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?)