29 November 2010

More on two/three

When I sent my previous post to Rich Homer, the flight instructor I mentioned earlier, he replied with the following story which I will quote verbatim:
... about 4 weeks ago I was flying from Labuan airfield back to Brunei with a Bruneian student pilot. The Air Traffic Controller asked us what altitude we wanted to transit back to Brunei at. My student pilot answered saying that we wanted 2000ft. Labuan ATC replied "roger, cleared to transit at 3000ft". My Bruneian student acknowledging the clearance replied "....cleared to 2000ft...". I was now a little bit confused so I said to ATC "...what altitude do you want us to transit at....?". ATC replied "...whatever altitude suits you best..." (or words to that affect). So I said in my British accent "....request 2000ft...". ATC replied "...roger cleared to transit at 3000ft...". Slightly aspirated myself I replied ".....cleared to transit at TREE TOUSAND FEET..." and got on with the rest of the flight.
It is interesting that he believed the best way to sort out the misunderstanding was to use his British accent; but this proved to be no help.

In her work on ELF-based teaching, Jennifer Jenkins stresses the importance of accommodation, adapting your speech to the needs of your listeners. In this case, the instructor did not know how to accommodate to the needs of the listener, so he emphasised his British accent instead. Unfortunately, this was not helpful.

I have explained to him that, if this occurs again, he might pronounce two more like 'do', using something similar to a [d] as the initial consonant. He might also use a fully back [u:] vowel rather than the fronted vowel we tend to use in Britain. Let's hope that this knowledge might help avoid a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding in the future.

26 November 2010

Pronunciation of 'two'

In my previous blog, I mentioned the discussion I had with Rich Homer about confusion between altitude and attitude.

When we started chatting and he asked me what I do, I replied that I do research on vowel measurement, which he found hilarious. (Maybe he heard a /b/ rather than a /v/ at the start?) But then we started talking about problems with speech in Brunei, and he said that people here often mistake his two for three, which he finds hard to understand.

Actually, it's not too difficult to explain it. You need to know three things:
  • In the UK, we tend to have a fronted /u:/ vowel, whereas in Brunei it is a fully back vowel. So it is not surprising if people in Brunei hear a British /u:/ as /i:/.
  • People in Brunei tend to have [t] rather than [θ] at the start of words such as thing and three. So in Brunei, three often starts with [tr].
  • In Malay, an initial /t/ is unaspirated, so two sounds a bit like do in Britain. As a result, an aspirated /t/ at the start of two can easily be misheard as [tr].
When you put these three things together, it is not difficult to explain why two might be heard as three; and a bit of knowledge about phonetics (including the measurement of vowels for the fronting of /u:/) can actually turn out to be useful!

24 November 2010

altitude / attitude

Last night, I was talking to a chap from the UK called Rich Homer who teaches flying to trainee pilots in Brunei, and he told me that confusion between some English words can be a problem here, because of local patterns of pronunciation. When I asked him for some examples, he suggested that altitude and attitude can be confused.

This sounded surprising to me, as I couldn't think of any situation when these two words might be mixed up, so context should always sort it out. But apparently attitude has a technical meaning in flying, as it refers to the tilt of a plane. For example, Concorde used to land with its nose up in the air, and this would be described as its attitude. So you can see that an instructor might ask a student about the altitude of the plane and be given its attitude instead, or vice versa.

What is interesting here is that the problem may be occurring because the /l/ in altitude is being omitted, presumably by a process of L-vocalisation (the /l/ is being pronounced as a vowel). However, though L-vocalisation is common in many New Varieties of English, including that of Singapore, it is also found in the UK, particularly in London English. So this confusion between altitude and attitude is actually liable to happen for speakers throughout the world, not just in South-East Asia. I find it stunning that the aviation industry can use such similar words for such a crucial distinction.

One other consideration is relevant here: in her recent PhD thesis, Salbrina Sharbawi suggested that L-vocalisation does not occur in Brunei English, partly because final /l/ is common in Malay (in words such as ambil 'take' and kapal 'ship') and is not usually vocalised in Malay. So in fact, it is possible that it is the UK instructor's pronunciation that is causing the problem and not the pronunciation of his students.

23 November 2010

hor in the speech of Singapore children

I have just finished reading an interesting article by Goh and Ho (2009), describing the speech of children in Singapore.

The study analyses the speech of three six-year-old children who are referred to as A, B and C. The one with the most developed speech is B, and I will quote his narration of a story (p. 53) in full:
One day hor ... one day hor ... got one ... a girl hor she got wear one purple hat ... then suddenly the wind blow away to one tall tree ... so the elephant ... After that, hor, got one elephant ... but the elephant's trunk not long enough, then she asked the monkey. Then the monkey go and take. Then hor she asked the money take her hat so the monkey climbed on the tree to take her hat for her. Then after that she said, 'Thank you'. Finished.
On reading this, I note how articulate this child is, even if he does have five tokens of the pragmatic particle hor (from Hokkien) and also some non-standard word-usage. And one might note that the 84 words that he uses in retelling his story are far more than those by the other two children (39 words and 22 words). In fact, I might even conclude that the use of hor helps child B to tell his story successfully, and I would expect that, in time, he will learn to avoid such particles when writing and when speaking in formal situations.

While the authors of this article also note the greater fluency of child B compared to the other two, they ask "whether or not he would be intelligible to a non-Singaporean listener" (p. 50) and they conclude that "there should be a strong emphasis on the teaching of standard spoken English in Singapore schools from Primary 1" (p. 52).

While they are absolutely right that it is essential for Singapore students to gain a good command of standard English, I wonder if one really needs to worry about this for six-year-old children. And it seems to me that an obsession with standard English and the avoidance of any errors can stifle the creative joy of using language.

Let us now consider the full narrative of one of the other children in this study, child C (p. 53):
The boy kicked a ball and he fell down into the water er ... Into the water ... erm ... one man saved him ... and people clapped...
There aren't too many errors there, but there's not much language either.

So which sample indicates more advanced language development? Quite clearly it is from child B. And I think a strong argument could be made that his regular use of hor is actually an indication that he is developing sophisticated pragmatic linguistic behaviour. I can't see that it is anything to be concerned about.


Goh, C. C. M, & Ho, G. (2009). Talking beyond the here-and-now: Singaporean preschoolers' use of decontextualized lanuguage. In R. E. Silver, C. C. M. Goh, & L. Alsagoff (Eds.), Language learning in new English contexts (pp. 32-54). London: Continuum.

20 November 2010

Football Idioms

When we are using English as an International Language (or 'English as a Lingua Franca', ELF), Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should avoid use of idioms. For example, she notes that to chill out causes problems for international users of English, and it would be better instead to use relax (Jenkins, 2009, p. 45).

I wonder about this, as it seems to me that, if we avoid all colourful idiomatic phrases, our language becomes incredibly bland. Sometimes I think we should instead be looking to enrich the language, by adopting new idioms from around the world, rather than avoiding idiomatic usage. On the other hand, Jenkins is absolutely right, that we must always be sensitive about how we express ourselves, and if we see that listeners are failing to understand something, we should endeavour to rephrase our ideas in more straightforward terms.

I was thinking about idiomatic usage as I was watching an English Premier League game last night, Arsenal v. Tottenham. And I noted down the following idiosyncratic football idioms from the commentators:
  • Arshavin was on his bike
  • Arshavin wasn't going to allow him to get up a head of steam
  • Arsenal can put it to bed before half time.
  • in comparison with the Manchester derby a couple of weeks ago, chalk and cheese
  • credit again to Gallas for slamming the door shut
  • that would be a real feather in the cap for Harry Redknapp
Football commentary is full of these phrases, some of which seem to be idiosyncratic for football. Are they clichés, reflecting the tedious usage of commentators who don't have the time or imagination to think up something fresh and original? Or are they part of the colourful, idiosyncratic language associated especially with football commentary?

One way or another, I feel sorry for foreign language learners who struggle to grasp what is going on. A very common phrase in football commentary is under the cosh, to indicate that a team is under a lot of pressure; and I can imagine a learner of English looking up cosh, finding it is some kind of weapon, and then puzzling over this phrase. In reality, most native speakers who know the phrase under the cosh have no clue what a cosh is.

So, should we avoid using such phrases in international settings? My feeling is that it's fine to use them just so long as you are always sensitive about the potential for being misunderstood and are then prepared to rephrase yourself using other terms. In linguistics, we say this is part of accommodation, and it is an essential skill for successful international communication.


Jenkins, J. (2009). Exploring attitudes towards English as a Lingua Franca in the East Asian context. In K. Murata & J. Jenkins (Eds.) Global Englishes in Asian contexts: Current and future debates (pp. 40-56). Basingstoke, UK: Continuum.

17 November 2010

APA Style

As editor of our FASS journal South East Asia: A Multidisciplinary Journal, I need to apply a consistent formatting system, and we are using the APA style. Just today, my UBD colleague, Gary Jones, gave me a copy of the APA style book (published in 2005):Quite apart from the observation that a tome with 212 pages is hardly concise, there are some startling comments on grammar. For example, see if you can guess what they think is wrong with the following two sentences from page 14, both of which are labelled as "incorrect":
  • These data only provide a partial answer.
  • The participants were tested using this procedure.
The answers are that, in the first, the word only "should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies", and that, in the second, there is a "dangling modifier", as there is no obvious subject for using. The suggested correct versions are:
  • These data provide only a partial answer.
  • Using this procedure, I tested the participants.
This is absolute nonsense. There is nothing at all wrong with either of the sentences, and it is stunning to see such rubbish promoted by people who clearly have no clue.

Language Log has a long history of campaigning against such idiocy from self-professed style experts (eg here). It looks like the APA style book is a prime candidate for their analysis.

16 November 2010

A Jolly Hangman

I was interested to read (here) that the British author Alan Shandrake has been jailed for six weeks for writing a book about the death penalty in Singapore.

The authorities in Singapore are concerned about the contents of this book. However, there seems no better way to guarantee it gets maximum publicity than to imprison its author. (This is sometimes known as the 'Streisand Effect', after attempts in 2003 by Barbara Streisand to restrict access to pictures of her house had exactly the opposite effect, by ensuring that lots and lots of people had a good look at the pictures that had upset her.)

Now, if I could get someone to ban my Edinburgh University Press book on Singapore English, that would do wonders for sales. I might even consider traveling especially to Singapore to promote it if I could guarantee to be arrested! Surely someone important somewhere must have been just a little bit annoyed by things I said?

13 November 2010


My UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, tells me that in Malay there is a common expression:
Anda anak keberapa.
which might be translated as "Among your siblings, which number are you?" Note how difficult it is to ask this question in English.

Similarly, in Chinese, you can ask:
你   在   家 中       排 行   第几
ni   zai jia-zhong paihang di-ji
you at house-in   rank which-number
My dictionary glosses 排行 as "one's seniority among brothers and sisters", which is a good explanation even if it is rather clumsy in English.

Why does English lack a word for this? The first thing to note is that seniority among brothers and sisters is less important in the English-speaking world than in East Asian societies. For example, Both Malay and Chinese differentiate older and younger brother (Malay: abang/adik; Chinese: 哥哥/弟弟) while English does not. So it is not entirely surprising that English does not have a word for one's family ranking.

However, there is a wider issue here, something that has been discussed by Arnold Zwicky in his blog (here): you can state "Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States", but how do you ask a question of this? "Which numbered president of the United States is Barack Obama?" is not grammatical.

It seems that English lacks an expression for asking "which number". Some people have suggested manyeth, so you might ask "Which manyeth president is Barack Obama?", but this has not caught on.

We usually say that, even if a language does not have a word for something, one can almost always express the concept by some other means. But it really does seem that English has no easy way to ask this question.

Try another example: "It is now the eleventh month of the year." Now try and make that into a question. "Which month of the year is it now?" probably gives you the answer "November", not "The eleventh".

09 November 2010

Linking [r]

In British English, we do not usually have an /r/ at the end of a word. But if the next word begins with a vowel, a word-final 'r' may be pronounced as what we call a 'linking [r]'. As a result, "four eggs" may be pronounced as [fɔːregz].

However, there is a question of whether this linking [r] is identical to a full /r/. For example, is "your eyes" pronounced exactly the same as "your rise"? Are both pronounced as [jɔːraɪz]? Or is the linking [r] that can occur at the end of your a bit less prominent than the initial /r/ that occurs in rise?

I was reminded of this when I was discussing translation with a colleague, and I suggested that one day automatic interpretation might be possible, perhaps with a device just like the bablefish that is described in Douglas Adams' futuristic Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. My colleague said, "You just put it in your ear". Then, after thinking for a moment, he said, "Let me say that more carefully" and repeated the sentence with a pause between your and ear, thereby eliminating any possibility of a linking [r].

If "your ear" is said fast and the linking [r] becomes the same as a word-initial /r/, then the phrase "You put it in your ear" becomes a bit unfortunate.

08 November 2010


I always tell my students that research is a non-count noun, so *my researches and *a research are incorrect. But is this true?

I noted the following extract from an article on page A5 of The Brunei Times of 7 November 2010, which suggests that research is nowadays changing and becoming a count noun.
But what about in the English found in other countries, such as the UK or USA?

Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly straightforward to check such things. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is available on-line (here), offering immediate searches on 410 million words of contemporary American English.

A search on "researches" is not much good, as the word can be used as a third-person singular present-tense verb. So I searched instead for "my researches". And I found 13 instances of this sequence:
  • and my researches and forecasts will allow us to ...
  • that I include my researches on micro-adaptations ...
  • in all my researches, I find none prior to them ...
  • push my researches up to the very spring-head ...
  • During my researches in the Leviathanic histories, ...
  • those who helped me in my researches in Lebanon ...
  • I drew my own conclusions from my researches.
  • from my researches I find it doubtful that ...
  • after I had finished my researches on the Marquis de ...
  • My researches did reveal that John H. Fouch was ...
  • I also noted in my researches into such dubious matters ...
  • is in the nature of my researches and in the nature of ...
  • From my researches, which included an interview with
In fact, a search for "his researches" found even more: 20.

It seems, therefore, that research is nowadays being used quite widely as a count noun. Maybe I should no longer correct the writing of my students.

05 November 2010

kiasu in Brunei?

Singaporeans are famed for being kiasu, a Hokkien word meaning 'fear of losing out'. For example, people in Singapore seem to be willing to queue up for hours to get some special offer or free handout.

What about Brunei? What is the equivalent of kiasu in Malay?

One possible answer is that the pace of life in Brunei is somewhat less intense, and as people are a bit more laid-back, they do not exhibit kiasu behaviour so often.

However, the desire to get a special offer or handout seems almost a universal human trait. In Britain, for example, you can see people queuing up for hours and then jostling with each other to get the best bargains in New Year sales. And Brunei is probably no exception in this respect.

Currently, there is a special offer for a free selection of Brunei Halal food worth about $10, using this coupon in the Media Permata local newspaper. (Tawaran Istimewa means 'special offer'.)
On page 1 of Media Permata of 6 November, I read about people queuing up for 30 minutes before the shop opened to get their special offer, and one person is described as:
beliau tidak ketinggalan untuk menukar kupon dengan produk-produk Brunei Halal
which might be translated as:
he did not want to be left behind in exchanging his coupon for Brunei Halal products
So maybe tidak tinggalan ('not left behind') is the Malay equivalent of kiasu.

04 November 2010


There is an interesting discussion by John Wells on his Phonetic Blog (here) about the way spelling can influence pronunciation. For example:
  • forehead used to be pronounced as /ˈfɒrɪd/ (so it rhymed with horrid), but now it is usually /ˈfɔːhed/
  • scallop was once /ˈskɒləp/ but now for most people it is /ˈskæləp/
  • falcon used to be /ˈfɔːkən/ but now increasingly it is /ˈfælkən/
  • the 't' in often was once generally silent, but the word seems increasingly to be /ˈɒftən/
The incidence of such "spelling pronunciations" seems to be even greater in places such as Brunei. For example, salmon almost always has an /l/ in it, even though the 'l' is traditionally silent; and subtle generally has a /b/, even though the /b/ would be silent for most people in Britain or the USA.

Another spelling pronunciation I hear very commonly in Brunei is company with /ɒ/ rather than /ʌ/ in the first syllable. In fact, in recordings of undergraduates at UBD, I found that 13 out of 20 have /ɒ/ in the first syllable of this word.

This is not entirely surprising. In fact, the English town Coventry was once pronounced with /ʌ/ in the first syllable but now it generally has /ɒ/; and similarly the /ʌ/ in the first syllable of constable is now /ɒ/ for some speakers.

I suspect that Bruneians are actually at the forefront of linguistic change in the way they pronounce company. In fifty years time, everyone will be saying it that way, except perhaps for a few old-fashioned traditionalists in Britain.

02 November 2010


Two different people have told me about this instance of army slang in Brunei: putmama meaning 'food warmer'. It doesn't seem to occur outside of the army, as my first-year undergraduates have heard of wamar (from 'warmer'), but not putmama.

My guess is that it hints at being rude, as is perhaps not surprising for army slang. The mama part could also mean 'mother'; and the put? I'll let you work out for yourself what that might be.