31 December 2011

Singular 'they'

I sometimes see students write sentences like this:
Every student must remember to bring his book.
I believe that it is inappropriate to use his if some of the students are female, so I recommend avoidance of usage like that.

So what should you do? Some people suggest his or her. While that is certainly non-sexist, it is rather ugly.

How about the following?
Every student must remember to bring their book.
Traditionally, this would be regarded as wrong, as their should refer to a plural noun, and student is singular. But the use of their and they to refer to a gender-neutral singular noun is becoming increasingly acceptable.

In the on-line Guardian (here), I saw the following, quoting a medical specialist:
But if any woman is worried, then they should contact their surgeon or GP.
Here, they is used even though we know that the referrent must be female and so she would seem to be perfectly OK.

It seems that they really is becoming more acceptable for referring to indeterminate singular nouns; and I believe it is no longer appropriate for English teachers to mark it as wrong.

28 December 2011

Word Spacing

There's a curious phenomenon in the local Malay language newspaper of sometimes allowing words to be printed with almost no space between them. For example, this is from page 4 of Media Permata of 29 December 2011:I find this very difficult to parse, because of the lack of spacing between the words. If we break it up, it is:
membawa pembangunan pesat sosioekonomi
('bring fast socio-economic development')
And here is another example from the same page:which is actually:
Ekspo itu juga mengadakan pertandingan
('The expo also has a competition')
I am not sure if this lack of spacing between words only occurs with Malay, or if it also occurs in English language newspapers but I don't notice it because I find it easier to parse English. My guess is that it is more common with Malay.

The issue clearly arises because of the long word at the end a line. However, elsewhere in the newspaper, there is plenty of hyphenation to split up long words and maintain normal spacing. So it is not clear why hyphenation is not used in these two examples.

My guess is that the software has difficulty doing it automatically for Malay, so it has to be done manually; and the typesetters don't have time to get it completely right for every single article every day. In contrast, automatic hyphenation is easily implemented for English, so it is not a problem in English newspapers.

21 December 2011

Language Confusion

In my previous post, I discussed confusion over the meaning of 'fasting', specifically whether it involves abstaining from drinking water or not. A friend in America, Judy Gilbert, wrote to me saying I was lucky I only had to abstain from water from 1 pm, as in her experience she was not allowed to have any water after 12 am.

Now, that raises another confusion: what do we mean by 12 am? Is it midnight or midday? I don't think anyone knows. Which is why many people prefer to say 12 midnight or 12 midday. (You may also notice that flights never arrive or leave at 12 midnight, because then nobody knows which day it is. If I say 12:00 midnight (00:00) on Wednesday, does it leave Wednesday early morning or Wednesday late at night? I believe that flights always arrive or leave at 23:55 or at 00:05, but never at 00:00.)

Anyway, it is interesting to note how confusing language can be, even in the absence of cross-cultural issues such as that involving 'fasting'. For example, if I suggest we meet up next Friday, when should you come? The Friday later this week, or the following one, next week? Nobody seems to know.

And here's another one: in the UK, if I invite you to tea, do you expect to have a meal or just a few cakes with a cup of tea? Nobody knows. And at least once my wife and I have had the embarrassing situation of inviting somebody for tea and then, after quite a while when they didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave, suddenly realising that they were expecting a complete meal.

English really is confusing. But maybe all languages are.

20 December 2011


Recently, I had to undergo a procedure in the hospital, and I was told that I should fast on the day of the procedure, from 1 pm onwards.

Now, what do you understand by that? My understanding was that I should not eat food, but I could drink as much as I liked. But when I arrived at the hospital, the nurse saw me drinking water, and I was then told that the procedure had to be postponed because fasting involves abstaining from water as well as food.

I just checked my New Webster's Dictionary, and this is what it says about fasting:I also checked my Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, and this is the entry:Both dictionaries confirm that fasting is about abstaining from food, but there is no mention of water.

The confusion arises because, in Brunei, during the month of Ramadan, all Muslims engage in puasa, which inolves abstaining from food and water from dawn till dusk; and in English this is described as fasting. In other words, there has been a shift in meaning of this word as it is used in Brunei English.

I now know that you cannot undergo an anesthetic if you have been drinking water, and if the nurse hadn't seen me drinking water, they would have gone ahead. In my case, there was no permanent damage, as the procedure was rescheduled. But I can imagine cases when this misunderstanding could be fatal.

14 December 2011

Learning the IPA

There is a cartoon called Penny and Aggie where the two main characters have just started university, and it tracks their experiences in attending a course in introductory linguistics. Here is an extract from one of them, in which the professor explains that there are 107 symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). (See here for the full strip.)There are a couple of things I did not understand in this cartoon until I saw them discussed in Language Log (here).
  • The green IPA symbols appearing behind the student are a direct allusion to the 'green rain' from The Matrix.
  • The student is probably panicking because she has just discovered that she cannot enter the IPA on her tablet.
Now, I have seen The Matrix, but I did not pick up the allusion; and I just assumed that she was panicking because she had to learn so many new symbols. It seems there are rather a lot of things in the modern world which I need help in understanding!

I just hope my students at UBD don't panic so much when I introduce the IPA to them.

09 December 2011

Traffic Lights

This is the headline and picture from an article on page 9 of Media Permata of 9 December 2011:The headline says: 'Mata-Mata junction traffic lights start operation'.

I wonder in how many other countries you might find the installation of a set of traffic lights reported as a news item in the national newspaper.

I guess that is because in most countries there are strikes, riots, floods, and other more urgent things to report. Maybe that is why I like living in Brunei.

Let's hope the new traffic lights help improve the flow of traffic along Jalan Gadong.

06 December 2011

Pronunciation of Malay

I have been developing a webpage (here) on the Pronunciation of Malay, built around a paper I wrote together with my UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, and published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association (Vol 41, No 2).

Developing a website that is complementary to a paper published in a journal raises some interesting issues. In the website, you can do so many things that are not possible in a printed article, including:
  • linking the recordings directly to the text, so that readers can easily listen to the data
  • linking each in-text citation to its entry in the List of References, to enable readers to follow up a reference with a click of the mouse
  • facilitating cross-referencing, so you don't just find 'see below', but can easily follow through a link
and many more (not all of which I have implemented).

Currently, publishing in international journals is the gold standard by which academics such as me are judged. But I am certain that this is going to change, unless the journals adapt fast (which, of course, they are trying to do). And when that happens, I suspect that printed copies of journals will become quaint relics of a bygone era.

One issue that will remain is how we referee on-line research papers, to ensure that the material that is published is properly vetted. Already, there is too much rubbish available on the Web, and there is a need to sift out the solid research from the dross.

We will see how this is achieved.

03 December 2011

Pronouns in Malay

I have been watching a Malay film called Putar Alam. Some of the characters, particularly the sophisticated, modern women, seem to use English pronouns throughout. For example, in this scene, the woman says: 'You tak boleh buat I macam ni!' ('You cannot treat me like this'), with you and I inserted into a sentence that is otherwise entirely Malay:I find it interesting that I is used as the first person pronoun in both subject and object position. I would have predicted that me would be used as an object pronoun, but that doesn't seem to happen.

Here is another scene, where a different female character says 'Duduk dengan I' ('Sit with me'):Again, I rather than me is used, even though the pronoun is clearly the object.

29 November 2011


In my previous posting, I discussed the contrast between wholly (with a double /l/) and holy (with a single /l/), and I suggested that in English this contrast might only occur in medial position with /l/.

A correspondent, Peter Tinkler, has suggested that thinness and thinnest may exhibit a similar contrast, with thinness having a double /n/ (because the suffix is ‑ness) while thinnest has a single /n/ (as the suffix is ‑est). Given that the final /t/ in thinnest may sometimes be omitted because of consonant cluster reduction, these two words may indeed potentially be distinguished solely by means of the length of the medial /n/.

This is pretty convincing to me; so it seems that not only /l/ can be geminate in English.

Other examples of doubled medial consonants in English are bookcase and part‑time, with a geminate medial /k/ and /t/ respectively. But note that both bookcase and part‑time are compounds, while thinness and thinnest involve suffixes; and I think the latter examples work better.

28 November 2011


In a recent Phonetics Blog, John Wells transcribed wholly as /həʊlli/, and the double ('geminate') /l/ surprised me. But checking in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary confirms that he indeed uses a geminate /l/ in the middle of this word, and futhermore it contrasts with holy which is shown in the dictionary as /həʊli/ with a single /l/.

I suspect this contrast between single and geminate medial consonants in English mostly occurs with /l/, possibly because the geminate /l/ is likely to be a dark /l/ (phonetically shown as [ɫ]). For example, the following words involving a medial /t/ are all perfect rhymes, suggesting that there is no contrast between single and geminate /t/:
  • city, pity (single morpheme, spelled with one 't')
  • ditty, kitty (single morpheme, spelled with two 't's)
  • gritty, witty (two morphemes, spelled with two 't's)
One comment under John Wells's blog suggests that bookcase ~ book-ace may offer a contrast between a geminate and single /k/, but at the very least this is less common than the wholly ~ holy contrast.

It is interesting that Malay also has this potential contrast for a medial /l/. In Malay, /l/ is normally clear, including in intervocalic positions such as salah ('wrong') and malah ('but'); however, in Allah it is a dark /l/, reflecting the importance of the word in religious contexts and the fact that it is an Arabic word. Now, malah ~ Allah is not quite a minimal pair, but it is quite close.

25 November 2011


I am just grading an exam paper. One question includes the following:
In the following sentence, the word died occurs. Often, we use a euphemism to refer to something unpleasant such as death. Rewrite this sentence with a euphemism in place of died.

   My grandfather died last month.
A couple of students offered the following as their answer:
   My grandfather a euphemism last night.
Now, how many marks should I give to that?

18 November 2011


My UBD colleague, Salbrina Sharbawi, tells me that the Brunei Malay word gigiran means 'to blurt out random words when startled'. (The Standard Malay equivalent might be melatah; but it is maybe not quite the same, as Adrian Clynes tells me that melatah usually refers to blurting out crudities.)

For gigiran, Salbrina says that the words she blurts out usually involve chickens, such as ayam melatup 'exploding chicken'.

Now, why doesn't English have a word like gigiran? It seems such a splendid word. Mind you, I can't imagine myself saying something like 'exploding chicken' when I am startled, so maybe we don't actually need a word like gigiran in English.

17 November 2011

Misparsed Words

In my previous post, I discussed the pronunciation of biopic, specifically whether the stress is on the first or second syllable.

Failure to recognise that it is actually bio(graphical) + pic(ture) can be regarded as an instance of misparsing. My UBD colleague, James McLellan, suggested the following additional examples:
  • underfed : pronounced as [ʌndɜ:ft], in the mistaken assumption that the final ed is a suffix
  • manslaughter : misparsed as man's laughter
What about words in Malay? There is a naïve belief by some people that there is a one-to-one link between spelling and pronunciation. But what about cukai ('tax') and mulai ('to begin')? The first of these is two syllables, because it is a single morpheme, while mulai is three syllables, because it is mula + i. But there is no way to tell this from the spelling unless you parse the words correctly. And the first time I heard mengenai ('about') spoken, I was stunned to realise that it is four syllables, because I had failed to realise that it is meng + kena + i.

And, while we are discussing the parsing of words, note that I wrote naïve with two dots over the 'i' to ensure you can read it correctly as two syllables [naɪi:v] rather than monosyllabic [naɪv]. Those two little dots over the 'i' are really quite helpful.


How do you pronounce biopic? I always assumed it would be stressed on the second syllable, because it has a final -ic suffix, which generally fixes the stress on the syllable before it. So I assumed it would be pronounced as [baɪˈɒpɪk].

But I was just reading a Language Log posting (here) which discussed the fact that it is actually a blend of biographical + picture, so it should be pronounced as [ˈbaɪəʊpɪk] with the stress falling on the first syllable. And I just confirmed in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary that this is correct.

But, I still wonder. If enough people pronounce it like I do, won't that make it correct? Even if dictionaries list it with the stress on the first syllable, will it eventually change to be stressed on the second syllable?

Other words where this may be happening are rhetoric and Arabic. I have often heard people in Singapore and Brunei placing the stress on the second syllable of these words, because of analogy with all the other words with an -ic suffic (atomic, botanic, bionic, nomadic, phonetic. fanatic, frenetic, nostalgic ....). Maybe one day it will be standard for rhetoric and Arabic similarly to be pronounced with stress on the second syllable.

Another word in this category (though not involving the -ic suffix) is inventory. Traditionally, it was stressed on the first syllable. But how many people still do this? I suspect most people now place the stress on the second syllable, especially in this part of the world. And if that is the way the majority of people say it, who is to say they are wrong?

11 November 2011

Allusions and Shared Culture

In my previous posting, I discussed an allusion to 42, and the fact that none of my students in Brunei have heard of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I think is sad.

In my year one class at UBD, I use the opening pages to 1984 by George Orwell as a text for grammatical analysis, and very few of my students have heard of that either. I find this also rather disappointing.

But maybe texts such as Hitchhiker and 1984 are now dated. Maybe I should not be expecting young people today to be familiar with the books that were fashionable when I was younger. Maybe there is a whole range of books and films that they all know and can refer to, using allusions that I would presumably miss.

But are there? First, my students don't seem to read too much, so I'm not sure there are too many books that most of them have read.

But what about films and TV shows? Are there films and shows that they have all watched, so they can make subtle references to them in the expectation that their classmates will pick up the allusions?

My impression is that there is no such shared culture. And the reason for that is that people here (and elsewhere) generally watch satellite TV where there are a huge range of programmes to choose between. So you don't get the situtation where you might assume that lots of people are watching the same shows as you (as was the case when I was young, with Doctor Who or Top of the Pops and things like that).

In many ways, the wealth of material that different people can gain access to, via satellite TV or the Internet, is something we should celebrate, so the lack of a shared culture among young people is just a reflection of the diverse material they can choose from. Yet, I still feel it is a pity.

But perhaps this is just an old fogey like me whingeing on once again about "the good old days"!

09 November 2011

The Answer is 42

I was just reading a post in Linguist List (here) discussing the issue of making data available and thereby allowing research to be checked and replicated. In it, there is a quote from a book The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, edited by Tony Hey, Stuart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle, including this extract:
I’ve talked about publishing literature, but if the answer is 42, what are the units? You put some data in a file up on the Internet, but this brings us back to the problem of files. The important record to show your work in context is called the data provenance. How did you get the number 42?
The use of the number 42 is not random. It is a direct allusion to the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where a computer is programmed to solve the meaning of everything, and it comes up with the answer 42. So then it has to come up with the question, which turns out to be rather difficult. Quite a clever allusion, really, in the context of providing full details about published research.

What is interesting about this extract is that the allusion is not explained, as you are expected to know it. Explaining it (as I have just done) would be regarded as rather tedious for people who are familiar with the book and so know perfectly well what 42 refers to.

I have mentioned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to some of my students in Brunei, and I have not yet found one of them who has heard of it, let alone read it. This means that none of them would pick up the allusion to 42.

Does this matter? Maybe you don't need to get all allusions, and you can still understand the basic ideas of an article with no problem. But it still seems to me that you are missing something vital if you read the extract I gave above and don't know about 42.

On the other hand, there are almost certainly lots and lots of allusions that I don't get, particularly as I don't watch very many films and I also don't read as much as I should. So perhaps I'm actually in the same boat.

08 November 2011

naik minyak

In Malay, we often find calques ('loan translations') from English. Examples include: kenderaan pacuan empat roda ('four wheel drive vehicle'), mengambil peperiksaan ('take an exam'), sestiausaha tetap ('permanent secretary'), and many, many more.

But sometimes calques come from other languages. In this respect, I was interested in the following headline from page 1 of the Media Permata of 9 November 2011, at the top of a news report about a buffalo that declined to participate in the Hari Raya Aidiladha sacrifice and ran wild instead, causing all kinds of mayhem.Literally, it says 'Buffalo increases oil', but the naik minyak part looks suspiciously like it comes from the Chinese expression 加油 (jiā-yóu, 'add oil'), which is used to refer to a sudden increase in energy, for example for a team that needs an extra spurt of effort in order to win a game.

I don't know if naik minyak really does come from the Chinese expression; but it looks rather likely.

07 November 2011

thangs for fisiting

The Chairman LOL website (here) mostly features funny translations into English from Chinese. But there are also a few photos from other languages, such as this one from Malay:One might consider for a moment how it came about.

First, there are no final consonant clusters in Malay; so when a word such as bank gets borrowed into Malay, it is usually pronounced as [baŋ], with no final [k]. And it is easy to see how confusion between thang instead of thank could occur.

Next, there were originally no labiodental fricatives /f, v/ in Malay, though they do occur in some borrowed words, such as faham ('understand'), fikir ('think') and fitnah ('slander') from Arabic, and fail ('file'), fius ('fuse') and filem ('film') from English. Initial /v/ is less common than initial /f/, but we do find visa and van from English.

My dictionary lists 85 words with initial /f/ and only 34 with initial /v/, so it seems /f/ is rather more common. Furthermore, all the words with initial /v/ are from English, while many of those with /f/ are from Arabic, so the latter probably feels a bit more comfortable as a sound in Malay.

And this might explain the mistake at the start of fisiting.

04 November 2011

Ali Baba

The following headline occurred on the front page of the Media Permata of 29 October 2011, introducing a news item about companies that appear to be owned by locals but are actually run by non-Bruneians:The headline can be translated as 'Don't just become Ali Babas', and I was bemused by this allusion to the story of Ali Baba, a simple merchant who discovered the secret code to open the cave where a bunch of thieves kept their loot.

My UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, explained it to me: Ali is a general-purpose Malay name, while Baba refers to someone Chinese (as in Baba Malays, who are in fact ethnically Chinese). So Ali Baba refers to a company that seems to be headed by a Malay but is actually run by Chinese; and it has nothing to do with the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Then I asked my year-four students if they knew what it means. Most had no clue, though a few thought it might be about something that is not quite what it seems, and only one knew that it refers to a company whose ownership is hidden; but even she could not explain why the term Ali Baba is used.

It is interesting that the newspaper uses a colourful term like this which local people are not familiar with; but then my fourth-year students are taking an English-medium degree, and almost certainly none of them ever read Media Permata. So I guess this article is not really intended for them.

28 October 2011

Aerial Photo of UBD

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, UBD published a booklet with lots of interesting photographs, including this aerial view of the campus:Unfortunately, this photograph has been printed the wrong way round! To confirm this, have a look at this scan from page 6 of the Brunei Darussalam Street Directory:Notice that the road bends to the right before reaching the T-junction; and the mosque is to the right of the road (i.e. the east); but in the aerial photo, the road bends to the left, and the mosque is on its left, suggesting it is in the west of the campus.

There are two interesting things about this. First, even though I am quite familiar with the layout of the UBD campus, it was hard for me to confirm that the photo was wrong, even after my geographer colleague, Bill Duane, pointed it out. I had to compare it with the map before I was able to convince myself that he was right. I guess most of us do not have very well-developed spatial awareness, apart from geographers who are trained in that kind of thing.

Secondly, how did it get inverted? In the days of analogue photography, with negatives and so forth, inverting a photograph was common; but in the modern age, when most photographs are digital, that should not be possible (unless someone wanted to do it deliberately, which seems rather unlikely in this case). This suggests that the photograph must have been taken with an old-fashioned analogue camera.

27 October 2011

Appropriate Attire

Some culturally-specific words are almost impossible to translate into English. For example, for the recent graduation ceremony at UBD, we were provided with a short instruction sheet, including some advice on etiquette and attire. On one side it is in Malay and on the other in English. The Malay includes the sentence:
Orang-orang Haji dibolehkan memakai ketayap tetapi hendaklah BERTENGKOLOK
with the last word capitalised (presumably to show it is rather important). The English translation that is offered is:
Only black songkoks should be worn.
which is rather simpler. A more accurate translation might be something like: "People who have been on the haj are allowed to wear white caps but only if they have a rim and a tassle down the back." No wonder the writer didn't attempt to provide a completely accurate translation!

In fact, there is an accompanying picture which is quite helpful:

22 October 2011

Hot-hot Chicken Shit

Sometimes I can read something in Malay, and although I know all the words, I still don't know what is going on. Here is an extract from the front page of Media Permata of 18 October 2011, about a mother of four in her thirties who has just graduated from university.This might be translated as:
According to her, a hot-hot chicken shit attitude must be avoided in our life because it will prevent us from achieving success.
Hot-hot-chicken shit? Now, what can that mean?

My UBD colleague Malai Ayla tells me it means having lots of initial enthusiasm for something but then not persevering with it. She also tells me that local people sometimes jokingly translate it literally into their English. And, indeed, I found this blog entry (here):
Another Hot-Hot Chicken Shit Plan To Lose Weight.
I started to go swimming at MMU swimming pool 3 weeks ago. This is inspired by the fact that my medical checkup result is not indicating that I am a fit person....
I love expressive language like that (even if I struggle to understand it). I think I might start using the expression myself!

19 October 2011

Web Promotion

I quite often receive a message from someone (who shall remain anonymous), and the message goes something like this:
My name is XXX from XXX.net. Just wanted to drop you a line as a new fan of your Blog. It's great finding a blog with such informative resources and creative insights. On a related note, we recently published an article that deals with Language. So we thought you might want to share it with your readers.
At first sight, this seems rather nice: this person has read my blog and thinks it is informative and creative. Splendid! In addition, she thinks her own material might be of interest to my readers, so she hopes I might pass on the link to them.

But look again: she has not actually said anything specific about my blog. In fact, she almost certainly has not read it. The reason I know this is that I have received this message, or something rather similar to it, many times now, and although the message I get is always carefully worded and very complimentary about what I write, it never actually says anything specific about my material.

This is just quite a clever spam message that is trying to promote another website by means of saying nice things about mine. My guess is that this message is sent out to hundreds and hundreds of bloggers in the hope of fishing for a few extra links to their site. They probably have a database of email addresses, and they send a message like this out to all of them automatically once a week or so.

You really have to be careful about the messages you receive in this Brave New Electronic World. Things are not always quite what they seem.

15 October 2011

Deferential Language

I recently picked up a copy of the July/August issue of Muhibah ('Harmony'), the Royal Brunei Air magazine. In it, there are some articles in both Malay and English. The translation appears to be high quality, which allows us to consider how things are represented in the two languages without worrying about "errors".

For example, take this extract from page 53 of an article entitled 'Patriotic Art', talking about a recent art exhibition in BruneiNow compare this with how the same thing is rendered in the Malay version of the article, on page 57:Note that the Malay version is a bit longer. Let us consider why.

In Malay, the full title of the Sultan is given: Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, Sultan dan Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Brunei Darussalam; but in the English, this is truncated to His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah. The first part is omitted in the English, and also the name of the country of which he is the Sultan.

In addition, note that the Malay has the phrase 'berkenan mencemar duli'. This literally means 'deigned to pollute his feet', though of course that is not what it really means, as it is a fixed phrase to show respect in reporting the actions of the Sultan. In English, this is reduced to one word 'graced'.

Clearly, the translator felt that there is less need for such elaborate honorifics in English, whereas in Malay it is always important to use lots of special vocabulary to show the proper level of respect.

08 October 2011

Google Translation

The limitations of automatic translation are illustrated in an interesting recent Language Log posting (here). It appears that a protester in New York wanted to show the message
No more corruption
in Chinese, and so he typed it into the Google Translate facility and got this:
(You can try it yourself to confirm it.)

The problem here is that the Chinese actually says: "There is no more corruption", which is almost certainly the opposite of the message the person was hoping to put on his banner.

In fact, you get just as bad a result if you use Google Translate to translate 'No more corruption' into Malay:
tiada rasuah lebih
We really must be careful how much we depend on automatic translation software at present.

Txtng in Malay

It is fascinating how young people play with the language, especially shortening it, when they send text messages. And we might ask whether different groups use different abbreviations.

My Year 1 student, Nurul Radhiah binti Mohd Mussadik, who is originally from Malaysia, gave me this example:
nk g mkn x
which is the abbreviated form of:
nak pergi makan tak ('do you want to go and eat?')
For nak ('want') and makan ('eat'), just the vowels are omitted; for pergi ('go'), the letter 'g' is used to represent the prominent final syllable of the word; and for tak ('not'), an 'x' is used to represent the ✘ symbol to indicate something is incorrect.

What is further interesting is whether Bruneians can understand this. A UBD Masters student, Diyana, looked at it and read 'g' as lagi ('again') rather than pergi, and 'x' as kali ('times') rather than tak; so she was unable to understand it. This suggests that there are substantial differences between the texting of Malays in Brunei and Malaysia.

Finally, we might note that 'g' for pergi and lagi is in both cases using one letter to represent the final syllable of a word; and 'x' for tak and kali is in both cases using one letter to represent a non-verbal symbol. But the meaning that is represented by these single letter abbreviations is different for Brunei and Malaysia.

07 October 2011

Dangerous Roads

I just read an article on the on-line Guardian (here) that five people are killed every day on the roads in the UK. While this is, of course, tragic and shocking, we should think a little bit about the numbers.

There are 60 million people in the UK. If 5 people are killed every day, that represents one person every 12 million.

Brunei has about 400 thousand people. If we translate the UK death rate to Brunei, we would expect one person to be killed on Brunei roads every 30 days. Now, I don't have immediate access to the figures, but I am pretty sure that the death rate is rather higher than that. I believe it might be like one or two people per week.

My perception is that Brunei roads are rather safe: I seldom encounter complete nutters on the road, and I rarely suffer the problems of road range. But maybe that is because I mostly keep in the left lane, out of the way of such idiots. And it looks like Brunei roads are actually, overall, rather dangerous.

I guess I'll just stay in the left lane, out of the way of speed morons. If you want to go past me, please go. Just make sure you are ahead of me, where I can see what idiocy you are up to.

02 October 2011

Saya / I

I have been watching a ghost film called Seru. In it, there is this clip:The subtitle suggests the girl says:
Saya percaya benda halus ni memang wujud.
"I believe supernatural beings really exist."
But what she actually says is:
I percaya benda halus ni memang wujud.
with the English pronoun I rather than saya.

It is rather common for English pronouns such as I to be used in Malay sentences. I don't fully understand why.

30 September 2011


Writers must always be careful to avoid ambiguity. Have a look at this headline, which I saw on the BBC NEWS website on 29 September:When I first read it, I thought, "That sounds a bit harsh. The medics devote 15 of their years to caring for some patients, and then they are sentenced to jail for their trouble."

Then I thought about it some more and realised it must mean something else. Of course, what it really means is that the medics treated some protesters and then they were convicted to 15 years in jail for their efforts. It's a pity the journalist didn't say it more clearly.

Technically, we can say that it is ambiguous whether the adverbial 'for up to 15 years' modifies jails or treated. But it would be easy to rephrase the sentence to eliminate this source of confusion.

27 September 2011


Here's a photo of an advertisement in Brunei, sent to me my my UBD colleague, Salbrina Sharbawi. Note the use of current to refer to electricity.
This is almost certainly influenced by Malay, where karan is a borrowed word. My dictionary tells me it means 'electric current' (see right); but I suspect it usully means 'electricity'.

How mengaran comes to mean 'perm (hair)' is another issue.

22 September 2011


In my previous posting, I asked the question: when does a word that is borrowed from English become accepted as a word of Malay? How often does a word such as so need to be used in Malay before it is regarded as a word in Malay?

In that posting, I referred to the subtitles of a film. The same issue occurs with the subtitles of news reports. For example, here are two consecutive clips from the news report of 3 August 2009 from the Singapore channel Suria (available from YouTube here):
The subtitles suggest she said
Daripada kursus ini, saya banyak mempelajari macam mana untuk mengatur perbelanjaan keluarga dan perniagaan.
which might be translated as "from this course, I learned many things such as how to organise the expenses of the family and business."

But she doesn't actually say mengatur perbelanjaan ('organise expenses'). Instead she says membajetkan. Because this word comes from the English word budget, the writer of the subtitles clearly feels it is not good Malay.

Indeed, I can't find bajet in either of my dictionaries, even though I have heard it used quite often in spoken Malay. So, at what point might bajet be accepted as a word of Malay? How often does it need to be used, and by whom, for it to be regarded as a true word of Malay?

19 September 2011


Malay has lots and lots of words derived from English. At some point, they become used so often that they become accepted as words of Malay. But at what point does that happen?

One of commonest words of English I hear in Malay is so. But my dictionary does not accept it as a word of Malay.

Here is a clip from a film I have been watching: 3, 2, 1 Cinta.The subtitle gives 'Jadi, apa rancangan awak selepas ini?' ('So, what plans do you have after this?'). But the man actually begins this utterance with so, not jadi.

Obviously, the writer of the subtitles feels that so is not a word of Malay and so it is necessary to translate it into the Malay equivalent jadi. But maybe it is only a matter of time before so becomes accepted as a word in Malay.

14 September 2011


In my previous post, I discussed the pronunciation of triphthongs (the vowels in fire and hour) as well as the vowel in words like poor and tour in places such as Singapore.

What about the vowels in words such as say and know? How might they be pronounced in a standard accent that can be promoted by teachers? (Here, I will follow the suggestions of John Wells and refer to them as FACE and GOAT. This way, we avoid prescriptive statements about which pronunciation is "correct".)

These two vowels vary quite considerably in Englishes around the world:
  • in England, they tend to be pronounced as diphthongs: [eɪ] and [əʊ]
  • in Australia and New Zealand, the starting point is rather more open, and they might be transcribed as [æe] and [ao]
  • in the USA, they are diphthongs for some speakers, but especially for GOAT, there is less change in quality than in England, so this vowel is generally shown as [oʊ]
  • in Scotland and Wales, they tend to be monophthongs that can be transcribed as [e:] and [o:] (though length is not generally shown for Scottish English)
  • in many parts of the world, including India, East Africa, West Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, these vowels are monophthongs that might be shown as [e:] and [o:]
So, which of these pronunciations for FACE and GOAT can be encouraged in places such as Singapore and Brunei?

If speakers are going to England, Australia or New Zealand, maybe a diphthong is best. But for the rest of the world, a monophthong seems to be the most common pronunciation, and this probably achieves the highest intelligibility in a world setting.

This, then, is another feature of pronunciation where the most common pronunciation found in Singapore can be encouraged, as it is internationally intelligible. Furthermore, using a diphthongal pronunciation for these two vowels makes the speaker sound awfully British, which is something most Singaporeans probably want to avoid!

12 September 2011

Standard Singapore English

In my previous post, I mentioned that Lee Kuan Yew had said it is fine to sound Singaporean so long as you speak well and clearly.

This raises a question: what aspects of pronunciation can be encouraged so that speakers sound Singaporean but still speak clearly and can be understood in an international setting? In other words, what features of pronunciation might constitute part of Standard Singapore English pronunciation?

Actually, it is quite straightforward to suggest a few features of pronunciation that can be considered part of the Singapore accent but at the same time enhance intelligibility in an international setting. Here are a couple of suggestions (from my presentation at the ELIS launch that I attended last week):
  • In British English nowadays, there is a tendency for triphthongs, the vowels in words such as fire and hour, to undergo a process known as smoothing, as a result of which the vowel in both these words may be pronounced as [aə]. In fact, it is quite common in Britain now for tyre and tower to sound alike, and similarly shire and shower. In Singapore, this rarely happens, and triphthongs are generally pronounced as two syllables: fire is [faɪjə], and hour is [aʊwə]. As a result, tyre and tower would always be distinct, and so would shire and shower

  • In Britain, the overwhelming majority of speakers, especially young people, pronounce the vowel in words like poor, tour and sure as [ɔ:]. As a result, there is no distinction between poor and paw, or between tour and tore, or between sure and shore. Nearly all Singaporeans differentiate these words, as poor is [pʊə] while paw is [pɔ:], tour is [tʊə] while tore is [tɔ:], and sure is [ʃʊə] while shore is [ʃɔ:].
Note that in both these cases, Singaporeans are making distinctions that many people in Britain do not make, and I believe that the Singaporean pronunciation is more intelligible internationally.

I see no reason for Singaporeans to adopt the British pronunciation when it loses intelligibility; and I see no reason for people to try and pretend they come from the UK when they do not.

09 September 2011

LKY at ELIS Launch

In my previous post, I mentioned the launch of the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS), which I attended last week. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the event was the speech by Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore. Here is part of the picture from page A3 of The Straits Times of 7 Sept 2011, showing him together with some of the leaders of ELIS.At the end of the speech, he suggested that American English is likely to become increasingly influential in the future, partly because of the power of the American media. This is the headline next to the picture in the newspaper:This message seemed to cause panic among folk from the Ministry of Education, who apparently had no idea he would say that. Afterwards, they were bombarded with questions from the newspapers about what they planned to do in order to deal with this shift towards American English.

Actually, as far as I could tell, Mr Lee was just talking about spelling and maybe vocabulary, for he also said that it is fine to use your own accent so long as you speak well and clearly. This fits in very closely with the views of most academics involved in research on World Englishes.

08 September 2011

ELIS Launch

I am currently in Singapore, for the launch of the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS), which was held over the past two days in the MB Sands Conference Centre.

I was put up in the MB Sands hotel, which is absurdly grand. It is 57 storeys high and the top floor is a garden and swimming pool extending over all three towers. My room was on the 37th floor, which is way higher than I have ever stayed before. It was rather more luxurious than I am used to, but never mind. It was interesting, but also a bit overwhelming.

The launch of ELIS was a high-profile event, with lots of important guests from around the world. Singapore puts lots and lots of emphasis on encouraging good English among its citizens, and this new Institute seems to have big plans for developing fun and innovative teaching materials. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

04 September 2011


I have previously suggested that durian is a word that has been borrowed into English from Malay. In Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, that is clearly true. But what about in the USA, UK and Australia? Is durian a word of English for people there?In the top-right frame of the cartoon (printed in The Brunei Times of 4 September 2011, page B16), the man refers to 'that pointy fruit that smells like feet'. Either he does not know the word durian, or for the moment he can't remember it.

So, should durian be regarded as a word of English or not? How many people need to be familiar with a word for it to be listed as a word of English? This is not an easy question to answer. My New Webster's Dictionary lists durian, but that does not mean the dictionary is right.

The issue of what constitutes a word in English is complex, and that is why it is essentially meaningless to claim that English now has one million words (as some people have done). Instead, we need to acknowledge that there are many different Englishes in the world, not just based on place but also on register (legal English, medical English, scientific English, etc); and durian is a word in some of these varieties and not others.

02 September 2011


Some symbols are iconic. Even if you have never seen ☎ before, you can probably guess it is something to do with a telephone; and → inherently indicates something about looking right or turning right, or maybe being careful about arrows that are being fired from the left.

In contrast, many symbols are purely arbitrary. Sometimes it is hard to remember this when you have grown up with symbols that you are thoroughly familiar with.

Take ✓ and ✗, for example. We have come to believe that there is something inherently cheerful and positive about the tick and something negative and bad about the cross; but in fact, there isn't. If you had never seen either of these before, you would not be able to determine which one indicates that something is correct.

I was reminded of this when I was trying to decipher the meaning of the symbols on top of the fan in my living room:The one on the far left is clearly something about swinging, and the next one from the left is connected with timing. The second from the right is something to do with the the blowing of the fan (though quite what, I am not too sure). But what about the other two? I have no idea.

From trial and error, I have worked out that the top right one is the on-off switch. Splendid, though it remains a mystery why that represents on and off.

But what about the middle one? I am totally stumped.

Now, most of you growing up in the modern era might find this rather pathetic. You know exactly what it means, and you cannot imagine that anyone might have a problem. But just spare a thought for old fogeys like me who can't deal with new-fangled symbols like this. (I have tried hitting it a few times, but I am still mystified.)

Anyway, even if you know exactly what it means, have a look at it and see if you can explain to me in what way it is iconic rather than arbitrary.

(If I could find the instruction manual, I could of course solve this riddle immediately. But I can't find the damned thing; and who ever reads instruction manuals for goodness sakes?)

30 August 2011

terima kasih daun keladi

The Malay phrase 'terima kasih daun keladi' literally means 'thank you yam leaf', and it seems to be used very regularly. A Google search for the phrase gives 1,340,000 results. Now, I haven't checked them all, but certainly the first few involve the phrase exactly like that.

Now, why do Malays say that? It doesn't seem to make any sense. My colleague, Malai Ayla, tells me it is the first line of a pantun, a short rhyming ditty in Malay, and my colleague Adrian Clynes confirms that pantuns don't always make much sense. They are just bit of rhyming fun in Malay.

Further investigation suggests that the next line of the pantun is 'kalau boleh hendak lagi' ('if possible, want once more'). But that doesn't explain why people have adopted the phrase so widely.

One of my students suggests the image is of the yam leaf bowing down, to suggest humility. That strikes me as folk etymology, and it may not be the real origin of the phrase. But if people have that image, perhaps it might explain some of the popularity.

25 August 2011

mana aku ni takut

I've recently been watching a Malay film called Penunggu Istana ('The Ghost of the Palace'). It has a choice of Malay and English subtitles, which offers lots of opportunities for reflection about translating Malay into English. For example:for which the English equivalent is:Hmm .... "Where got I'm scared". Not the best bit of English I have seen!

"Mana aku ni takut" means something like "How can you suggest that I'm scared", or "What do you mean by saying that I'm scared". Actually, it's rather difficult to find an equivalent in English.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like "Where got I'm scared". It's simple and direct, and (with a bit of effort) I can understand it perfectly. I might even start using the construction myself.

23 August 2011


Here is a sign I saw in the Conference Centre in Hong Kong. Note the use of plural transports, a word which would be noncount in standard English.So this is a word which may be evolving into a countable noun in New Englishes such as those of Brunei, Singapore, and Hong Kong, just like furnitures, equipments, and fruits.

Hong Kong

I have just spent one week in Hong Kong, attending the 17th International Congress of the Phonetic Sciences.

Everything was run very efficiently, and the organisation was really impressive; but I found Hong Kong overwhelming. The buildings are very tall, many of the roads are very narrow, and there are signs everywhere.And there are people everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of people rushing about hither and thither.Of course, most people find Hong Kong a bustling place, full of energy and excitement, a 'happening' place.

But I just found it overwhelming. It reminded me why I have chosen to live in Brunei.

14 August 2011

skim(med) milk

Should it be skimmed milk? Or skim milk? Here are two cartons of the stuff I bought in the supermarket. They don't seem to be able to decide – the one on the left has an -ed suffix, while the one on the right does not.Actually, the dropping of the -ed suffix is a regular process: ice-cream was once iced cream, while mincemeat was once minced meat.

What is happening here is that a final /t/ or /d/ gets deleted if it is surrounded by two consonants. And this can occur in many different contexts, so world cup usually has no /d/ and best man has no final /t/. And this occurs whether the /t/ or /d/ is a suffix or not.

In fact, the milk on the right, from 'Greenfields', is produced in Indonesia, while that on the left, from 'Table Cape', is from Tasmania in Australia. It seems that native speakers are quite happy to drop the -ed suffix, while those from elsewhere might be more concerned to retain more traditional forms. (Though, of course, we need more data to check this hypothesis.)

11 August 2011


In my previous post, I discussed the Malay saying kacang lupa kulit ('a peanut forgetting its skin') to describe someone who abandons their roots. My UBD colleague, Aznah Suhaimi, suggests another expression: lupa daratan ('forget the land') to describe the same concept.

In translating kacang into English, I had a problem: should it be 'peanut' or 'bean'? One can say that Malay has the superordinate (more general term) while English has two hyponyms (more specific terms). Of course, sometimes it is the other way round: English has the superordinate term rice while Malay has three hyponyms, padi, beras, or nasi, depending on whether it is growing in the fields, for sale in a shop, or cooked and ready to be eaten.

When I first found out that kacang could mean either 'peanut' or 'bean', I thought it was crazy. How can one have the same word for these two different things?

But then I thought some more and realised that Malay actually gets it right: a peanut is not a nut at all, it's a legume, which is just a fancy name for a bean. So it is English that gets it wrong, by allowing people to think that peanuts are types of nuts.

09 August 2011

Forgetting One's Roots

Many societies have a saying for forgetting one's roots and pretending to be something you are not. In Chinese societies, they sometimes describe someone as a banana: yellow on the outside but white in the middle.

So what is the equivalent in Malay? It seems to be kacang lupa kulit ('a peanut that forgets its skin'). (This occurred on page 3 of the Media Permata of 10 August, in an article with the headline Jangan khianat negara, or 'Don't betray your country'.)

Slightly different is the saying buang batu ('throw stones'), though I can't quite figure out the image of throwing stones. It might be comparing the discarding of old friends as similar to tossing stones away, so perhaps it is more about forgetting your old friends than putting on airs.

And then there is the (slightly rude) Brunei equivalent jubur itam ('black backside'). The idea here is that someone pretends to be white but forgets that their backside is still black.

Anyway, I've been in this part of the world for so long that I think I'm a bit of a cheese sandwich: white on the outside but yellow in the middle.

08 August 2011

Bukit Shahbandar

The forest trail at Bukit Shahbandar, quite close to the UBD campus, is one of my favourite places for a hike. It's good exercise up and down the hills, and there are some splendid views over the South China Sea.

Just recently they installed some signs, showing how far the next pondok ('hut') is. Very helpful, except they are seriously flawed. Take this sign near Pondok 3. How far do you think it is to the exit?It is not 23 metres. My guess it is about 800 metres, which is rather different!

In fact, some of the signs can be seriously misleading. Take this one at Pondok 6. It offers an alternative route to Pondok 8, apparently a nice gentle stroll for 538 metres.Well, I have taken that alternative trail from Pondok 6 to Pondok 8, and it is rather a lot more than 538 metres. It is quite strenuous, and it is almost certainly closer to 2 km.

In fact, at Pondok 8, at the other end of that path, you find this sign:Now, how can the trail from Pondok 6 to Pondok 8 be 538 metres, but the same trail from Pondok 8 to Pondok 6 be 1775 metres? It is the same trail, for goodness sakes!

These signs seem to have random numbers on them. Not only is that confusing, it is downright dangerous: I can imagine quite a few people setting out for a nice easy stroll on the alternative route from Pondok 6 to Pondok 8 and getting into serious trouble when they find it is far, far longer than 538 metres.

People who provide public information have a duty to make sure it is accurate.

05 August 2011


In my previous post, I suggested that kris is a word in English that has been borrowed from Malay, but I was unable to check its occurrence in the COCA corpus because enquiries get swamped by instances of the name Kris (especially Kris Kristofferson, with 95 instances, and Kris Osborn, the CNN reporter, with 29). Unless I can find a way to make the search case-sensitive, it is hard to filter those out.

In a comment, Adrian challenged me to check all 1528 entries for kris. I have now done that, and all but five are to the name Kris. Those five exceptions are to ndi kris, which seems to be a term for a group of Christian people in Nigeria.

So, should kris, referring to a ceremonial Malay dagger, be regarded as a word of English or not? My Websters Dictionary lists it, giving creese as an alternative spelling. (There are four tokens of creese in COCA, but they refer to someone called Creese.) But that does not mean the dictionary is necessarily right.

This raises the question: what should be considered a word in English? There are no easy answers to that. But the availability of large-scale corpora such as COCA certainly give us invaluable tools to investigate things like this ourselves. And also to waste lots and lots of time in finding out about things. (Thanks, Adrian.)

01 August 2011

Borrowings into English

In my previous post, I discussed words such as amok, orangutan, and gong that have become part of standard English.

We also find words of Malay that are borrowed into local varieties of English but would not be understood by people from elsewhere. For example, in Brunei we have titah ('a speech by the Sultan') and puasa ('fasting').

An immediate question is: how do we know which are part of standard English and which are only used locally?

One way to do this is to consult a large-scale corpus, such as COCA. This confirms that there are no instances of titah or puasa in the 450 million words of English covered.

For the words I mentioned in may last past, I get the following numbers:
  • amok: 471
  • orangutan: 178
  • durian: 50
  • rambutan: 15
  • parang: 9
which confirms that all of these have some currency in contemporary American English.

The one I cannot easily search for is kris. I get 1528 tokens, but they are all for the name Kris. I need to find some way to make the search case-sensitive.

There's lots else I can do in the corpus. For example, I can look for the collocates of amok, and here I find that nearly all the tokens occur in the phrase 'run amok', though there are 20 instances of 'gone amok'. So this tells me that in English, the word amok is usually but not always part of the fixed phrase 'run amok'.

30 July 2011


My UBD colleague, Salbrina Sharbawi, told me of another word of English that comes from Malay: gong (the musical instrument).

So, my list of borrowings from Malay is:
  • amok (as in 'run amok')
  • orangutan (lit. 'forest man')
  • durian (lit. 'spiky thing')
  • rambutan (lit. 'hairy thing')
  • compound (as in 'police compound'; from kampung)
  • Mandarin (as in 'Mandarin Chinese'; from menteri 'minister')
  • parang
  • kris (a small decorative knife)
  • gong
There are probably a few more, if we look out for them.

27 July 2011


Here's a sign near the Admin building at UBD. (I am grateful for my UBD colleague Adrian Clynes for sending me this.)Note the non-standard spelling -- with a 'k' rather than a 't' at the end of the first syllable of strictly.

In fact, this accurately represents the real pronunciation of this word, not just in Brunei but throughout the world. Nobody usually pronounces the [t] in strictly, because that would involve the three-consonant sequence [ktl], which is pretty hard to say.

So maybe this sign writer is ahead of their time; perhaps this is how we will all be writing this word in a few years time. Just like most people nowadays write hiccup rather than the traditional hiccough, because hiccup accurately reflects the way we say the word.

On the other hand, maybe the traditional form strictly will prevail, because it maintains the morphological link with strict. In this case, it is similar to Christmas and handkerchief which always seem to maintain the 't' and 'd' in the spelling even though [t] and [d] are never actually pronounced in these two words.

21 July 2011


I have previously mentioned fruits and equipments as examples of nouns which are treated as countable in Brunei and elsewhere, because they refer to objects that are logically countable.

Here is a text message recently sent out by BSM in Brunei, in an attempt to dispel a rumour that there is soon to be a shortage of petrol in Brunei. (My thanks to my UBD colleague, Salbrina Sharbawi, for sending me this.)Note the use of the plural fuels within the body of the message.

What is different about this example is that fuel does not seem to be something that is logically countable. Nevertheless, it illustrates the variable use of count and noncount nouns in New Englishes such as that of Brunei, especially as the singular fuel occurs in the heading but the plural fuels is used in the body of the message.

19 July 2011


I have previously mentioned plural nouns such as fruits. Here is a photograph of a sign outside a construction site on the UBD campus.Note the use of plural equipments, even though equipment would be treated as a non-count noun in Standard English.

As with so many cases like this, English in Brunei has a plural noun for something that is logically countable. And I suspect that this will become adopted in all varieties of English one day in the future.

Redesigned Newspaper

In its efforts to achieve a modern image, the Media Permata recently went through a redesign. Here are two versions side-by-side. See if you can tell which is the original and which the new version, and also see which one you prefer.The one on the left is the original (from page 6 of the edition of 14 July), while the one one the right has the revamped design (from page 37 of the edition of 16 July).

I guess the one on the right is seen as slightly more modern. However, I actually prefer the one on the left, the original. The letters are a bit heavier, but there is more white space between them, and I find it easier to read.

Neither version uses a serif font, with the fiddly bits on letters that makes a traditional font like Times New Roman look a bit old-fashioned. But note the difference between the '1' in 2011 two lines from the end of the one on the left with the '1' in 2010 three lines from the end on the right: the one on the right actually has a more complicated symbol, which is unexpected. Also note the difference in the dot over the 'i' in syarikat in the headline on the left with the 'i' in cybersecurity on the right: the former is a round dot, while the latter is square. I guess the latter is more modern or something.

I am sure I will get used to the new format, and then I will wonder why I ever questioned it. But at present I do prefer the old format.

11 July 2011


There is an MRT station in Singapore called Woodleigh, and a former student just wrote to me asking me how it should be pronounced. There seem to be two choices: [wʊdleɪ] or [wʊdli:].

My answer is: it is not important what I think. This is a station in Singapore, not on the London Underground, so it completely irrelevant how I would pronounce it. It is up to Singaporeans to decide.

In fact, this should extend to other place names in Singapore. There is another station called Lavender. Now, how should that be pronounced? I would stress the first syllable: [ˈlævəndə]; but many Singaporeans would stress the second syllable: [læˈvendə]. And if that is how people in Singapore say it, then that is how it is said.

The interesting thing about the Singapore pronunciation of Lavender is that it actually conforms to the usual stress rules of English. If the second syllable ends with two consonants, we would expect it to be stressed. For example, trisyllabic words such semester, disaster, September, December, remember with two consonants at the end of the second syllable are all stressed on the second syllable. With Lavender, Singaporeans are following the rules, as is so often the case.

But for Woodleigh, I don't think there are any rules, so Singaporeans should decide. Or maybe there could be two different pronunciations, both of which are equally correct.

09 July 2011

Noisy Restaurants

This is the inside of an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, called +39. (Apparently, 39 is the international dialing code for Italy.)The pizzas were delicious, but what I found surprising was the sound level: it was quite difficult for us to hear what the others were saying.

In fact, this seems to be the norm. We also went to an Indian restaurant where the noise level was even higher. And I've heard that in clubs, it is much, much noisier (though I can't verify that one).

When I am with people, I like to be able to hear what they are saying; and I find it quite upsetting when I can't. But it seems that young people aren't like that.

I sometimes think that nowadays places such as restaurants and clubs are actually designed to ensure there is lots of noise, so that people don't have to communicate with each other too much, or maybe because nobody cares whether others can understand them or not. Perhaps young people don't really like to listen to others.

Or maybe I am just out of touch with modern trends. I guess restaurants and clubs aren't designed for old fogeys like me.

07 July 2011

too busy

Yesterday, while my wife (who is from Taiwan) was talking about the poor teaching in a particular university, she said:
They are too busy to do research.
In the context, what she meant is:
They are too busy doing research.
Note that these two utterances are opposites. The first suggests that no research is done, while the second indicates that lots of research is done. What she meant was that the academics in that particular university are so busy doing research that they don't have time to prepare their teaching properly.

This contrast between 'too Adj to V' and 'too Adj V-ing' is rather tough for non-native speakers to get right. Note that there is no distinction between 'to-V' and 'V-ing' in the following:
I like to do research.
I like doing research.
Given that (presumably) lots of resarch gets done in both cases, so there is apparently little or no difference between the meaning of these two utterances, it is little wonder that non-native speakers get confused.

Before you conclude that this is a problem with non-native speakers, so they'd better work harder to learn better English, note that native speakers also sometimes get confused. See, for example, Language Log (July 5), which discusses an instance where two journalists in the New York Times wrote "No one is too busy not to look at this" when they meant exactly the opposite.

This area of English really is fraught with difficulties. Maybe the pressure of simplification provided by the emergence of World Englishes will provide the stimulus for it to change.

06 July 2011


In my previous post, I discussed the occurrence of fruits, specifically whether the plural noun might occur in Inner-Circle countries such as Australia; and I considered evidence from Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.

One other pattern I have previously discussed in Brunei (e.g. here) is the use of piece (sometimes reduced to pc) to refer to count nouns, as in the image on the right, which shows the price of apples in a Brunei supermarket.

It is interesting to see whether this use of piece also occurs in Australia. Here are a range of price signs for fruit and vegetables in Queen Victoria Market:It seems that each (sometimes reduced to ea) occurs instead of piece.

However, I suspect that the use of piece may prevail in World Englishes, partly because it is simpler. Note that in the Brunei sign, the same pattern is used whether it is for one item or for more; so we have "$1.19 /pc" and also "$5.60 /5pcs". In contrast, the each pattern is only used for one item. For more than one, you have to use for, and the sentence pattern is quite different:Note that the second, third and fourth images contrast these two patterns.

The use of piece(s) is simplifying, and this is exactly the sort of pattern that seems to get adopted in World Englishes.

However, there is as yet no evidence of it being adopted in Australia. Maybe it is only common in places where the indigenous languages have measure words, such as buah in Malay or 个 in Chinese.

05 July 2011


I have previously discussed the use plural nouns such as fruits for logically countable things, something that I believe will become part of standard English in the future. Ths is the sign above a shop in Brunei:It is interesting to compare this with the usage in an Inner-Cirle country such as Australia. Here is a selection of signs in Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne:We can see that two out of five of these signs have a plural fruits.

Of course, this is far too small a data sample to draw any firm conclusions. Furthermore, we might guess that Nash and Salih are not native speakers of English (as seems to be true of most of the stallholders in this market in Melbourne), so that is one more factor that influences language use. But we might conclude that plural fruits does sometimes occur in Australia.

It would be interesting to do a wider study of fruit versus fruits in Australia and elsewhere.

28 June 2011

are loving

I am currently in Melbourne for a couple of weeks. I have heard an expression that seems unusual:
What are you loving at the moment? (said by a radio disk jockey)
I have someone here who is wanting to close a bank account. (said by a bank employee)
In Standard English, the progressive is not generally used with stative verbs like love and want.

I don't know if these are isolated instances or if they reflect an innovation in Australian English; and if the latter, I don't know if they are restricted to Melbourne or are found in other places in Australia.

23 June 2011


Here is a sign in a shop selling film CDs:In Britain or the USA, pieces would be omitted, because CD is a count noun. But use of pieces for countable things seems to be the norm in this part of the world.

Here is a sign in a supermarket:Again, we find pieces used to refer to something countable, apples.

I strongly suspect that this usage will become the norm in World Englishes. After all, it is perfectly clear, so everyone can understand it with no problem.