, but not both together) and 'No A or B' (which indicates that neither A nor B is OK). According to this interpretation, the sign suggests that you can wear shoes or slippers into the building so long as you don't wear them both!

Yeah, yeah. The problem with this is that everyone understands the sign perfectly well, and moreover the rule I just gave, that or not and should be used after a negative, is pretty obscure. And this rule does not seem to apply in most varieties of New English emerging around the world.

I predict that, in the future when New Englishes are likely to have an increasingly important role in the development of the language, 'No shoes and slippers' will become perfectly acceptable, and only a few out-of-touch purists will try to cling to the traditional form.

Languages evolve all the time, and this is just the kind of simplifying change one would expect to occur in the evolution of English. The only new thing here is that this change seems to be originating in the New Englishes of places such as Brunei rather than the UK or USA.

21 February 2010


Here is the headline from the front page of the Media Permata of 22 February:
This can be translated as '25% of the Population of Brunei Like to Read'.

This is supposed to be good ― the headline writer clearly thinks that 25% of the population enjoying books is excellent, something to celebrate. But my question is this: what about the other 75%? Don't they enjoy reading? And if not, why not?

Let's put this in context. Brunei traditionally has an oral culture, where great value is placed on family gatherings and chit-chatting over shared food. As such, some of my colleagues have told me that, when they were young and enjoyed being alone and reading a book, they were criticised for being antisocial. So maybe getting 25% to enjoy reading really is a mark of success.

Even so, it does seem a little strange that 25% is regarded as something to be pleased about, especially in today's knowledge-based economy where so much of the focus is on getting as many people as possible to achieve a high level of education.

19 February 2010

Moths and Butterflies

Here is a picture of a hawkmoth (family Sphingidae) that is common in the vicinity of the UBD Belalong Research Centre in Temburong. (I am grateful for Donald Quicke, from Imperial College London, for sending me this picture.)

While we were in Temburong, Donald was supervising his student there, and he told me that there is no scientific distinction between butterflies and moths, just like the lack of distinction between frogs and toads that I discussed earlier (see Frogs and Toads).

Now, in popular usage, we tend to think of them as different, of course. Butterflies are diurnal and they tend to be brightly coloured. In contrast, moths are mostly nocturnal, and because they use scent to find their mates, their antennae tend to be larger. However, there is no scientific basis for this distinction, and they are both classified as Lepidoptera.

This is one more instance where popular language usage deviates from scientific taxonomy.

17 February 2010


Here's part of another sign I saw in Temburong:
When I first saw it, I thought there was a mis-translation, as mendakwa usually means 'accuse'; and here it is being used for 'prosecute'. (In this case, the passive verb is used: di dakwa; but it is derived from the active mendakwa.)

But then I looked it up in a dictionary and found that mendakwa can have two meanings: 'accuse' or 'prosecute'. So we might say that Malay has the superordinate (more general term) while English has the hyponyms (more specific words). In this case, because the English version uses a more specific term, the translation is not quite equivalent.

16 February 2010


One of the curses of being a linguist is that, when everyone else is admiring the view, I stand there analysing the language of signs. And my wife accuses me of only listening to the way people speak, not what they are saying. Ah, well, never mind.

Here is part of a sign at the foot of the canopy walk in Temburong. It means 'it is forbidden to engage in other activities'. Note the use of the word aktibiti, which is, of course, from the English word activity.
Note first that Malay has no [v], so [b] is used instead. But what really surprised me about this sign is the occurrence of the word aktibiti. Why not use the Malay word kegiatan? There seems to be no reason at all to borrow an English word when there is a perfectly good Malay word that means exactly the same thing.

It seems, sometimes, that the Malay language is being overwhelmed by English.

15 February 2010

Frogs and Toads

In my previous blog, I discussed the Wallace's flying frog that we saw in Temburong. Here is another picture of a Wallace's flying frog, this time in its natural habitat. (I am grateful to Ulmar Grafe for sending me this picture.)
Something I learned while on this recent trip is that there is no scientific basis for a distinction between frogs and toads. In common usage, we call something a toad if it has a rough skin that may be covered in warts, and it is a frog if it has a smoother skin. But there is no taxonomic basis for this distinction.

This seems a bit like distinctions we make in other areas of language use. For example, politician and statesman have the same denotation (they refer to the same person) but a different connotation (statesman is more positive). Similarly, eat and dine have the same denotation (they refer to the same activity) but a different connotation (dine sounds rather posher). And maybe this is similar to the distinction between frog and toad ― they refer to the same creature, but toad has a more negative connotation.

Or perhaps it is just a case where scientific taxonomy and everyday linguistic usage diverge. In popular usage, frog and toad seem to refer to quite different animals, even though scientific evidence does not confirm this distinction.

Wallace's Flying Frog

I just spent two wonderful days at the UBD Research Centre at Kuala Belalong in Temburong, on a Brunei Nature Society trip organised by my UBD colleague, Ulmar Grafe. One of the things we saw there was a Wallace's flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus):

These frogs have webbed feet that allow them to glide quite effectively through the air, and this is why they are described as 'flying frogs'. They are unique to the region, which illustrates why Brunei is such a splendid place for studying biology.

I asked Ulmar why flying frogs are only found in this region, and not, for example, in the Amazon forests. He said that the reason is not certain, but it might be because the forest canopy is higher here, which gives an advantage to frogs that can travel efficiently from tree to tree.

While we were admiring this creature, my wife asked if we could see it flying, and another participant on the trip, Edith (who is from France) thought she had asked to see it frying. I'm not sure if this is because, being Chinese, my wife doesn't differentiate [fl] and [fr] too clearly at the start of a word, or if French people immediately think of food when they see a frog. Maybe it was a combination of these two factors.

12 February 2010


In my previous post, I discussed issues concerning translation, particularly how to deal with brother. One of the reasons for this issue is that English tends not to show status, so we generally don't make a distinction between older and younger siblings.

In fact, there are multiple issues concerning status and showing the proper degree of respect when we translate from Malay to English. In Malay, there are different words used when discussing the actions of royal people, specifically the Sultan and his family. For example, when the Sultan eats, one uses the word santap rather than the ordinary word makan; and if he gets sick, one uses the word gereng rather than sakit. Maintaining this degree of respect when translating into English is not straightforward.

In fact, respect towards people of royal status affects grammar as well as individual words. For example, if the Sultan visits a school or opens a new building, in Malay one needs to include the word berkenan before the verb. This is almost like the -s verbal suffix in English, which is used show that the subject of the verb is 3rd person singular. But instead of indicating whether the subject is singular or plural, Malay uses the word berkenan to indicate the royal status of the subject.

How can we render this into English? When Queen Elizabeth performs some kind of official function, we do not use a special word in front of the verb, because indicating this degree of respect is not part of the grammar of English. So how can the proper respect expected in Malay society be incorporated into English?

The solution adopted by journalists in English-medium newspapers in Brunei is to use the word consent. So they might say "The Sultan consented to visit a school yesterday". This seems a bit odd to people not familiar with local customs; but when you realise that consent is the translation of the Malay berkenan, then it begins to make more sense.

09 February 2010


In an earlier post (rice), I discussed the issues involved when we try to translate between one language which has a general term (a superordinate) and another language which only has the more specific terms (hyponyms). In reality, dealing with rice is not too problematic, as the meaning usually becomes clear from context.

However, in some other cases, there is more of a problem. Take the English term brother. Neither Malay nor Chinese have this superordinate term, as they both distinguish between older and younger brothers (Malay: abang/adik; Chinese: 哥哥/弟弟).

So what do you do if you want to translate an English sentence such as "His brother was waiting outside" into Malay or Chinese? You simply have to make a decision between an older or younger brother, and if you don't know, you have to guess.

What about the other direction? Suppose we want to translate a Malay sentence with abangnya or a Chinese one with 他的哥哥 into English. Of course, we can render it as his older brother. The problem with this is that it is a bit unnatural in English, as it would be more usual just to say his brother. In this case, we have to see how important the status of the brother is in the context. If it is important to know that the brother is older, then his older brother would be fine. Otherwise, just his brother would be better, even though it involves some loss of meaning.

05 February 2010


My colleague, Adrian Clynes, has for a long time been making observations about personal names in Brunei. For example, my current class of second year students includes female students called Aqilah, Azimah, Hazirah, Mazidah, Rafidah, Syafiqah and Zafirah. Do you see the pattern? There is a strong tendency for girls' names to be three syllables, with /a/-/i/-/a/ as the three vowels.

Why do people select a name following this pattern (though of course they are nearly always unaware that they are following any pattern)? It seems that, in selecting names, we go for familiar patterns, even if we do not realise it.

Yesterday, my second grandchild was born, and she has been called Elsie. Now my wife's name is Ellen (a name she selected herself — her real name is 艶 玲 Yan Ling). My son's name is Alexander and my daughter's Elizabeth. Then my grandson is Oliver and my granddaughter is now Elsie. Do you see the pattern? Every single one begins with a vowel followed by /l/, and for the females, the initial vowel is always 'e'.

It seems that following a familiar pattern in selecting a name is not just found in Brunei. And, just the same, my son was certainly not aware that he was following any pattern when he and his wife chose the names for their children.

04 February 2010


Here is a picture of my lunch today:

Why do so many bloggers in Brunei show pictures of their food? How can anybody anywhere in the world possibly have any interest whatsoever in what I ate for lunch?

OK, OK, so people in England talk endlessly about the weather, and this can seem pretty bizarre to people from elsewhere. In linguistics, we call this phatic communication: most conversations take place to oil the wheels of social interaction rather than to exchange information. And it has long been known that only a small percentage of things we say actually provide new information, such as or 'Beethoven died in 1827' or 'Salt is a compound of sodium and chlorine' or 'The meeting is next Monday'. Instead, most of what we say every day consists of things such as greetings, apologies, expressions of appreciation and other ways to ensure that our progress through life is comfortable and sociable. And discussions of the weather fit exactly into that kind of framework, as they offer an opportunity for extended phatic communication.

Now, the weather in tropical places such as Brunei does not change much from day to day, so it would rather quickly get pretty tedious as a topic of conversation. And that is maybe why people discuss food instead. Indeed, in Singapore, the standard greeting in the middle of the day is 'Have you eaten your lunch?'.

Even so, showing photos of one's lunch on a blog seems pretty strange to me. Do people in England take photos of the weather and put them on their blogs? Maybe they do, I don't know. I have to admit I don't follow too many personal blogs of people in England, so I'm rather out of touch.

Anyway, just in case you were concerned, the curry puffs and tomatoes were delicious!

03 February 2010


Yesterday, I was giving a short presentation on 'Teaching Electronic Communication' at a conference at ITB, and the question arose (as it so often does) whether the writing of young people today is being corrupted by SMS-style abbreviations. Indeed, this seems to be a concern around the world, though I am not sure there is actually any solid evidence that the writing of young people is getting worse.

I would like to consider one aspect of this, something that might be affecting the influence of short forms in SMS messages: the use of predictive texting (where you press each key just once and let your mobile phone sort out what the word is). I suggest that this will help with spelling, as you need to know how to spell correctly for it to work; and it may also reduce the use of abbreviated words, as it becomes faster to type the whole word than the shortened form.

However, in Brunei, predictive texting may be used less widely than in some other countries, because of the widespread preference for English/Malay code-mixing. I am pretty sure that few implementations of predictive texting can handle mixed text, and this may be why most texters in Brunei still use the traditional way of typing out messages, even though that involves so many additional keyclicks. (I admit I don't have any data on this, and it would be fascinating to find out.)

One other possibility is this: if predictive texting does become popular in Brunei, it might have a substantial influence on the occurrence of code-mixing in text messages.

02 February 2010


I currently teach a module on translation at UBD. Translating from one language to another can provide interesting insights into the nature of language, the ways that it represents certain concepts, and the ways it reflects differences between societies.

In English, we have the word rice. In both Malay and Chinese, however, there are three different words:
  • if it is still growing in the fields, it is padi in Malay and 稻 in Chinese
  • if it is for sale in the shops, it is beras in Malay and 米 in Chinese
  • if it is ready to be eaten, it is nasi in Malay and 饭 in Chinese
First, within the framework of semantics, we can say that English only has the superordinate (more general term), while Malay and Chinese only have the hyponyms (more specific terms).

Next, we can consider why this difference occurs. That is easy: rice has always had a central role in Malay and Chinese society, so it is natural that finer distinctions should be drawn in the way it is discussed. In contrast, rice has in the past had a less important role in English-based societies.

Finally, we can discuss what to do about it when we are doing translation. If we are going from Malay or Chinese into English, using the word rice is not generally a problem, as usually the context is sufficient to indicate which sort of rice is involved. But we should remember that there may be some degree of loss of meaning if we use a superordinate term when the original had a hyponym. In the opposite direction, translating out of English, care must be taken to ensure that the appropriate word is chosen in the target language, either Malay or Chinese.