31 December 2011

Singular 'they'

I sometimes see students write sentences like this:
Every student must remember to bring his book.
I believe that it is inappropriate to use his if some of the students are female, so I recommend avoidance of usage like that.

So what should you do? Some people suggest his or her. While that is certainly non-sexist, it is rather ugly.

How about the following?
Every student must remember to bring their book.
Traditionally, this would be regarded as wrong, as their should refer to a plural noun, and student is singular. But the use of their and they to refer to a gender-neutral singular noun is becoming increasingly acceptable.

In the on-line Guardian (here), I saw the following, quoting a medical specialist:
But if any woman is worried, then they should contact their surgeon or GP.
Here, they is used even though we know that the referrent must be female and so she would seem to be perfectly OK.

It seems that they really is becoming more acceptable for referring to indeterminate singular nouns; and I believe it is no longer appropriate for English teachers to mark it as wrong.

28 December 2011

Word Spacing

There's a curious phenomenon in the local Malay language newspaper of sometimes allowing words to be printed with almost no space between them. For example, this is from page 4 of Media Permata of 29 December 2011:I find this very difficult to parse, because of the lack of spacing between the words. If we break it up, it is:
membawa pembangunan pesat sosioekonomi
('bring fast socio-economic development')
And here is another example from the same page:which is actually:
Ekspo itu juga mengadakan pertandingan
('The expo also has a competition')
I am not sure if this lack of spacing between words only occurs with Malay, or if it also occurs in English language newspapers but I don't notice it because I find it easier to parse English. My guess is that it is more common with Malay.

The issue clearly arises because of the long word at the end a line. However, elsewhere in the newspaper, there is plenty of hyphenation to split up long words and maintain normal spacing. So it is not clear why hyphenation is not used in these two examples.

My guess is that the software has difficulty doing it automatically for Malay, so it has to be done manually; and the typesetters don't have time to get it completely right for every single article every day. In contrast, automatic hyphenation is easily implemented for English, so it is not a problem in English newspapers.

21 December 2011

Language Confusion

In my previous post, I discussed confusion over the meaning of 'fasting', specifically whether it involves abstaining from drinking water or not. A friend in America, Judy Gilbert, wrote to me saying I was lucky I only had to abstain from water from 1 pm, as in her experience she was not allowed to have any water after 12 am.

Now, that raises another confusion: what do we mean by 12 am? Is it midnight or midday? I don't think anyone knows. Which is why many people prefer to say 12 midnight or 12 midday. (You may also notice that flights never arrive or leave at 12 midnight, because then nobody knows which day it is. If I say 12:00 midnight (00:00) on Wednesday, does it leave Wednesday early morning or Wednesday late at night? I believe that flights always arrive or leave at 23:55 or at 00:05, but never at 00:00.)

Anyway, it is interesting to note how confusing language can be, even in the absence of cross-cultural issues such as that involving 'fasting'. For example, if I suggest we meet up next Friday, when should you come? The Friday later this week, or the following one, next week? Nobody seems to know.

And here's another one: in the UK, if I invite you to tea, do you expect to have a meal or just a few cakes with a cup of tea? Nobody knows. And at least once my wife and I have had the embarrassing situation of inviting somebody for tea and then, after quite a while when they didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave, suddenly realising that they were expecting a complete meal.

English really is confusing. But maybe all languages are.

20 December 2011


Recently, I had to undergo a procedure in the hospital, and I was told that I should fast on the day of the procedure, from 1 pm onwards.

Now, what do you understand by that? My understanding was that I should not eat food, but I could drink as much as I liked. But when I arrived at the hospital, the nurse saw me drinking water, and I was then told that the procedure had to be postponed because fasting involves abstaining from water as well as food.

I just checked my New Webster's Dictionary, and this is what it says about fasting:I also checked my Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, and this is the entry:Both dictionaries confirm that fasting is about abstaining from food, but there is no mention of water.

The confusion arises because, in Brunei, during the month of Ramadan, all Muslims engage in puasa, which inolves abstaining from food and water from dawn till dusk; and in English this is described as fasting. In other words, there has been a shift in meaning of this word as it is used in Brunei English.

I now know that you cannot undergo an anesthetic if you have been drinking water, and if the nurse hadn't seen me drinking water, they would have gone ahead. In my case, there was no permanent damage, as the procedure was rescheduled. But I can imagine cases when this misunderstanding could be fatal.

14 December 2011

Learning the IPA

There is a cartoon called Penny and Aggie where the two main characters have just started university, and it tracks their experiences in attending a course in introductory linguistics. Here is an extract from one of them, in which the professor explains that there are 107 symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). (See here for the full strip.)There are a couple of things I did not understand in this cartoon until I saw them discussed in Language Log (here).
  • The green IPA symbols appearing behind the student are a direct allusion to the 'green rain' from The Matrix.
  • The student is probably panicking because she has just discovered that she cannot enter the IPA on her tablet.
Now, I have seen The Matrix, but I did not pick up the allusion; and I just assumed that she was panicking because she had to learn so many new symbols. It seems there are rather a lot of things in the modern world which I need help in understanding!

I just hope my students at UBD don't panic so much when I introduce the IPA to them.

09 December 2011

Traffic Lights

This is the headline and picture from an article on page 9 of Media Permata of 9 December 2011:The headline says: 'Mata-Mata junction traffic lights start operation'.

I wonder in how many other countries you might find the installation of a set of traffic lights reported as a news item in the national newspaper.

I guess that is because in most countries there are strikes, riots, floods, and other more urgent things to report. Maybe that is why I like living in Brunei.

Let's hope the new traffic lights help improve the flow of traffic along Jalan Gadong.

06 December 2011

Pronunciation of Malay

I have been developing a webpage (here) on the Pronunciation of Malay, built around a paper I wrote together with my UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, and published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association (Vol 41, No 2).

Developing a website that is complementary to a paper published in a journal raises some interesting issues. In the website, you can do so many things that are not possible in a printed article, including:
  • linking the recordings directly to the text, so that readers can easily listen to the data
  • linking each in-text citation to its entry in the List of References, to enable readers to follow up a reference with a click of the mouse
  • facilitating cross-referencing, so you don't just find 'see below', but can easily follow through a link
and many more (not all of which I have implemented).

Currently, publishing in international journals is the gold standard by which academics such as me are judged. But I am certain that this is going to change, unless the journals adapt fast (which, of course, they are trying to do). And when that happens, I suspect that printed copies of journals will become quaint relics of a bygone era.

One issue that will remain is how we referee on-line research papers, to ensure that the material that is published is properly vetted. Already, there is too much rubbish available on the Web, and there is a need to sift out the solid research from the dross.

We will see how this is achieved.

03 December 2011

Pronouns in Malay

I have been watching a Malay film called Putar Alam. Some of the characters, particularly the sophisticated, modern women, seem to use English pronouns throughout. For example, in this scene, the woman says: 'You tak boleh buat I macam ni!' ('You cannot treat me like this'), with you and I inserted into a sentence that is otherwise entirely Malay:I find it interesting that I is used as the first person pronoun in both subject and object position. I would have predicted that me would be used as an object pronoun, but that doesn't seem to happen.

Here is another scene, where a different female character says 'Duduk dengan I' ('Sit with me'):Again, I rather than me is used, even though the pronoun is clearly the object.