27 April 2011

Dropping Things

If you accidentally dropped something, what would you say?

I think I might say something like: "Oops, I dropped it!" (Well, all right, I admit I might use something a bit stronger than oops; but never mind.)

How would you say the same thing in Malay?

My colleague Malai Ayla reports that she would say, "Gugur!" ('drop'). Or, if she wanted to emphasise the accidental nature of the incident, she might say, "Tergugur!", using the ter prefix.

And if she was speaking English, she would say, "It fell down!". If the first-person pronoun were included, it would indicate that the dropping was deliberate; and this may reflect some influence from Malay.

26 April 2011

Sic Transit Gloria

Apparently, some royal prince is getting married soon in the UK. I am afraid I have no interest in the event, though it seems that lots of people will enjoy it, so that is splendid.

Something that interested me in this connection was an article by Marina Hyde in the on-line Guardian (here) which discussed some of the absurd ways that people in the UK have chosen to celebrate the royal wedding. In describing someone from Bristol who has decided to have his teeth tattooed, thus eclipsing the efforts of someone else who has made a commemorative statue out of toothpicks, she ended her article with the phrase 'sic transit gloria imbecili'.

Now, I admit that I did not know what this means, so I looked it up. Apparently, the original phrase is 'sic transit gloria mundi', which means "thus passes the glory of the world", meaning that everything we encounter is temporary (see the Wikipedia entry here). But the writer has changed mundi ('world') to imbecili ('idiots'), so the phrase instead comes to mean "the glory of idiots is transitory".

This is an allusion, and the writer expects people to know the original phrase in order to appreciate her clever play on words. If you don't know the original (and if you don't have any knowledge of Latin), then it remains completely opaque. But, thankfully, in the modern world it is quite easy to look things up.

It is also possible that the modified wording is commonly used but I am too far out of touch with usage in the UK to be aware of it. But a Google search of 'sic transit gloria imbecili' only offers the occurrence in the Guardian article, which suggests that it is indeed not a common phrase. A search in the COCA corpus (here) for the phrase 'sic transit gloria' returns 10 hits. 7 of them are followed by mundi, and none of the other 3 have imbecili, which confirms it is not a common phrase, at least not in the USA.


When I saw this extract from an article about electricity generation in Malaysia on page 9 of Media Permata of 26 April, 2011, I knew that rizab must be a borrowed word, as /z/ only occurs in borrowed words, such as zakat ('tithe'), and zaman ('era') that come from Arabic, and zon ('zone') and zink ('zinc') from English, and also because /b/ cannot occur at the end of a native word in Malay.But what does rizab mean?

It turns out that it comes from the English reserve. Note that the final /v/ in English becomes /b/ in Malay, just like in arkib ('archive').

What contributed to my failure to identify the word as coming from reserve is the omission of the second 'r'. If arkib keeps the 'r' from English, why does rizab not?

My colleague, Adrian Clynes, suggests it is because 'r' is fine as a part of a medial cluster, but not as part of a final cluster. So maybe that is the explanation.

One other thing about rizab: I showed it to some Bruneian students and colleagues, and none of them knew what it meant. Maybe it only exists in Malaysian Malay, not in Brunei.

20 April 2011

Quotative macam

The occurrence of "quotative like" is widely reported in Englishes around the world. The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, 2006, pp. 102, 823) gives the following examples from their corpus of spoken British English:
So this bloke came up to me and I'm like 'Go away, I don't want to dance'.
He keeps coming and trying to kiss me, and I'm like, 'Go away! Go away!'
I was like, 'Oh, thank God for that!' you know.
This usage of like to introduce direct speech is reported to occur mainly among young speakers, so it would sound quite strange if anyone over 40 tried to use the pattern.

It seems that the same pattern occurs in Malay, at any rate the variety found in Brunei. My Masters student, Ish, suggested the following example:
Ia   macam, 'Apa   kan   tu?'
She   like     what (particle) that
"She was like, 'What's that?'"
It seems probable that this use of macam ('like') to introduce direct speech is directly influenced by English, though I have no evidence to confirm this.

15 April 2011


In my previous post, I discussed the merging of the TRAP and FACE vowels in Brunei. Here is the attempted transcription of the words tenacity and fatalistic by one of my first-year students.Note that her transcription is pretty good. It is all completely right apart from /æ/ and /eɪ/ being the wrong way round.

14 April 2011

TRAP/FACE in Brunei

The other day, I saw one of my first year students walking along the corridor. When I asked him where he was going, he replied that he was looking for a cable. But he pronounced cable as [kæbəl] instead of the expected [keɪbəl]. Using Wells keywords to represent vowels, he had the vowel of TRAP rather than that of FACE in the first syllable. As a result, I couldn't understand him.

This conflation of TRAP and FACE seems to be very common in Brunei. Indeed, my UBD colleague Salbrina Sharbawi noticed that many of the subjects she studied for her PhD thesis used TRAP in the first syllable of safety.

I have just graded a test for my first-year students, and 9 out of 25 of them transcribed the vowel in the second syllable of notations as /æ/ instead of /eɪ/, even though we had practised the transcription of the ation suffix many, many times in class. My guess is that nearly all of them would have made this mistake if we had not practised it.

I have not heard of this conflation of TRAP and FACE in other varieties of English. I never encountered in in Singapore, and my students in Singapore never used /æ/ in the transcription of -ation. This seems to be unique to Brunei.

12 April 2011


What do you think is the origin of the word Mandarin (the language spoken by Chinese people)?

The surprising answer is that it comes from the Malay word menteri ('minister'). Originally, mandarin was used to refer to high officials in China, and then it came to refer to the language that they used. See the Wikipedia article (here).

I don't usually rely too much on Wikipedia, as so much of it is flawed. But Webster's Dictionary confirms that Mandarin does indeed come from menteri (via Portuguese), so maybe this time Wikipedia is right:I am only aware of a few words that have been borrowed into standard English from Malay:
  • amok
  • orangutan (lit. 'forest person')
  • durian (lit. 'spiky thing')
  • rambutan (lit. 'hairy thing')
  • parang (though perhaps the word machete is more common in English)
  • compound (as in police compound, from the Malay kampung, 'village')
Do you know of any more?

09 April 2011


Are these the same species of plants, or are they different?My guess is that, if you showed these two pictures to a range of people, speakers of Malay might classify them as the same while speakers of English are more likely to classify them as different. The reason for this is that, in Malay, they are bawang besar (lit. 'big onion') and bawang putih (lit. 'white onion'), but in English there is no link between the names onion and garlic.

This is a simple illustration of how the language we speak may influence our perception of the world. This is known as Linguistic Relativity, and it is sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. A strong form of this hypothesis is that our language determines and constrains our patterns of thought.

This strong form is not generally accepted by most linguists nowadays, as it is perfectly possible to conceive of ideas for which we have no language. However, a weaker form of the hypothesis, that our language may have some influence on the way we see the world, is more tenable. And the different ways of looking at onions and garlic may reflect this.

03 April 2011

Language of the TV News

As part of my effort to learn Malay, I try to watch the news in Malay every day, especially the 8:00 pm news on the Malaysian channel, TV1. (My apartment is in a valley, so I can't receive the Brunei RTB channel.) But one of the things I find irritating about the TV1 news is how much of it is in English.

Take, for example, the 8:00 TV1 news on 1 April 2011. There were five segments in English (accompanied with subtitles in Malay):
  • 15 sec: an extract from a speech by Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister of Malaysia
  • 14 sec: an interview with an economist
  • 9 sec, 19 sec, 20 sec: three extracts from a speech by the Head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia
Well, OK, I guess that a total of 75 seconds is not a huge amount in a one-hour news bulletin, so I shouldn't really complain.

I also need to admit that the TV1 news is not broadcast for my amusement; and in reality, the inclusion of a few segments in English is actually quite enlightened, for two reasons:
  • It is helpful to remind viewers that knowledge of foreign languages, especially English, is rather important in the modern world.
  • It is valuable to allow people to hear the original tone of voice in the speech of people from around the world.
In contrast, most channels in the UK, including the BBC, usually dub all non-English material into English. This is really unfortunate for two reasons:
  • It reinforces the belief among people in England that there is no need to learn a foreign language. It kind of suggests that folks around the world who aren't speaking English should be.
  • It prevents people from hearing the actual words of world leaders, including the President of France (Nicolas Sarkozy) and the Chancellor of Germany (Angela Merkel).
That is one reason why I never ever watch the BBC news. It annoys me too much. And, in the end, I can accept and even applaud the approach adopted by the Malaysian channel.

01 April 2011


I have previously discussed the use of pieces in Brunei (here), particularly whether it is influenced by the occurrence of measure words such as buah in Malay and 个 in Chinese (here).

Here is an extract from an article in the Brunei Times of 27 March 2011, discussing the use of plastic bags in Brunei shops. Note the use of pieces even though bags is a count noun.

In Standard English, pieces is used to let one count noncount nouns, such as information, advice, and furniture (e.g 'three pieces of information', 'two pieces of advice', ...).

However, in many New Varieties of English such as that of Brunei, pieces can be used with any noun, including count nouns such as bags and apples.