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.