31 May 2010

No Durians

Here's a sign I saw on the entrance to a hotel in the town of Limbang, in Sarawak (Malaysia). It means: No Durians.

It's a sign I have seen many times in Singapore but never in Brunei. I'm not sure why. One of my colleagues tells me it's because Bruneians love the smell of durians, so they wouldn't want to stop people bringing them into a building. I remain unconvinced.

The word durian is interesting. It is from Malay, and the root of the word is duri ('spike'). So it means 'spiky thing', which makes sense.

We might also note that the Mandarin Chinese for 'durian' is 留連 (liúlián), which is a borrowing from Malay. I don't know of any other words borrowed from Malay into Mandarin.

28 May 2010


I have previously mentioned problems finding words in a Malay dictionary (here) and also apparent anomolies in the way my dictionary lists some items, particularly double listing of some words (here).

One reason for pointing out anomolies is that they can be quite revealing about the structure of the language. So here is the puzzle for today: what is the root of the word menipis ('to get thinner')? Is it tipis or nipis, both of which are listed in my dictionary as meaning 'thin'?

The first of these, tipis, is a much more common word; but the second, nipis, does exist, as in limau nipis ('lime'). Also in an article on page 1 of the Media Permata of 29 May, the new Apple iPad is described as "tablet hitam nipis" ('a thin black tablet').

So, back to the puzzle. What is the root of menipis? The answer according to my dictionary is: both! The word menipis is listed twice, once under tipis and again under nipis.

One way to resolve which of these is correct is to find out what the passive form would be: ditipiskan or dinipiskan? (My UBD colleague Adrian Clynes tells me that the -kan transitive suffix is necessary for this to work.) I'll try to find a suitable way to phrase that as a question to present to my Malay colleagues.

27 May 2010

Missing Flag

Have a look at my flags on the right. Personally, I find them really pretty, and I try to make sure I know which country each one represents.

The largest contingent of visitors is from Brunei (as one would expect). Then there are plenty from Singapore, the USA, Malaysia, the UK, and the Philippines. There are also quite a few from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Germany, Norway, Japan, India, Korea, ... all of which is splendid.

Do you see one country that is missing? OK, so there's nobody from Myanmar, even though there are some from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos (all the rest of ASEAN). But there's nothing too surprising about the absence of Myanmar. So which big country is missing? Not too many from Russia, Brazil or Nigeria, but there are a few in there.

So what is the major country that is absent? The answer, of course, is China. Nobody from China has ever visited my site, even though I have taught exchange students from China. I asked them to try accessing it when they got back home; and they confirm the site is blocked!

I'd love to claim that my writing has been banned in China, as that would be brilliant for marketing. But the reality is that everything hosted by Google is blocked.

Now, I admit that failure to read my ramblings is not the end of the world; but I wonder, how much else are people from China prevented from accessing?

25 May 2010


This is part of the sign on the entry to the observation tower at Tasek Lama:It would be more usual in English to refer to steps rather than stairs or staircase.

We might consider this issue a bit further. In Malay, there is just one term: tangga. In contrast, in English there are two terms: stairs if they are inside a building; and steps if they are outside. We can say that Malay only has the superordinate (more general term), while English only has the hyponyms (more specific terms).

Of course, it can work the other way round, as with padi/beras/nasi in Malay compared to rice in English (something I have discussed before here).

Superordinate/hyponym differences such as this can easily give rise to problems in translation.

Actually, there are some other differences in the two versions on the sign. A literal translation of the Malay would be: "It is forbidden to run when climbing up or down the steps of the tower". I'm not sure why the English version is so much shorter, though certainly the contrast is not quite as large as in other signs I have seen (e.g. here).

23 May 2010

Tasek Lama

I know I've shown a similar picture before; but this view of BSB from the path up the hill from Tasek Lama ('Long Lake') is really quite stunning.
It is an extraordinary privilege to live in a capital city where every morning I can go for a walk in the forest just five minutes away from my home and see a view like this.

21 May 2010

kompaun / compound

The Malay word kompaun means "an on-the-spot fine", for example an immediate fine for speeding or dumping rubbish illegally. It appears to come from the English word compound, but with a substantial shift in meaning.

According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, one of the meanings of compound is "to agree for a consideration not to prosecute", and presumably this is the origin of the Malay kompaun. However, this must be an archaic use of the word in English, as I have never heard it used in that way.

What is interesting is that the word compound, as in 'prison compound', is probably derived from the Malay word kampung ('village'), though again we note a substantial shift in meaning, as it does not refer to a village when used in 'prison compound'.

So we have compound being borrowed into English from the Malay kampung, and at the same time we have kompaun coming from English compound. Quite a splendid example of bidirectional borrowing!

20 May 2010

Signs in Tasek Lama

There was recently a tree-planting ceremony in Tasek Lama, in BSB.

When I saw the signs next to the newly-planted trees, I thought they were helpfully showing their botanical names, just like those in Bukit Mentiri (here).

However, closer inspection revealed that each sign actually indicates the name of a VIP who graced the occasion and planted the tree. Very Bruneian that, to show proper respect to important people.

Even more Bruneian is the fact that all the trees on the left of the road were planted by male dignitaries, and those on the right were planted by women. So there was no danger of inappropriate mixing of the sexes, even when planting trees.

19 May 2010

Forbidden Food

This is the sign at the entrance to Tasek Lama Park in BSB:The Malay says: "It is not allowed for any kind of food to be brought into the park."

I'm not quite sure why the Malay version is so explicit while the English is so terse. Does stating it in more words make it more effective in Malay? For the English version, does the succinct nature of the message make it more effective? If so, why would there be this difference?

Or perhaps it is felt that it is best to keep the English version short in case some people do not have very good English.

17 May 2010

Teenage Pregnancy

In my previous posting (here), I commented on doubtful statistics in newspaper headlines.

Of course, this issue is not only found in Brunei newspapers ― newspapers throughout the world are notorious for their dubious use of statistics. Here's a classic headline from a newspaper in the USA:

16 May 2010


I sometimes find the use of statistics in newspapers (and elsewhere) troubling. Here is a headline from an article on page 1 of the Media Permata of 13 May 2010:This can be translated as "The rate of mobile phone use in Brunei is 104.9%".

104.9%? OK, so I know what it means: for every 100 people, there are 104.9 mobile phones, which means that some people have more than one. (Why people need more than one mobile phone beats me, but let's leave that one alone.)

What troubles me is this: suppose the usage was 40%. Then we might assume this meant that 4 out of every 10 people had a mobile phone; and we probably would not think it meant that 3 out of every 10 had one but some people had two. So at what point does the percentage figure change, to include the possibility of double ownership?

I do think that percentage figures over 100% are misleading.

14 May 2010

thought / taught

I was recently reading a book (written by Edison John) about Racha Umong, a member of the Lun Bawang tribe from eastern Sarawak state who become a Christian pastor and was eventally elected as a state and then a federal representative of his people. The book is nicely written, and it has few grammatical flaws; but I was momentarily caught out by the following, about the guidance that Racha received from his father Umong:Presumably, thought is a mistake for taught.

This error is easy to explain: in Malaysian English (as well as the English of Brunei and Singapore), there is often no distinction made between /θ/ and /t/, so words like three and think are regularly pronounced with [t] at the start. As a result, thought and taught are likely to be homophones, and writers may get confused between the two.

This conflation of /θ/ and /t/ is reinforced by borrowings into Malay: terapi ('therapy'), teori ('theory'), tema ('theme'), and metanol ('methanol') are all written with 't' rather than 'th' and are pronounced with [t], so it is not surprising if these words also get pronounced with [t] in the English spoken in Malaysia.

One might note that distinguishing between /θ/ and /t/ helps people to avoid errors in their writing. On the other hand, there are plenty of homophones that writers need to learn to distinguish, such as there and their (which lots and lots of people around the world confuse all the time), so perhaps adding a few more is not such a big issue. Furthermore, failure to distinguish between /θ/ and /t/ is so common in this region that it is doubtful if it causes too many conversational misunderstandings.

12 May 2010

and / or

This is part of the announcement the Chief Invigilator makes at the start of exams at UBD:
You are not allowed to leave the examination hall during the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes of an examination.
I could be really pedantic and say that this means that you can leave during the first 30 minutes or you can leave during the last 30 minutes just as long as you don't do both.

The traditional rule in Standard English is that "not X and Y" means you can't do both X and Y, though doing one of them and not the other is fine. In contrast, "not X or Y" means that you are not allowed to do X and you are also not allowed to do Y. (I have mentioned this before, in connection with "No shoes and slippers" here.) Presumably, the intended meaning of the announcement is that both X and Y are against the rules, so according to the traditional rule, it should be or rather than and.

But is it really true that the exam announcement is badly formed? I suspect that only a few linguists and other pedants like me might notice anything noteworthy about it; and virtually everyone else, both expatriates and Bruneians alike, will understand it perfectly well without batting an eyelid.

I previously argued that "not X and Y" to mean "neither X nor Y" is becoming the norm in World Englishes. This announcement is a good illustration of how this pattern can be used with no problem at all.

11 May 2010

Exam Food

It is exam time at UBD. Are we the only university in the world that provides food for its invigilators? Do they think we might starve to death or something?Actually, I rather enjoy the opportunity to chat to colleagues from other faculties while taking a break from invigilating an exam, so perhaps the provision of food for invigilators does achieve something useful.

However, given the figure of 55% of government employees in Brunei reported to be obese, I wonder if we really be should be offered curry puffs. Wouldn't it be better if we were given some fruit?

10 May 2010

can test

This is a sign in a well-known video store in Gadong:In standard English, many people might regard this as ill-formed, as the finite verb can requires a subject. However, things are not actually so simple. In fact, there are quite a few finite clauses even in standard English that do not have a subject.

First, there are imperatives. For example, "Stand up" and "Come here" are both perfectly well formed, but neither has an overt subject.

Next, expressives often omit the subject. For instance, "Hope to see you soon" is a formal expressive that has no subject.

Then with ellipsis, it is possible for the subject to be omitted in conjoined clauses. In "John finished his meal and then went home", the second clause has no subject, because it has undergone ellipsis.

Finally, diary style often omits subjects: "Got up, ate breakfast."

With so many exceptions, it is not surprising if the possibility of a subjectless clause gets extended to "Can test here", especially in new varieties of English in places such as Brunei. In fact, I suspect this kind of sign might also sometimes occur in the UK and USA. So perhaps it is not so ungrammatical after all.

07 May 2010

Word Order

Have a look at the word order in the full name of the Bukit Shahbandar park in both English and Malay:If we treat Bukit Shahbandar as a name so it is a single entity, then the order of the elements in Malay is the exact reverse of those in English: park is last in English but taman is first in Malay; recreation is second from the end in English but rekreasi is second from the start in Malay; and forest is immediately before recreation in English but hutan is immediately after rekreasi in Malay.

This reflects the fact that Malay is a head-first language: the head of a noun phrase (in this case taman) occurs at the start of the phrase, and all modifiers occur after it.

In contrast, this seems to suggest that English is head-last, with modifiers occurring before the head of the noun phrase, in this case the noun park.

Unfortunately, things are not quite so simple. In fact, English is usually classified as head-first, because in noun phrases such as the following, the head noun is at the start. (The head of each phrase is shown in red while the modifying clause or phrase is in blue.)
books which I have read
discussion of that issue
students sitting at the front
objects left in the room
The difference here is that the modifying elements are not just single words but are rather longer elements. I always think that English should be classified as end-weight: long things (such as relative clauses or prepositional phrases) come after the head but short things (single-word modifiers) come before the head.

Malay is rather simpler: the head of a noun phrase always comes at the start, and all modifiers come after it, regardless of whether they are long or short.

05 May 2010

Mixing On-Line

BruDirect offers an on-line discussion forum that stimulates considerable freedom in expression, both in terms of content and style, partly because contributors generally adopt a pseudonym which means they can remain anonymous. I have discussed the extent of English/Malay mixing in BruDirect before (here).

Recent changes in the rules concerning credit cards have given rise to lots of discussion on BruDirect. Below is a contribution on 24 March 2010 (here) by someone using the pseudonym orang bawah ('subordinate person'). (I have attempted to show the Malay items in red, though some such as bank are ambiguous, as it is both a word in English and a borrowed word in Malay.)
apalah urg mempost ani….bank masih mencharge ‘2% interest’ every month lah….8% atu minimum payments lah until june…

i know some banks ada yg mempush dulu suruh tani apply credit card…but honestly, bukan salah bank…its us, tau dah duit dalam ‘credit card’ atu duit pinjam, ngapa d garut sampai panuh? well nobody is perfect…even i learn from all of this…
This might be translated as:
Which person posted this ... banks still charge 2% interest every month, and those 8% minimum payments are until June.

I know there are some banks which have pushed in the past to get us to apply for credit cards, but honestly it's not the fault of banks. It's us, for we already know that money on a credit card is borrowed money, so why is it swiped till it's full? Well nobody is perfect. Even I learn from all of this.
In addition to observing the extent of mixing between English and Malay, we can note the following:
  • there's considerable SMS-style abbreviation, with urg an abbreviation for urang ('person'), yg instead of yang ('which'), and d an abbreviation for the passive di prefix
  • there's quite a lot of Brunei Malay, so urg (urang, 'person') is used rather than the Standard Malay orang, and ani ('this') and atu ('that') occur instead of the Standard Malay ini and itu
  • the Malay meN- prefix is added to English words: mempost, mencharge, menpush
(My thanks to my UBD colleagues Ayla and Adrian for help in analysing this.)

04 May 2010


Malay seems to favour repetition, something I have mentioned before (here), where I suggested it may be a rhetorical device to achieve emphasis.

On page 1 of the Media Permata of 4 May 2010, I saw this:
... e-mail yang dihantar itu adalah palsu dan tidak benar.
which might be literally translated as "the email that was sent is false and not true". Surely false and not true mean exactly the same thing!

In the English written by people in Brunei, we similarly often see this kind of repetition. For example, a student recently sent me the draft of a research proposal where she plans to "compare and contrast" different styles of speech, even though the meaning of compare and contrast is almost identical.

In writing English, it is best to find some other way to achieve emphasis. Maybe in the "email" example above, a good translation into English might be "the email that was sent is definitely false".

However, in the "compare and contrast" example, there seems little need to emphasise the issue, so it might be better to use one of the words on its own.

03 May 2010


Here is a picture from page 2 of the Media Permata of 3 May, 2010.The caption under the picture might be translated as: "Fragrant rice which was found in the bonnet of a car and which it is believed was being smuggled out of Brunei to a neighbouring country, but which was seized in an operation that took place yesterday."

The trouble with this is that the rice is clearly in the back of the car, and in British English we call this the boot rather than the bonnet (Americans call it the trunk rather than the hood). It seems that in Brunei bonet can unexpectedly refer to the back of the car rather than the front.

We can call this a faux amis (or 'false friend'): you think you know the meaning of a word, but in fact you don't.

A faux amis can occur when a word is borrowed from one language into another and then it undergoes a shift in meaning. A classic example is the French word librarie, which looks like it means 'library' but in fact means 'bookshop'. The word was borrowed from French into English and then its meaning shifted, and it is not surprising if this can lead to confusion for English learners of French and also for French learners of English.

My Brunei Malay dictionary confirms that bunit (the Brunei equivalent of bonet) indeed refers to the back of the car, though I am not sure if this shift in meaning is only found in Brunei or if it is also true for the Malay spoken in Malaysia and Singapore.

02 May 2010

Blue Eyes

This is the picture accompanying an article on the front page of the Media Permata of 26 April 2010. It shows a local fellow called Ahmad with his grandson, who rather surprisingly has blue eyes.The article discusses the issue, including the fact that there is no history of mixed blood in the family. But what caught my eye was the final paragraph:
Ahmad berkata, ibu cucunya itu ... semasa hamil gemar bermain dengan seekor kucing peliharaan mereka yang bermata biru.
which can be translated as "Ahmad said that, while the mother of his grandson was pregnant, she liked to play with their pet cat whose eyes are blue."

The idea that a pregnant woman playing with a blue-eyed cat could result in her baby having blue eyes seems to reflect a particularly Malay outlook on the world.

01 May 2010


While in Limbang, I saw this sign. Note the 'd' on the end of aircond.Abbreviating words is very common in English. (In linguistics, we call it 'clipping'.) For example, bus comes from autobus, fridge comes from refrigerator, and flu comes from influenza.

In this part of the world, air-conditioner is also nearly always shortened. However, in Brunei and Singapore, it usually becomes aircon, with no final 'd'.

But in Limbang, the extra 'd' seems to be the norm − I saw it not just on this sign but on two others as well. I'm not sure why people in Limbang (and maybe elsewhere in Malaysia?) use this slightly longer version.

It probably makes no difference to the pronunciation, as I expect the [d] would not actually occur in speech. But some other variant clippings do affect the word quite substantially. When we first moved to Singapore many years ago, my wife made a mistake with the abbreviation of condominium. This is usually shortened to condo, but she included a final [m], which is a bit unfortunate.

Luckily, the presence or absence of a final [d] on aircon(d) does not have such consequences.