28 January 2011

Multilingual Warning Sign

This is the sign on the outside fence of the satellite relay station at the top of the hill at the start of the Tasek Lama to Markucing forest trail in BSB.The warning is given in three different languages (Malay, Chinese, and English) using three different scripts (Roman, Jawi, and Chinese). The first two messages are both in Malay, using the two different scripts, Roman and Jawi.

In Brunei, while it is common to see signs in Malay (using both Roman and Jawi scripts) and also in English, it is less common to see Chinese on official signs. I'm not sure why it is regarded as important, in this case, to warn Chinese people from entering this particular facility, though it is certainly true that many of the people who exercise by walking up and down the hill are Chinese.

22 January 2011

Writing Cantonese

It is often claimed that because the Chinese script is not phonetic, it allows the different Chinese languages (or 'dialects') to be written with a common script.

While this is partially true, it is not entirely correct, for it overlooks grammar. While it is certainly possible to take a newspaper written in Mandarin and read it out using Cantonese or Taiwanese pronunciation, the grammar is still Mandarin grammar, not Cantonese or Taiwanese.

Regional varieties of Chinese also have their own idiosyncratic lexicon, and sometimes it is not easy to represent these words using the standard characters. I have mentioned innovative characters for the Taiwanese equivalent of 的 (here) and also the use of 'A' in Taiwan to represent another Taiwanese morpheme (here).

In Macao, I saw this sign, where the Chinese is literally "not allow park car". The third character 泊 is a local innovation, as the standard Chinese for 'park car' is 停車 rather than 泊車. The latter is a borrowing from English, as 泊 is pronounced [pak] in Cantonese. But it neatly illustrates that the use of characters in Hong Kong and Macao may not be exactly the same as in Beijing.

17 January 2011

'A' in Taiwan

In recent posts, I have commented on innovative linguistic usage in Taiwan, both borrowing from English such as 霸凌 from bullying (here), and the occasional invention of new characters (here), though this last category is not so frequent because of the difficulty of printing the invented characters.

One other kind innovative language that is commonly found in Taiwan is the use of Roman letters, something that Victor Mair has commented on in Language Log (here). A Roman letter that is often used in this way is A, which means something like 'to obtain something illegally, to embezzle', for example in the phrase 'A 來的 錢' ('money that is obtained through embezzlement').

In fact, this use of A has become so common that I even saw it in the official booklet signed by the mayor of Taipei and given to my wife to welcome her as a citizen of Taipei City:This is in the section on sport and recreation, and it says: "Walking is not only for strengthening the body but it can also help you get health", where I have glossed A as 'help you get'. Note here that the use of A has been extended to include a positive meaning, and no doubt the usage is intended to be light-hearted, as is appropriate for discussion of sport.

14 January 2011

Heavy Subjects

It is sometimes interesting to consider what is an error and what is a feature of a local variety of English.

I saw this sign at a scenic site near Yangmingshan, just north of Taipei. As far as I can see, the translation is pretty good. I would say that there are no errors there.

However, in some ways it does not really read quite right. Look at the subject of the sentence that forms the final paragraph. It consists of 32 words, starting with 'The thickness ...' and ending with '... and altitude'. A heavy subject like this is unusual in English, where we generally try to move long things to the end of the sentence. (We sometimes say that English is an 'end-weight' language.)

If I were to translate this sentence, I would probably move things around a bit, writing something like 'The beauty of this mountain range is created by the thickness ....'. But maybe I would be over-translating, and thereby removing some of the flavour of the original. Perhaps the translation shown on this sign is actually better, as it respects the style of the original more accurately. But then there is never a perfect translation; there are just a range of choices you can make.

I earlier mentioned the book on Chinese English by Xu Zhichang (here). He investigates features of Chinese English without talking about errors; and the structure of noun phrases is something he discusses. I think he is right to claim that noun phrases, particularly subjects, can be very long in Chinese English. And he is equally right to say that this does not constitute an error, just a feature of Chinese English.

09 January 2011

New Maps

In the past month, some new maps have been installed along the Tasek Lama to Markucing forest trail in Brunei. Here's a picture of the one near the BSB start of the trail:If you look carefully at the details, there is a bit of a problem: the legend at the bottom shows how long 1 km is; but the map suggests that the part of the trail between Peak 9 (Bukit Laur) and Peak 10 (Bukit Markucing) is 1.3 km long.

It's not too easy to see here, so I'll expand the two relevant parts of the map, enlarging each by the same amount to keep their relative size constant. Here is the section of the trail, which the map suggests is 1.3 km long:And here is the legend showing how long 1 km is:This cannot be correct. If the map is accurate, that trail must be at least 2 km long. Either the scale of the map is wrong, or some of the distances shown on the map are incorrect.

Never mind, they are splendid maps and should be very helpful for people following the trails, even if the distances are maybe not quite right.

07 January 2011

Royal Birth

On 2 January, Princess Sarah, the wife of the Crown Prince of Brunei, gave birth to a daughter. The headline on page 1 of the Media Permata of 3 January announcing this happy event was this:'YTM' stands for Yang Teramat Mulia ('the most honourable'); and selamat meluaran seorang Puteri means 'safely gave birth to a princess'.

If an ordinary person gives birth, it is melahirkan anak. But for members of the Royal Family, an entirely different vocabulary is used, in order to show proper respect to the Sultan and his family. This language is called Bahasa Dalam ('Palace Language', literally 'inside language'). In this case, the verb is meluaran rather than melahirkan. The root of the word is luar ('outside'), and the -an suffix is a bit unexpected, as -kan is a more usual suffix for transitive verbs. But maybe it is true that much of Bahasa Dalam does not follow the usual rules for Malay morphology.

04 January 2011

Rat Trails

In an earlier post (here), I discussed the local use of mouse trail, which is a calque from the Malay phrase jalan tikus.

I noticed in East Malaysia that the term rat trail seems to be used instead. Here is a headline from page 2 of the East Malaysian Daily Express of 29th December 2009:Of course, using rat rather than mouse is just as accurate, as English makes a distinction between mouse and rat while Malay just has the broader term tikus. (One might say that English has two hyponyms while Malay just has the superordinate.)

One might also note that in the Malaysian newspaper, the term is quoted, so perhaps it is not quite so well established in the English used there. Furthermore, in the text, the Malay term is given as well. Here is the first paragraph of the article:

New School Year

It is now the start of the new school year in Brunei and Malaysia, and it seems to be expected that the media should have lots of reports about how young children are coping with their first day at school, as well as coverage on how parents are managing to get hold of things such as textbooks and school uniforms. Both TV1 (the Malaysian TV channel) and Media Permata (the Brunei newspaper) have been full of such reports. It is a bit like showing pictures of fireworks around the world after New Year's Eve, or broadcasting the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day in the UK ‒ it is what we expect the media to include on those particular days.

One thing caught my attention from the report on page 1 of Media Permata: the intake to the first year of 118 national primary schools is given as 3,000 pupils, while that for secondary schools is 6,000 pupils. If these figures are correct, does that mean there has been a fall by fifty percent in the birth rate in just six years? If that is accurate, that is a stunning change. I would imagine that many smaller, less popular primary schools might have a vastly reduced number of students, and maybe some of them are threatened with closure.

Is there some other explanation? Maybe there are more educational options (for example, private schools) at primary level? In Chinese society, one might consider a surge in births for the Year of the Dragon or something like that; but I think that is unlikely to have much effect in Brunei.

Perhaps the real explanation is that the figures are misleading. Maybe the primary figures are only for government schools while those for secondary include all schools.

01 January 2011

English in Taiwan

In Taiwan, I saw this sign on the wall, offering a quick lesson in English. See if you can guess where it was:In fact, it was above the urinals in the Gents toilet in the Taipei City government offices. In Taiwan, you can learn English even while having a pee!

However, I'm not sure that the standard of English of ordinary people is affected much. They might learn English throughout their education, but not many people seem confident enough to actually try and use the language.

In Mainland China, it has become almost an international sport to comment on the poor English on official signs (eg here). In contrast, in Taiwan I saw few errors in the English on signs. I did see this one, near a scenic waterfall in Yilan, to the east of Taipei, and I have no idea what 'DECP' means:(The Chinese says "Water deep, Danger".)

But this kind of problem seems to be very much the exception rather than the norm. Furthermore, signs and announcements on public transport are generally both in Chinese and English, so I guess it is quite easy to get around Taiwan even if you speak no Chinese, though you probably need to articulate quite slowly and carefully if you want most people to understand spoken English.