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'.