31 December 2012

New Quarry Norms

The modern-day extra-long noun-phrase build-up phenomenon for newspaper headlines has been observed for articles in English (see here). Sometimes, these long noun phrases are rather hard to parse, and they can give rise to what we call 'crash blossoms'.

This style of writing newspaper headlines also occurs in Brunei. Here is the headline from page 1 of The Brunei Times of Sunday, 30 December 2012:

The verb appears to be eye, and the article is about new norms for quarries. (It could, of course, be about norms for new quarries; but it appears to be the other interpretation.)

I find such headlines hard to parse, so I don't understand why journalists use them so often.

28 December 2012


However often I read the Malay newspaper, I still find it hard to parse text where the words are compacted together with little space between them. Take this paragraph, from page 2 of the Media Permata of 6 December 2012:

The first line reads:

Sebagai mengenang jasa dan membantu
  act as   remember service and   help
but I find it very difficult to parse with no spacing between the words.

Do English-language newspapers have similar compacting of the text that I don't notice as I am more familiar with English? I'm not sure. But it seems to me that the text-processing software is not working too well when dealing with Malay in this situation.

One other word of interest in this context is sumbangan ('contribution') in line 4. It is printed with a hyphen in it, which is not appropriate. It seems clear that the hyphen was added manually as a means of breaking up the line, and then was not removed when the paragraph was re-arranged. This seems to confirm that line-end hyphenation is done manually, which suggests that the text-processor cannot handle Malay very well.

19 December 2012

Digital Image Processing

A colleague asked me: what is meant in English by 'Digital Image Processing'? Is it the digital processing of images (i.e. 'digital [image processing]', with the adjective 'digital' modifying the compound noun 'image processing'? Or is it instead the processing of digital images, (i.e. '[digital image] processing', with the compound 'digital image' modifying the noun 'processing'?

I had to say: I don't know. As far as I can see, it is ambiguous, and it could be interpreted either way.

In fact, this kind of ambiguity is commonplace in English. Does a 'red chair cover' refer to a chair cover that is red, or is it a cover for red chairs? Does 'best train timetables' refer to timetables for the best trains, or to the best timetables for trains?

13 December 2012

secara umum

In my last two posts, I have been discussing common phrases in English (such as 'freezing cold') and how they can be said quite fast without disrupting intelligibility, while less common phrases (such as 'flaming hot') may be more problematic. Furthermore, the understanding of some phrases such as 'terminal degree' may depend on which variety of English you are familiar with.

Understanding common phrases spoken fast is, of course, important in learning all languages. I often listen to the Singapore news 'Berita Suria' on YouTube, mostly because it is has subtitles which are exceptionally valuable for me. In this extract (available here), the speaker ends his utterance with 'secara umum' ('publicly'), which he says quite fast as [ʃara umum], eliding one syllable in the first word.

I have considerable difficulty decoding this phrase; but my colleague Adrian Clynes had no difficulty understanding it the first time I played it to him, which just confirms how far I have to go in learning Malay. It also demonstrates how important it is to become familiar with the fast pronunciation of common phrases.

(Actually, there is an error in the subtitles here, as the speaker says 'masyarakat' ('society'), not *'masyarat'; but never mind. Most of the Berita Suria subtitles are excellent.)

08 December 2012

terminal degree

In my previous post, I discussed the fact that 'flaming hot' uttered by a male speaker from Hong Kong was not understood by a female listener from Malaysia, mostly because this is not a common phrase in English.

In the same conversation, the Malaysian could not understand the speaker from Hong Kong when he used the phrase 'terminal degree', even though he said it quite clearly so there was nothing about the pronunciation that caused the problem.

In this case, the phrase 'terminal degree' is a common phrase in the United States to refer to the final degree one studies — it occurs 40 times in the COCA Corpus of American English. However, it is not a common phrase outside of the United States. I checked with my colleagues, and only one of them had heard it before.

This illustrates that problems of intelligibility can be affected by a range of different factors: not just pronunciation, but also familiarity with typical phrases that occur in the variety of English being spoken.

04 December 2012

freezing cold and flaming hot

I have recently been doing quite a bit of work on intelligibility, and some of my data comes from a male speaker from Hong Kong talking to a female speaker from Malaysia. My research is concerned with places where they failed to understand each other, and specifically with what causes those misunderstandings.

In one place, the male speaker says that he likes the steady climate of Brunei as, in previous places he has been, it has been 'either freezing cold or flaming hot'. And, as is common for speakers from Hong Kong, he simplifies the consonant clusters at the start of freezing and flaming, omitting the [r] in the first and the [l] in the second.

What is interesting from these examples is that his listener understood him perfectly well when he said 'freezing cold' but could not understand him when he said 'flaming hot'. In fact, she transcribed it as 'fuming hot' instead of 'flaming hot'.

The explanation for this is, of course, that 'freezing cold' is a common phrase (it occurs 197 times in the COCA corpus of American English ‑ see here), but 'flaming hot' is much less common (it only occurs 2 times in the COCA data).

What this tells us is this: when you are using a common phrase, then you don't need to articulate it too carefully to be understood; but if you are sayng something less common, then you need to say it very carefully.

The other thing to note is this: loss of intelligibility does not just involve pronunciation, as we have to consider other factors as well. Both of these phrases involved the same kind of non-standard pronunciation, but one was understood while the other was not.

02 December 2012


What does 42 represent?

Well, we all know it is 7 times 6. And some of us know that it is the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. (See here). But what else is it?

Here is something useful for you to know: row 42 on aircraft is the emergency exit.

Now, that may not be of much help to you as the plane goes down in flames. But it is jolly useful to know when you are booking your seat, because row 42 always has extra leg-room.

Job Opportunities

There is a recent analysis in Language Log (here) of linguistics dissertations submitted and job opportunities advertised, based on work done by Stephanie Shih and Rebecca Starr. The results look like this, where the blue columns show the number of dissertations in each field and the orange and yellow columns show job opportunities.

Basically, for someone starting their academic career, you want the blue column to be low (you don't want too many competitors) and the other two columns to be high (lots of jobs).

Guess what: for mainstream linguistics, you are best off in phonetics (the leftmost category). Morphology, syntax and semantics are not so good, and sociolinguistics is also not good. Psycholinguistics looks OK, though.

Phone Usage

Did you know that texting is the second most common use of a mobile phone? (See here).

So, you might ask, what's that most common use?

No, it's not talking. It's checking the time.

30 November 2012

Gardens by the Bay

While I was in Singapore, I visited the Gardens by the Bay. This is what the super-trees look like at night:

I know we are supposed to be impressed; but I felt intensely sad about the place. The towering concrete and metal "trees" seemed incredibly ugly.

What message is it supposed to be sending out? Given that the two domes there are reported to cost millions of dollars per year to maintain their cool, temperate atmosphere, the message seems to be this: we can waste a huge amount of money creating something modern and ugly, and we don't care.

Maybe visiting it at night was not the best time. But I think if I had gone there during the daytime, I would still have found it really depressing.

Vegetarian Water

Just recently, I was in Singapore for a few days. The breakfast in the place I was staying offered 'vegetarian water' and 'vegetarian fruit juice':

What on earth would non-vegetarian water look like?

27 November 2012

/w/ + 'a'

Here's a phonological puzzle for you. Consider the pronunciation of the following words of English:

  • wag
  • swagger
  • wacky
  • quack
  • swanky
  • swan
  • wasp
  • swamp
  • wash
  • watch
  • wander
  • quality
  • quantity
  • squash

All of them have [w] followed by 'a'; and in the first five, the 'a' is pronounced as [æ], while in the remainder it is pronounced as [ɒ]. Why is this?

There seems to be a historical process that makes the vowel after [w] become a back rounded vowel (in British English at least; in American English, the vowel is [ɑ:], which is back but unrounded). But this process does not occur in some phonological environments. So what is it about the first five words that prevents the 'a' being pronounced as [ɒ]?

The answer is that the consonant following the vowel is velar: [k], [g] or [ŋ]. But what is it about a velar consonant that prevents the preceding vowel becoming a back rounded vowel?

I don't know the answer to this; but it might be that English prefers to have dissimilarity in its syllables, so words with a velar consonant followed by a back vowel followed by another velar consonant, such as kung or gong, are not particularly good words of English. (Of course, gong is a word of English, but then it comes from Malay, so maybe it doesn't count.) There are some exceptions, such as cook and cog; but my impression is that this phonological shape is dispreferred in English.

In contrast, there seems to be no similar restriction in Chinese, where gong is a common syllable shape. Furthermore, the vowel in wang (王, 'king') is more back than the vowel in wan (完, 'late'). So, in Chinese, a vowel between [w] and [ŋ] becomes back, which seems to be the opposite of the process in English.

20 November 2012

Malay Cupertinos

The cupertino effect is when a word gets changed by an over-enthusiastic spell checker. The term derives from early spell checkers converting cooperation (with no hyphen) into Cupertino, a city in California (see here).

This process can be quite problematic if you try to incorporate non-English words into a text of English. For example, I have found that if I type the Malay word borang ('form in an application'), it gets automatically converted into boring, and similarly datang ('to come') gets changed to dating.

I was just reading a student report which included the Malay phrase:

berberapa keeping gambar
    several     ???     picture

It took me a while to figure out that keeping should really be keping, a measure word in Malay, so the phrase means 'several photographs'.

18 November 2012

Abbreviations on TV

In a previous posting (here), I discussed abbreviations found in Malay reference materials such as dictionaries, and I suggested that the news channel Astro Awani uses similar abbreviations in its subtitles.

When checking on this, I found I was wrong: Astro Awani in fact always uses full spelling for subtitles when the language spoken by the person in the news is not Malay. However, abbreviations do sometimes occur in the scrolling news feed at the bottom of the screen. I have noticed the following:

  • dgn : dengan ('with')
  • dlm : dalam ('in')
  • dpt : dapat ('get')
  • drpd : daripada ('from')
  • kg : kampung ('village')
  • klhkn : kalahkan ('defeat')
  • kpd : kepada ('to')
  • krn : kerana ('because')
  • M'sia : Malaysia
  • org : orang ('people')
  • pd : pada ('at')
  • p'raya : pilihan raya ('election')
  • sbg : sebagai ('as')
  • S'pura : Singapura
  • utk : untuk ('for')
  • wjr : wajar ('should')

Most of these are prepositions (dgn, dlm, drpd, pd, utk, ...). They are similar to those used in the dictionary, and they adopt the same conventions (vowels are omitted unless they are the fist letter; 'n' is omitted if it is before a consonant). But a few are verbs (dpt, klhkn, wjr) or nouns (org, p'raya), and there are some countries (M'sia, S'pura), so it seems that the scope is a bit wider. Perhaps it is not surprising that these abbreviations are adopted when the message has to be conveyed in a single line.

10 November 2012


I love crash blossoms (newspaper headlines that are easily mis-parsed on first reading). Here is one I saw in today's BBC World News site:

At first, I thought flare-up was a verb, so the dead and injured in Gaza were being set on fire. It seems reasonable if the dead are being cremated, but it's a little bit gruesome if the injured are being subjected to the same treatment.

Of course, flare-up should be parsed as a noun, so in Gaza flare-up is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverbial. This becomes apparent when you read the paragraph following the headline.

This headline is probably not really ambiguous, as flare-up would not be hyphenated if it were a verb. But never mind: I did mis-parse it initially.

never event

A never event is a medical term for an event that should not have happened. According Wikipedia, never events are 'inexcusable outcomes in a health care setting'.

In this week's edition of his splendid weekly e-magazine WorldWideWords, Michael Quinion tells us that there were 326 never events in the UK last year, including 161 instances when a foreign object was left inside someone's body after an operation, and 70 cases in which a patient underwent surgery on the wrong part of the body.

Of course, I am sure that nothing like that would ever happen here in Brunei....

Abbreviations in Malay

In my previous post, I discussed whether texting might be harmful to literacy. The view among many linguists is that the creative and playful use of language may actually be helpful, and that English spelling may in fact be improved by the regular use of texting abbreviations, because they raise phonological awareness about the structure of words. My MA student, Ranjeta Ramanathan, is doing some interesting work on this among Brunei undergraduates, and I will summarise a few of her results when the thesis is completed.

In Brunei, there is the usual concern that texting abbreviations are destroying the ability of young people to write properly and also to spell, and this extends into the spelling of Malay. What is ironic here is that abbreviations in Malay are really common in official materials, including dictionaries. For example, here are some of the abbreviations found in the excellent on-line Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu @ DBP:

  • dgn : dengan ('with')
  • dll : dan lain-lain ('and others')
  • dr : dari ('from')
  • dlm : dalam ('in')
  • drpd : daripada ('from')
  • kpd : kepada ('to')
  • pd : pada ('at')
  • sbg : sebagai ('as')
  • sso : seseorang ('someone')
  • ttg : tentang ('about')
  • utk : untuk ('for')
  • yg : yang ('which')

A pattern here seems to be that vowels tend to be omitted unless they occur at the start of the word (utk) or morpheme (sso = sese+orang), and that 'n' gets omitted if it is before another consonant (dgn, ttg, yg).

It is not just dictionaries and other reference materials that use lots of abbreviations. I note that the subtitles in the Astro Awani news channel have even more regular abbreviations. I'll try and collate some of them one of these days.

Ranjeta finds that Bruneian students similarly use lots of abbreviations when they incorporate Malay into the text messages they send. But can you blame them when they see such abbreviations used so widely in official materials? And, finally, is there any evidence that such use of abbreviations is harmful to literacy, in Malay or in English?

08 November 2012


Did you know that, in 2010, the average American teenager sent over 3000 text messages per month? (See here). That means about 100 message a day. And, presumably, the number is even higher today.

Is that problematic? Is it undermining their ability to do their homework and participate in other more creative activities? Or does it, instead, reflect a natural sociability and creativity in a vibrant, every-evolving medium?

When my two children were teenagers, they spent hours every day on the phone. In many ways, texting is an improvement. First, it doesn't block up the phone line like it used to. Second, it is possible to do other things, like homework, while intermittently answering text messages. In comparison, talking on the phone seems to be more disruptive. Third, it is creative, and the use of abbreviations, emoticons, and novel ways of expressing oneself through short messages is quite impressive.

As an old fogey, I can't get the hang of it. I probably, on average, send about two or three text messages a month. And I am maybe the only person in the world who uses standard spelling and full sentence grammar when I text. But then nobody has ever accused me being modern and keeping up with the times!

As a linguist, I celebrate the playful creativity of texting, even if I don't seem to be able to participate in it too well myself.

05 November 2012

Banyak Mixing

Mixing between English and Malay is the norm in informal language in Brunei. As an example, see this sentence from Tiger Lim's blog, talking about a shop selling rims for the wheels of cars even in the evening:

Wow their rims macam selling at pasar malam one... banyak lah!!!

Note the use of

  • macam ('like') : is this influenced by like in English?
  • pasar malam ('night market') : this is commonly used in English, so it might even be regarded as a word borrowed from Malay into the local variety of English
  • banyak ('lots') : I wonder what triggers the use of a Malay word rather than an English equivalent, such as 'So many'.
  • lah (the final discourse particle) : is it derived from Malay or Hokkien or both? Is it more common in the language of ethnically Chinese people (such as Tiger Lim), or is it equally common among Brunei Malays?

Note how many interesting linguistic questions can arise out of a single sentence.

30 October 2012


I recently saw the word kesalingbolehtukaran ('interchangeability') in a newspaper article discussing the currencies of Brunei and Singapore. With 20 letters, it is the longest word of Malay I have ever come across.

It consists of the nominalising circumflex ke− + −an around a compound root with three parts: saling ('inter') + boleh ('can') + tukar ('exchange').

While two-part compounds are common in Malay, such as matahari ('sun') from mata ('eye') + hari ('day'), and kakitangan ('staff') from kaki ('foot') + tangan ('hand'), three-part compounds are not so common.

I wonder if there are any longer Malay words in common usage?

25 October 2012

Brunei English or Bruneian English?

When discussing the English of places like Singapore and Brunei, we tend to say Singapore English and Brunei English.

In contrast, if we are talking about the English of places like Britain or Japan, we usually say British English and Japanese English.

Why do we use the nouns Singapore and Brunei but the adjectives British and Japanese? Why don't we say Britain English or Japan English? And why do Singaporean English and Bruneian English not sound quite right?

A posting on Language Log (here) suggests that we tend to use the adjective for countries but the noun for states; so we talk about the Canadian Parliament (it's a country) but the California Legislature (it's a state). This would seem to suggest that Singapore and Brunei are being treated as states rather than as countries. Well, maybe. But I suspect it might be more connected with size than status: Singapore and Brunei are rather smaller than Britain or Japan.

One other factor is that it seems increasingly common to refer to the France team and the Spain team rather than the French and Spanish teams, even though they are clearly both countries. Perhaps the use of the noun is winning out. So maybe use of the noun with Singapore English and Brunei English is a sign of modernity and not an indication of lack of respect.

24 October 2012

Pigafetta's Wordlist

An early European visitor to Brunei was Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scholar who travelled on Ferdinand Magellan's voyage around the world from 1519 to 1522, calling in at Brunei Town in 1521. Pigafetta kept a journal of the voyage, and this is an important historical document describing the situation in this part of the world at that time.

One of the things Pigafetta included in his journal was a list of 'some words of those heathen peoples of Molucca', and this wordlist is a valuable source of information about Malay at that time. However, it is rather stunning to find how many errors there are in the wordlist. For example:

  • Land : Buchit (this is presumably bukit, which would be better translated as 'hill' rather than 'land')
  • Morning : Patan Patan (one assumes 'patan' is really petang, i.e. 'evening', not 'morning')
  • What is this man's name? : Apenamaito? (presumably this is actually apa nama itu, or 'what is its name')

(My thanks to my UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, for showing me a copy of the journal.)

21 October 2012


When I record students in order to analyse their pronunciation, I always ask the question 'What did you do in your last vacation'.

Occasionally, some of them look perplexed. And I have realised it is because they hear the last word as vocation rather than vacation.

These two words would probably not be confused by most speakers in Brunei or Singapore, because they would have [eɪ] in the first syllable of vacation and [oʊ] in the first syllable of vocation. In contrast, the two words are homophones for me, as I have [ə] in the first syllable of both words.

This reminds me that my style of speech is not necessarily the clearest way of speaking. And I should remember to avoid vowel reduction in some circumstances. In fact, having [eɪ] in the first syllable of vacation is probably the most common way of pronouncing the word around the world, and I should remember to adopt this pronunciation.

I just checked in The Longman Pronuncation Dictionary (J. C. Wells, 2008, p. 868). It seems that use of [eɪ] in the first syllable of vacation is preferred by 61% of people in Britain, and it is only older speakers (like me) who have [ə]. So even in Britain, I am in the minority. We all have lots to learn in improving the clarity of our pronunciation.

20 October 2012


Brunei is going through the BA? series for vehicle registrations, and it is interesting to note which combinations are skipped.

BAD was omitted, so we went straight from BAC to BAE.

And we have recently found that BAI is also omitted, so we went from BAH to BAJ.

The reason for this is presumably because bai means 'pig' in Brunei Malay, and nobody would buy a car with its registration number reading 'pig'.

One can try and speculate which further sequences will be skipped ― but I can't think of any likely candidates at present.

19 October 2012

The Streisand Effect in Brunei

The Streisand Effect is the situation when attempts to stop something being circulated are counterproductive, as the attempts themselves serve to publicise the matter widely. (It originates from the time when Barbara Streisand took legal action to trying and prevent people from circulating pictures of her beachfront property, but as a direct result of her action, many millions of people viewed the offending pictures.)

On Thursday, 18 October, the Prime Minister's Office in Brunei put out an announcement that we should not believe the rumours being circulated about His Majesty the Sultan (see here). Now, everyone is trying to work out what those rumours are, and there are some pretty bizarre stories flying around. Of course, I don't believe any of them!

13 October 2012


When I was younger, we used to talk about boyfriends and girlfriends. Instead, young people nowadays seem to talk about their partners. Which is splendid, except for one thing: a listener can't be sure of the sex of the partner.

This struck me a couple of days ago when a young woman told me: "My partner comes from Greece."

Now, I could, of course, have made the assumption that her partner was male; but you never know in today's world. And it would seem to be a potentially embarassing situation if I asked, "What does he do?" only to find out later that the 'he' was actually a 'she'. As a result, I did not pursue the topic, and instead I asked her about something else.

It seems such a pity that English has adopted this gender-neutral word partner without allowing a gender-neutral pronoun. Perhaps I could have asked, "What do they do?" – but that doesn't sound right at all.

This is one instance when I would have preferred the gender-neutral Malay pronoun dia ('he'/'she'). It is interesting that, in mixing languages, many local people insert English pronouns such as I and you in their Malay utterances, and one reason seems to be because it means they don't need to choose between the formal saya and the informal aku first person pronoun. But for third person pronouns, Malay has the more general usage while English forces us to make a gender choice.

It's a pity I can't get away with using dia when sepaking English!

02 October 2012

Crash Blossom

A 'crash blossom' is a headline which is hard to parse because of the syntax. (For the origin of the term, see Wikipedia.)

I just saw a crash blossom on the BBC World site of 3 October 2012:

Initially, it seems that the Nigerian government, for some reason, is planning to attack a town that is subjected to a curfew.

Actually, 'Nigeria attack town' is a complex noun-phrase, referring to a town in Nigeria that has recently been attacked. And now (the report tells us) that town has been placed under a curfew.

I wonder whether headline writers ever think carefully about what they write. Perhaps they deliberately make their headlines obscure in order to tempt us to read more.

24 September 2012

First Day at School

Last week, I was briefly in the UK, and by good fortune, it was the first day at school for my grandson, Oliver. Here he is coming out from school at the end of the day, carrying a book to be read at home.

When he got home, we asked him all about his day. It is quite stunning for me to hear him speaking long, complex sentences, at the age of 4 years and 8 months, when it seems just a short while ago that he was uttering his first isolated words. One of the things he said was:

I don't know the other teachers' names. Maybe they'll tell me tomorrow.

03 September 2012

More on blends

In my previous post, I discussed blends in Malay such as cerpen ('short story') and tadika ('kindergarten'), and I raised the question why Malay tends to take the first part of each word while English prefers to use the start of one word and the end of another (e.g. smog = smoke+fog).

My UBD colleague Adrian Clynes suggests this is because the penultimate syllable is most prominent in Malay, especially when the words are spoken in isolation. (Whether there is lexical stress or not in Malay is debatable ‑ see the section on Stress in The Pronunciation of Malay.)

This suggestion seems to make sense, and it explains why TAman + DIdik + KAnak (with the most prominent syllable shown in upper case) gives rise to tadika. It does not work so well for ceRIta + PENdek giving rise toe cerpen; but it is basically true that most Malay root words are bisyllabic, so it is usual for the first syllable to be most prominent.

Another question is whether this extends to English blends that are used in this region. And, indeed, we find Mindef (Ministry of Defence) and TelBru (Telecom of Brunei).

What about in other varieties of English? Do we find any examples of the use of the first part of successive words in new words created in the UK or USA? I am not sure ‑ I can't think of any at the moment.

01 September 2012


In my introductory linguistics course this week, I mentioned blends such as smog (= smoke + fog) and motel (= motor + hotel), where a new word is created by adding the first part of one word to the second part of another; and I suggested that a Malay equivalent is cerpen ('short story'), which is a blend of cerita ('story') + pendek ('short').

My students suggested two more: tadika ('kindergarten') from taman ('garden') + didik ('education') + kanak ('child'); and pawagam from panggung ('theatre') + wayang gambar ('film').

It looks like Malay blends are formed by taking the first half of successive words, rathen than the first half and the second half. I'm not sure why this pattern is different from that of English.

21 August 2012

until now

Suppose I said the following:

I have always been happy until now.
Do you think I am still happy?

In my variety of English, this would mean that things have changed, and now I am no longer happy; but my guess is that most people in Brunei and Singapore would feel that the state of happiness continues into the present time, so I am still happy.

This variant meaning of until now has the potential to create lots of misunderstandings. When we don't know a word, then there is not too much of a problem. But when we think we know what something means and it actually means something else, that is much more problematic.

14 August 2012

Vowel Harmony

In my previous post, I discussed the pronunciation of the vowel in the second syllable of tasik ('lake'), specifically that it may be pronounced as [i] or [e]. In a similar fashion, the vowel at the end of terima kasih ('thank you') can often be heard as [e].

However it is not true that all vowels in the final syllable of words in Malay can vary in this way. For example, the second vowel in boleh ('can') is [e] and cannot be [i], and similarly the second vowel in oleh ('by') must be [e] and cannot be [i]. Why is this?

The rule is this: if the vowel in the first syllable is [e] or [o], then the second syllable cannot have a more close vowel. This is known as vowel harmony: the vowels in successive syllables of a word may influence each other. However, the vowel in the first syllable of both tasik and kasih is [a], so these words are not subject to this rule of vowel harmony.

For more information on vowel harmony and other aspects of Malay phonology, see my Pronunciation of Malay website, which provides an on-line version of my paper on Malay, written together with my UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes.

12 August 2012


These two signs are at different places along the Tasik Lama to Markucing forest trail. Note the variable spelling of tasik ('lake'): on the left, it has an 'i', while on the right it has an 'e'.

This is rather similar to the variable spelling in the name Abin/Aben that I discussed earlier (here). And it similarly involves variability in the vowel in the final syllable, as the vowel /i/ in a closed final syllable can be pronounced as [e] in Malay.

07 August 2012


I saw this cartoon on page 24 of The Brunei Times of 5 August 2012:

Clearly, the photographer doesn't know any phonetics. The reason we say cheese is because the vowel in it is /i:/, which is a close front unrounded vowel. When people say cheese, their lips are spread as if they are smiling.

In contrast, the first syllable of gouda has /u:/, which is a close back rounded vowel. If you take a photo while someone is saying that, their lips will be protruded, as if they are pouting. No wonder the man in the cartoon isn't having much success in getting a good photo!

The other advantage of saying cheese is that it starts and ends with non-labial consonants. (They are produced in the mouth rather than at the lips.) In contrast, parmigiano isn't so good because both /p/ and the /m/ are produced at the lips, so if you clicked at that moment, in the resulting photo it would look like the person was spitting.

03 August 2012


In my previous post, I discussed the difference between anak yatim and orphan. My UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes, suggested a similar issue: my dictionary tells me that the Malay word balu is equivalent to the English widow, but in fact, that is not quite right, as balu can be used to refer to someone who is divorced, but in English widow never refers to a divorcee.

We can describe this difference in linguistic terms: balu has a broader meaning than widow. In other words, a cross-linguistic comparison suggests that balu is a superordinate term, while English has the two hyponyms, widow and divorcee.

Similar superordinate/hyponym comparisons between Malay and English show that Malay has the superordinate term tikus, while English has the hyponyms mouse and rat; and for the reverse pattern, English has the superordinate term rice while Malay has the hyponyms nasi, beras, and padi.

31 July 2012


My UBD colleague, Malai Ayla, asked me this question: what is the English for the Malay term anak yatim? My dictionary shows this:
However, this is not quite right, as anak yatim can mean a child who has lost one parent, while the English word 'orphan' refers to a child who has lost both parents (anak yatim piatu in Malay). This can lead to mistranslations, as in the caption to the following picture from page 8 of the Borneo Bulletin of 25 September 2007:
So, back to the original question: what is the English for anak yatim? I think the answer is that there is no simple translation, and you need a phrase such as 'a child who has lost one parent'.

27 July 2012


I am currently in the UK, playing with my two grandchildren, Oliver aged 4 and Elsie aged 2. I only see them once a year, so each time I see them, they have developed so much. This time, it was stunning to see how well Oliver can remember things.

We were playing a memory game. The idea is that there are twelve cards, as below. One person looks away, and then the other person turns one of the cards over, to show a slightly altered picture. The first person then looks back to see if they can spot the difference. Here is the original:

You should focus on the picture above to see if you can remember it before looking at the modified picture.

Below is the changed one. Can you spot the difference without referring back to the original? Can you remember what was in the original picture?

The answer: the third card in the middle row has a green and yellow animal missing.

What I found interesting was that Oliver could spot the difference immediately even though he didn't seem to be concentrating very carefully. (In fact, he was jumping around all over the place.) In contrast, I had to focus very hard to try and remember the pattern.

This illustrates how much children are able to absorb with apparently little effort, while older people like me struggle to remember things.

19 July 2012

Malay English Intonation

Yesterday I attended the viva examination for Noor Fadhilah Mat Nayan at the University of Reading. Her thesis is on the intonation of English as it is spoken in Malaysia, based on recordings of ten female speakers engaged in the "map task". Her findings are that models of intonation based on British English, specifically the model known as Discourse Intonation proposed by David Brazil, may not be suitable for the description of Malay English, partly because there is a distinct tone (which she calls a Cooperative Rise) which is common in Malaysia but does not occur in British English. This tone is quite distinct from the fall-rise of British English, and its role seems to be to present information in a less demanding fashion than with the ordinary rising tone.

She also found that nucleus placement can be quite variable, and shifts in the main intonational accent of a phrase do not have the same role as similar shifts in British English.

These findings are important in the continuing efforts to describe varieties of English around the world, and I very much hope she will publish them in top journals, to enable other researchersthem to access them easily.

It was a privilege to be able to contribute a little bit to this work. Reading a thesis can sometimes be hard work; but in this case, it was well written, the research design was sound, and the data analysis was careful and thorough.

My wife complains that I almost never stop working, even when I am on vacation (as I am at the moment). But if you enjoy working on something like this, then is it really work?

19 June 2012

ambush marketing underpants display

The pile-up of nouns in newspaper headlines is notorious. But I find this sub-headline from today's on-line Guardian article about the behaviour of the Danish footballer, Nicklas Bendtner, particularly tough to decipher:

Irish bookmaker behind Danish striker's ambush marketing underpants display to pay his £80,000 fine
Apparently, ambush marketing is an established noun phrase; but you probably need to know that the Bendtner showed his underpants after scoring a goal during a recent match at the European Nations Cup in order to understand the headline.

For more on the story, see here.

18 June 2012

Speed of Light

This post has nothing to do with Brunei. But it's something I thought was interesting, so never mind.

I just saw this paragraph in an article on the BBC Word Service written by Vint Cerf (here) celebrating the life and achievements of Alan Turing:

My colleagues and I have had to re-think the basic communication paradigms for large scale networking owing to the slow nature of light speed propagation (eg 20 minutes one way from Earth to Mars) and disruption caused by planetary motion.

Slow speed of light? Isn't the speed of light the fastest thing we know?

My goodness, we are living in exciting times when we are starting to worry about the slow speed of light!

16 June 2012

Abin / Aben

On the forest trail between Bukit Karamunting and Tasek Lama, there are two wasai ('waterfalls') named after two residents of Kampung Subok, Abin and Jumat. But the spelling of the first of these is uncertain. Look at the two signs just a few metres apart. On one, it is spelled Abin, and on the other, it is Aben.

This variability in the spelling might reflect two things:

First, Brunei Malay only has three vowels, /i, a, u/. So it is uncertain how to spell Brunei names when the letters 'e' and 'o' are also adopted from Standard Malay spelling.

Second, and perhaps equally important, in Malay /i/ and /e/ cannot be contrastive in the final syllable of a word, just like /u/ and /o/ cannot be. This is why kasih ('love') is often pronounced with [e] in the final syllable, especially in the phrase terima kasih ('thank you'; lit. 'received with love'). It is also why we sometimes see the spelling kampung ('village') and at other times we find kampong, and it is why the Malay word amuk ('crazy') is borrowed into English as amok (as in 'run amok').

14 June 2012


The Malay for long-sighted is rabun dekat (lit. 'blind close') and for short-sighted it is rabun jauh (lit. 'blind far').

I wonder how much confusion this causes, given that the Malay word dekat ('near') is associated with what in English we call 'long-sighted' (or what Americans call 'near-sighted'), and the Malay word jauh ('distant') is associated with the English 'short-sighted'.

I imagine that dominant Malay speakers would find the English terms quite confusing, and similarly people who learn the English words first would be bemused by their Malay equivalents, especially since rabun doesn't seem to occur much outside of these two phrases. (The basic word for 'blind' in Malay seems to be buta, not rabun.)

My Malay-English dictionary glosses rabun as 'poor', which isn't very helpful. In contrast, the excellent on-line Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu offers 'blind' as a translation, which is a bit better. Perhaps 'poor-sighted' or 'half-blind' might be the best gloss for rabun.

08 June 2012


I was just reading a BBC article about the financial situation in Europe (here), and there were two instances of teh (instead of the) in the short article:

April output fell 1.9% from teh previous month
Teh request would follow a conference call

I guess they don't use a spell checker!

Mind you, a spell checker can be a real nightmare if you try and type foreign languages. I tried to enter teh tarik ('tea poured from a height') the other day, but my computer changed it to the tarik. And I keep on getting caught out by datang ('come') getting changed to dating.

05 June 2012

sort of / kind of

I was just reading that sort of is three times more common in British English than American English, while kind of is five times more common in American English.

So what about Brunei English? In my data of 53 five-minute recordings of UBD undergraduates, sort of occurs just four times, while kind of occurs 44 times. This seems to reflect a clear American influence on Brunei English.

One thing remains a mystery, though. We might expect rhotic speakers (those who have an [r] at the ind of four and car) to be more likely to use kind of than non-rhotic speakers, if we assume that rhoticity is also partly influenced by the American accent. But, in fact, 27 out of the 44 instances of kind of are produced by non-rhotic speakers. I find this hard to explain.

31 May 2012


In my previous post, I discussed the spelling pronunciation in Malay of Budapest with [f] instead of [p] at the start of the final syllable.

Of course, we have lots of similar cases of overgeneralisation with the pronunciation of names in English. For example, why on earth do so many people pronounce Beijing with [ʒ] in the middle? In Chinese it has [dʒ], which is a perfectly good sound in English. So why not use it?

The rationale seems to be this: Beijing is an exotic place, so its pronunciation should sound exotic. And that is why so many people put the rare English sound [ʒ] rather than the commonplace [dʒ] in the middle.

Another example, pointed out by my UBD colleague Alistair Wood, is Zagreb, which some people (especially football commentators) pronounce with stress on the final syllable. In Croatian, and indeed all Slavic languages, the stress is on the first syllable, so speakers can never have heard a native speaker producing it with final stress. Furthermore, stress on the first syllable is the most natural way of saying it in English. But some people seem to think that, because it is an exotic place, the pronunciation must be a little bit unusual; and so they give it final stress

22 May 2012


The pronunciation of names in different languages is always interesting. The morning, on the 8:00 RTB radio news, I heard the announcer state that Prince Sufri, the President of the Brunei Olympic Committee, has gone to Budapest, but he pronounced it with [f] rather than the expected [p] at the start of the final syllable.

This is quite easy to explain: Malay has no [f], except in borrowed words such as faham ('understand') and fikir ('think') from Arabic and filem ('film') and fail ('file') from English. But it is common for people in Brunei (and elsewhere in the Malay-speaking world) to pronounce faham with an initial [p], in effect nativising the pronunciation. To avoid this, some speakers are very careful to make sure they pronounce the [f] correctly. And then occasionally they extend it, and they end up using [f] where in fact it is not expected. We call this "overgeneralisation".

20 May 2012

European Champions!

For a lifelong Chelsea supporter such as me, last night was a bit special. It's not just that we finally won the thing; it was the way we won it.

For goodness sakes: Bayern had twenty corners, and they scored from none of them; but Chelsea had one single corner in the whole game, and Drogba went and scored from it. And then Bayern missed a penalty, they had so many chances with an open goal, there was a disallowed goal for off-side, and they were even up in the final penalty shoot out! ... what can you say?

At the end of the game, I called my son in England and just lay on the floor laughing. My wife says she hasn't heard me laugh so much for years.

From a linguistic perspective: I always find football commentary fascinating, and I feel sorry for English learners from around the world who are trying to make any sense of it. Just think about some of the things the commentators say — not all from last night, but pretty typical for football commentary:

  • they're really under the cosh now
  • Drogba was on his bike there
  • Ribery is looking to pick up the bits and pieces
  • Robben was lucky to get a second bite there

I really pity all those students of English who look up cosh in a dictionary and still have no clue what on earth is going on. I just looked it up in the Macmillan Dictionary, and it means "a weapon shaped like a short thick stick". Well, that helps!

And what is anyone doing on a bike while playing football? But that is the wonder of language — none of it really makes any sense. It's just what we say. Especially in football commentaries.

09 May 2012


This is the label my UBD colleague Adrian Clynes noticed on the back of his jacket.

Artly doesn't seem like a good word in English. But why not? If you can add ‑ly to the end of the noun saint to make saintly, or to the end of friend to create friendly, or to the end of father to make fatherly, why can't you add ‑ly to the end of the noun art to creat artly?

The answer seems to be that the only nouns to which you can add ‑ly to create an adjective must be human. So brotherly is fine, as are womanly and ghostly, but not *carpetly, *bookly, *catly or *horsely.

This is, of course, different from adjectives becoming adverbs: it seems you can add ‑ly to pretty much any adjective to create an adverb, so you have happily, slowly, lazily, dangerously, sleepily, cautiously, superciliously, artfully, etc.

But, in contrast, the ‑ly suffix that converts a noun to an adjective seems to be much more restricted.

Are there any exceptions? I guess worldly and lovely, and probably a few more. Also, there seem to be plenty of human nouns which don't allow a ‑ly suffix: *auntly, *bossly, *scientistly, and many more.

05 May 2012

Subject-Verb Agreement

One feature of New Varieties of English, such as those of Singapore and Brunei, is sporadic lack of subject-verb agreement. A factor that sometimes influences this is an intervening noun. For example, in Singapore I found these examples from student assignments, where generation and speech respectively result in the verb having a third-person singular ‑s suffix:

The children in this generation uses this language.
I realise that the features of my speech is rather distinct and different.
And in my corpus of interviews in Brunei, I have found the following examples, in which English and competition seem to have influenced the main verb:
most of the words of English comes from well originate from Greek language
but those who actually go for the competition is quite less

Does this occur in the English from elsewhere, such as the UK?

I just noticed the following in this week's WorldWideWords newsletter, written by Michael Quinion, who is something of an expert on English:

In the days when knowledge of Greek and Latin were widespread, ...

Note the the head of the subject is knowledge, so we would expect the verb to be was not were. But the intervening 'Latin and Greek' seems to have caused confusion.

I wonder how widespread this phenomenon is.

01 May 2012

this areas

Here is a sign at the entrance to the Belimbing Recreational Park along Jalan Subok.

It is a bit surprising that people can spend lots of money producing such a well-made sign but not bother to get the English right.

The analysis of this English raises some questions. Does areas have a spurious ‑s suffix? Or is it a case of confusion between this and these?

My feeling is that the former analysis is better: the intended message is supposed to refer to 'this recreational area', but the sign-writer used the plural areas instead. However, I have also come across this used with plural nouns. It seems that there is no clear distinction between this and these in Brunei, possibly because many speakers do not differentiate between long and short vowels.

25 April 2012

Repetition in Malay and English

I have previously discussed lexical repetition, sometimes involving one term in English followed by the equivalent in Malay. Here is another example I heard from Dr Rais Yatim, the Malaysian Minster of Communications:

broadband atau jalur lebar (Astro Awani news, 23 April 2012)
where jalur lebar is the Malay for 'broadband'.

What about just in English? I have been going through editions of The Borneo Bulletin, and I found these:

Bruneians as culture custodians must not only play a key role to safeguard and preserve the country’s heritage but also ... (Borneo Bulletin, 24 October 2011, p. 8)
We are looking for investors for food processing in Brunei and this would be a good facilitator and enabler for the market. (Borneo Bulletin, 24 October 2011, p. 11.)
In the first of these, safeguard and preserve would appear to mean the same thing; and in the second, facilitator and enabler seem to be exact synonyms. My impression is that such repetition is rather common in Brunei English.

22 April 2012


The word walkaton ('walkathon') gets used quite often in Malay, as in this extract from page 2 of Media Permata of 23 April 2012:
Larian amal ini dibahagian kepada dua- larian 6.3 km, dan walkaton 4.2 km.
which might be translated as
This public run is divided into two: a 6.3 km run, and a 4.2 km walkathon.
It is interesting that the silent 'l' in walkaton is retained in the Malay word, but the 'th' becomes 't'. I'm not sure why this differential treatment of these letters occurs. One possibility is that the vowel in the first syllable is neither [o] nor [a] when it is pronounced in Malay, so neither 'o' nor 'a' would be suitable in spelling the word; but the consonant at the start of the final syllable is always pronounced as [t] so it is fine to spell it as 't'. One way or another, given that so many borrowed words with 'th' in the original have 't' in their Malay versions (terapi, teori, tema, ...), it is hardly surprising that local people tend to use a [t] when saying these words in English.

19 April 2012

a(n) historical account

I recently wrote a book review in which I included the statement:
... provides an historical perspective on the promotion of English in India ...
and the editor changed 'an historical perspective' to 'a historical perspective'.

The reason for this editorial change is presumably because there is a consonant at the start of historical, so the editor feels that a rather than an should be used.

However, we should note that, in actual speech, initial /h/ is often omitted from function words such as his and her because they are generally unstressed. And the main stress in historical is on the second syllable, so the initial /h/ in the unstressed first syllable is actually usually omitted. This means that historical is in fact often spoken with an initial vowel, so it is best to use an rather than a before it.

In contrast, history has its main stress on the first syllable, so the /h/ is not omitted, and we say 'a history of Brunei'.

OK, so this is very, very picky, and I allowed the editor to change the usage if he wishes; but maybe it is of interest to think a little about the rationale for the use of an or a. Note that we say 'an hour' not *'a hour' because the initial /h/ in hour is silent. Note also that we say 'a university', not *'an university', because university actually begins with the consonant /j/.

17 April 2012

Malay Doublets

In a previous post (here), I discussed doublets in Malay such as berhati-hati dan berwaspada ('careful and cautious'), where the two words mean essentially the same thing.

Perhaps the most common doublet of this kind is where one of the words is Malay and the other is English. For example, on page 2 of Media Permata of 14 April 2012, in quoting a member of the fire brigade who was discussing the reasons for the outbreak of a fire, we find the sentence:
Kabel sumbangan itu dipercayai terlibih bebanan atu overload.
which might be translated as
The extension cabel is believed to be too much load or overload.
In other words, terlibih beban and overload mean exactly the same thing, but one is Malay and the other is English. My assumption is that this is done because lots of people use the borrowed word overload even when speaking Malay, but the fire officer wanted to ensure that people who only speak Malay could also understand him.

This does not just happen in Brunei. On 15 April, I was listening to the news on Astro Awani (the Malaysian cable TV news channel), and I heard Dr Rais Yatim, the Malaysian Minister of Communications, mention 'facility atau kemudahan', when facility and kemudahan mean the same thing.

This raises a few questions: is the phenomenon equally common in Malaysia and Brunei? And is it more usual to put the Malay term first or second?

It is interesting that this type of doublet closely matches legal doublets found in English, such as 'aid and abet', 'goods and chattels', 'null and void', 'part and parcel' (see here), where the first word is Anglo-Saxon and the second is Latin or French; and the original rationale was to allow ordinary people in England to understand legal terminology. The only difference is that these English doublets have been in the language for centuries. Only time will tell whether the Malay doublets survive for as long.

14 April 2012

Malay spelling

On the whole, Malay spelling is predictable: you can determine the spelling of a word from its pronunciation; and you can predict the pronunciation of a word from its spelling. But there are a few exceptions:
  • the letter 'e' can be pronounced as [e] or as [ə], so [peraŋ] ('blond') and [pəraŋ] ('war') are both written as perang
  • cukai ('tax') is two syllables while mulai ('begin') is three syllables, because the former is a single morpheme while the latter is mula+i
  • universiti is usually pronounced with an initial [j] (because it is a borrowed word) while untuk ('for') never has an initial [j]
  • borrowed words with 'g', such as alergi ('allergy') are pronounced by some people with [g] and by others with [dʒ]
Note that the last two involve words borrowed from English, and borrowings often cause irregularities in spelling. We might note that the English words carriage and marriage both end in [ɪdʒ] while massage and collage both end in [ɑ:ʒ] because they are more recent borrowings from French.

One more case of indeterminate spelling in Malay derived from borrowings from English involves words like zink ('zinc'), which is usually pronounced as [ziŋ]. In other words, you would not be able to tell from the pronunciation whether the word should be written as zing or as zink.

In fact, this gives rise to a potential minimal pair in Malay: bang ('a Muslim call to prayer') and bank ('bank') are both pronounced as [baŋ].

13 April 2012

Texting and Malay Cupertinos

The Cupertino effect is when a typing error gets introduced by an over-enthusiastic spell-checker. The derivation is from cooperation (with no hyphen) being "corrected" to Cupertino (see here). Apparently, there are genuine examples, such as:
The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful
stimulating cross-border Cupertino
I wonder if there is a word for errors introduced by predictive texting. If you use predictive texting when typing SMSs, you can so easily get caught out. Just yesterday, I sent a message to my wife saying 'I'm tired', but I managed to send 'I'm three' instead! And, on another occasion, I wanted to say 'you should go for it', but I managed to send 'You should on for it' instead.

One other problem is typing Malay. In Microsoft Word, most Malay words get those familiar red squiggly lines underneath, which is just fine. But datang ('to go') gets converted to dating, which has caught me out a few times. I have to remember to remove that item from the list of corrections on each new computer I use.

11 April 2012

More on the BELTA Conference

In my previous post, I included a picture of me giving a presentation at the BELTA conference last week here in UBD. It is hard to see me, as I am just a tiny figure at the front.

Here's another picture from the conference, showing my colleague, Noor Azam, giving the speech at the closing ceremony. It is from page A7 of The Brunei Times of 8 April.I am grateful that the picture of me is so much smaller ― I really find it distateful to have my picture in the papers.

Actually, I found the behaviour of photographers at the conference quite disturbing: they were constantly poking cameras in our faces, with incessant clicking and also lots of flashes. Why are photographers allowed to get away with behaviour like that?

At the same time, I recognise that, as an academic, I need to promote what I am working on, so maybe my objection to photographers is a bit hypocritical. But the way I see it is this: I try to encourage people to read what I write, and I see no reason to have a photograph of myself to accompany the coverage. Is that a conflict? Maybe.

08 April 2012

BELTA Conference

Last Friday, I gave a presentation at the Brunei English Language Teachers' Association (BELTA) conference held in the Language Centre at UBD. Here's a picture of me giving the talk from page A8 of The Brunei Times of 7 April, 2012 ― that's me at the front.I was talking about use of the Internet in teaching English, and how we must be careful about the reliability of resources like Wikipedia. Not particularly profound, I admit! But maybe one or two of the websites I discussed will have been of interest to the participants.

I find it hard to get used to the idea that my rather mundane presentation was reported in one of the national newspapers. But then in a country where the installation of an ATM machine or a new set of traffic lights can be reported in the national newspapers (here and here), perhaps it is not so surprising that my presentation was also covered.

And I guess it's encouraging that methods of teaching and learning English are regarded as important enough to merit a newspaper report.

04 April 2012

Tautologous Doublets

Currently, there is a news story in Brunei about someone who tricked lots of people into paying a $300 administration fee to get a fictitious government job. The third paragraph of the page 1 article in Media Permata of 4 April 2012 says:
Pasukan Polis Diraja Brunei juga ingin menasihatkan orang ramai supaya berhati-hati dan berwaspada jika ada tawaran-tawaran seperti ini, ...
which might be translated as:
The Royal Brunei Police Force also want to advise the public to be careful and cautious if there are offers such as this, ...
Note the use of berhati-hati and berwaspada, both of which mean 'to be careful'. Malay seems to love doublets like this, though comparable usage in English might be regarded as tautologous.

I often see examples such as the following in written assignments from my students:
Language is an important and vital tool.

I like to read newspapers that are printed and written in English.
and I advise them to avoid such redundancy.

However, we should also note that English sometimes has doublets, such as aiding and abetting and without due care and attention. The Wikipedia article on legal doublets (here) lists 36 such examples, and it states that they often involve an English word paired with a French or Latin word to ensure understanding.

Such doublets are mostly confined to the legal domain in English, and students are best advised not to use them in writing ordinary English. I tell them that redundantly tautologous repetition of unnecessary material should be avoided and eliminated.

03 April 2012


Last Sunday, I went on a Brunei Nature Society trip to Selirong Island in the north of Temburong, to walk through the mangrove forest there. This is what it looks like. You can just see the boardwalk on the right of the picture.I guess some people would not like to see the dense network of aerial prop roots of the mangrove trees (Rhizophora apicula) that rise out from the muddy swamp. But I found it magical.

Here is a picture showing the only species of palm tree (Nypa frutican) that can thrive there. It was fascinating to hear from our guide, Aywen Chak Wang Hoong, about the mechanisms these mangrove trees develop to enable them to survive in the salty water.It's a bit ironic that a phonetician like me, someone whose work involves listening to and analysing the sounds of speech, should appreciate the silence of the forest so much. But maybe it makes sense: that's where I really get away from work.

31 March 2012

New ATM Machine

Here is the headline from page 2 of Media Permata of 28 March 2012: It says "New ATM machne in Temburong".

I wonder how many other countries would have the installation of a new ATM machine as the major story on page 2 of their national newspaper. But then I guess we don't have too many riots and strikes or things like that to report in Brunei.

28 March 2012

one of

In my previous two posts, I have discussed non-standard use of the plural ‑s suffix in Brunei English. One quite common pattern is the use of a singular noun after one of. I have found five examples in the 53 five-minute interviews that constitute my data. They are:
well ... it’s one of life’s ... mystery

I’m not ... sure because one of my cousin is from my mother’s side and the other is from my father’s side ... of the family

my coach is actually one of our senior

and one of our relative pick us up from the KL airport

the Sharm El Sheikh is one of ... the tourist ... site where ... it’s a bit similar like Ha- er Hawaii
In these cases, mystery, cousin, senior, relative and site would all be plural nouns in standard English.

It seems that speakers feel that the referent is singular, so the noun should have no plural suffix. I guess this is logical in a way.

I haven't seen this reported for other New Varieties of English; but I suspect it does occur elsewhere.

24 March 2012

stuffs etc

In my previous post, I suggested that the occurrence of an unexpected ‑s suffix on nouns in Brunei English occurs most often for logically countable things such as furnitures. In fact, in the 53 five-minute recordings of UBD undergraduates that I am analysing, there are a total of 15 such instances. They involve the following words: stuffs (three times; twice from the same speaker), families (twice), jewelries (twice from the same speaker), infrastructures, mythologies, cultures, varieties, golds, transports, therapies, vocabs.

Of course, in some of these cases, the plural nouns would be appropriate in some contexts in standard English; but the context in which they are used in these data suggests it is not standard usage.

A few examples are:
I think it’s because of the infrastructures

I don’t know much about their mythologies and all that

I have to help erm welcoming the guests and erm … helping carry stuffs around

it’s just that I don’t like jewelries in general

I’m just stay at home ... and just ... erm spent time with my families

so I was interested in doing speech therapies

lots and lots of stuffs ... I bought shoes, shirts, jeans, skirts, and other stuffs
One question: should teachers worry about these tokens? We might note that stuffs occurs in the Corpus of Contemporary American English 463 times. Some of these are as verbs ('he stuffs his hands in his pockets'), but many are not. For example:
so I don't want to go and find a hotel and all that stuffs

overwhelming centralization of all our food stuffs

I just have -- have to do stuffs after school
So maybe the plural stuffs is becoming acceptable even in America.

One way or another, plurals such as furnitures and informations seem to be very common in the Englishes spoken in such places as Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, and India, and I suspect they will one day be the norm in most World Englishes, even if teachers continue to cling to traditional usage.

20 March 2012

Plural -s

I am currently doing some analysis of the grammar of Brunei English, based on the recordings of 53 UBD undergraduates (38 female and 15 male) being interviewed by me for 5 minutes each, a total of nearly 4.5 hours of speech.

One feature I have found (as expected) is variable usage of the plural -s suffix on nouns. Sometimes, -s is found when standard English would not have it, and at other times it is absent when it would be expected in standard English.

However, these cases are actually quite rare. In the 20 interviews I have analysed so far, there 249 cases where the -s suffix appears as expected, 13 cases where -s occurs unexpectedly, and just 8 cases where it is omitted in an environment where it would normally occur in standard usage. This means that over 90% of the usage is standard.

In fact, the non-standard instances can mostly be grouped into three categories:
  • occurrance of -s on logically plural nouns, such as furnitures and informations
  • omission of -s after one of, such as 'one of my brother' and 'one of the language'
  • occurrence of -s on the end of in-law, such as 'my brother-in-laws' (rather than the standard 'brothers-in-law')
I will discuss each of these separately in subsequent posts.

16 March 2012

wasting time

Every language seems to have a colourful expression to describe wasting time doing nothing in particular. In English we say you are twiddling your thumbs. In Chinese, maybe 打蚊子 (da wenzi, 'swat mosquitoes') is similar.

What about Malay? How about berpeluk tubuh ('hug the body')? Does this carry the same kind of meaning?

Here's the headline from an article on page 3 of the Media Permata of 15 March 2012:Translated, it says: 'Youths are urged not just to hug their bodies.'

My dictionary glosses berpeluk tubuh as (1) 'to fold one's arms' and (2) 'lazy'.

13 March 2012

texting while eating

One of my colleagues was recently photographed texting while she was eating. The picture then appeared on Facebook, and she was criticised using the Malay saying:
Jangan biar rezeki menunggu.
Don't make good-fortune wait.
The idea seems to be that food is a blessing, and it is bad manners to show disrespect to it by texting while you are eating.

Maybe the nearest similar saying in English is: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Except that the English version does not refer to food.

(My thanks to my UBD colleagues Salbrina Sharbawi and Malai Ayla for giving me this example.)

11 March 2012

the pronunciation of con- and com-

In my previous post, I discussed spelling pronunciation, including the fact that the 't' in often is sometimes pronounced even though it used to be silent. (In contrast, the 't' in listen is still always silent.)

One other environment where spelling seems to be affecting the pronunciation of English words is the vowel in the first syllable of words like Coventry and the adjective covert. Traditionally, these words both had the STRUT vowel [ʌ] in their first syllable; but now it is more usual to have [ɒ] in the first syllable of Coventry and [əʊ] in the first syllable of covert. (Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 2008, p. 192, states that 54% of British speakers still prefer the first syllable of covert to be [kʌv], but I find this surprising.)

Another similar word whose pronunciation is changing is constable. Once again, [ɒ] seems to be becoming more popular, and in this case it may be because of taboo: people don't want to pronounce the first syllable as [kʌnt]. In contrast, there does not yet seem to be any influence on the pronunciation of country. This is probably because the latter is a more common word, as it is normal for common words to maintain irregular pronunciation for longer than rare words.

In Brunei, the process of spelling pronunciation is more advanced, as is expected for new varieties of English. For example, 27 out of 53 of the Brunei speakers in my recordings of the Wolf passage have [ɒ] rather than [ʌ] in the first syllable of company. You can look at this in two ways: you can say that lots of people in Brunei have non-standard pronunciation; or you can say that Brunei is in the forefront of the linguistic evolution of English.

10 March 2012

Spelling Pronunciation

The influence of spelling on pronunciation is widespread. For example, in often, the 't' used to be silent, but many people now pronounce the word with a [t] in it.

In Brunei, spelling pronunciation is very common, perhaps encouraged by the close link between spelling and pronunciation in Malay. In my data of 53 recordings of the Wolf passage, three speakers produce shepherd with an [f] in the middle, as they assume that the medial 'ph' is pronounced as [f].

Presumably, these speakers do not realise that the word was originally two morphemes, sheep + herd, maybe because there is only one 'e' in the first syllable of shepherd. One assumes that in a word where the two morphemes are more obvious, such as cupholder, speakers would be less likely to pronounce the 'ph' as [f].

09 March 2012


Just recently, someone contacted me offering to arrange for advertising on my blog. Apparently, there would be links around the side or at the bottom, with links to educational organisations or something like that. And presumably I would earn some money from it.

I rejected the offer, as I am not keen to commercialise this blog. I dislike advertising, and I also feel it might compromise what I want to write.

On the other hand, I recognise that advertising is necessary in some cases. So perhaps I am being old-fashioned in refusing to accept it. Maybe some people might even find educational advertisements interesting or helpful!

It is interesting that Google accepts advertising (and makes lots and lots of money out of it), while Wikipedia refuses to accept advertising and relies on donations instead. So which model is preferable? Personally, I don't get annoyed by the 'sponsored links' in Google and also in gmail, as I mentally block them out so I don't even notice them. In contrast, the appeals for donations in Wikipedia do annoy me.

So maybe I should not worry about advertising. Maybe it would even brighten up the image of the blog!

However, this blog is a hobby for me, not a business, so I do not need to generate money from it. And I will continue to reject advertising.

05 March 2012


The plural of mouse is, of course, mice. Well, it is if it refers to the little, furry animal. But what if it refers to the computer gadget? Now, of course, we usually only talk about a singular computer mouse, because most computers only need one. But how about a shop that sells the things? Does it sell computer mice or computer mouses?

According to Wikipedia (here), both mice and mouses are acceptable, though some technical writers prefer to avoid the issue by talking about mouse devices.

Actually, it is not uncommon for a polyseme (a word with two distinct but related meanings) to have different inflections depending on the meaning. For example, the past particle of hang is hung if it refers to putting something up on the wall but hanged if it refers to a a criminal being executed. I can't think of any examples (apart from mouse) involving plurals, but I am sure they must exist.

04 March 2012

plastic bag

This is the announcement I heard near the end of the RBA flight that I took when I was returning from the UK (with the stressed word shown in upper case):
We will shortly be collecting the headsets. Please place them in the PLASTIC bag.
The standard pronunciation is plastic BAG rather than PLASTIC bag.

The basic rule is this: a compound noun has the main stress on the first item, so we find: POLICE car, TRAFFIC lights, MATHS teacher, and HISTORY class. In contrast, a noun phrase consisting of an adjective and a noun is stressed on the second item, for example: red CAR, tall MAN, boring CLASS, and hot CURRY. So that should be easy, right?

Well, maybe not. Why do we say CHOCOLATE cake but chocolate BISCUIT? Why do we say EASTER egg but Easter DAY? Why do we say OXFORD Street but Oxford ROAD? None of it seems to make any sense.

And then there is plastic BAG. Is plastic really an adjective? Maybe it's actually a noun. After all, we can say 'It's made of plastic', and if it occurs after the preposition of, it must be a noun.

In conclusion, it is not too surprising if there is substantial variation in the pronunciation of phrases such as plastic bag, especially in new varieties of English such as that of Brunei.

28 February 2012


I am currently in the UK for a few days. Here are my grandchildren.They are delightful (though I guess every grandfather thinks that).

Oliver was a bit slow starting to speak; but now he is four, and he natters away all the time in long, complex sentences. Which just shows that it doesn't matter when a child learns to speak, as they all get there in the end. Elsie is just two, but her language is already not bad.

The only thing that disappoints me is that they are growing up as monolinguals, as is almost inevitable in the UK. I guess they will benefit from growing up speaking standard English with a prestigious accent; but still I think it is a pity to be a monolingual when so many people in the world are proficient in two, three, or more languages.

Young people in Brunei should appreciate how lucky they are to grow up naturally as bilinguals. It gives them two different perspectives onto the world, which I think is really valuable.

24 February 2012

Mi Goreng

This is a huge advertising sign by a busy road junction in Brunei. On the left, it says: 'Indofood Fried Noodles, the No 1 Pleasure in Brunei' Although the link between advertising and reality is usually rather tenuous, this advertisement seems to be quite accurate. Instant noodles indeed seem to be pretty much the greatest pleasure of many people in Brunei. Lots of people have instant noodles at 10:00 in the morning as well as in the afternoon, in addition to a full breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At a time when the incidence of obesity is exceptionally high in Brunei, especially among office workers, and when the occurrence of diabetes is also so widespread that it is regarded as almost an epidemic, I find it deeply depressing that eating junk food like this continues to be so popular. It beats me why the government doesn't do more to discourage it, like putting a tax on instant noodles or something like that, especially when the fight against obesity is supposed to be important.

20 February 2012


A common way of creating new words is by blending, which involves using the start of one word and the end of another. So, for example, in English we find:
  • smog (from smoke + fog)
  • motel (from motor + hotel)
  • infotainment (from information + entertainment)
What about Malay? Are there blends in Malay?

One of my first-year students suggested cerpen ('short story') (from cerita 'story' + pendek 'short'). The only difference is that this is the start of one word plus the start of another word, rather than the start of one and the end of the other.

My UBD colleague, James McLellan, tells me that similar blends are very common in Indonesia, with, for example, menlu ('foreign minister') (from menteri 'minister' + luar 'outside'). Note that this is also the start of one word and the start of another, just like with cerpen.

I have two questions: Is using the start of both words the usual pattern in Malay? And is the process more common in Indonesia than in Brunei and Malaysia?

15 February 2012


Here is a headline and accompanying picture from the front page of the Media Permata of 15 February 2012, reporting on an official visit by a Malaysian minister on the Sultan of Brunei:The headline might be translated as 'His Majesty the Sultan consents to receive visit' (where berkenan is being translated as 'consents', as is normal practice in Brunei).

Also on the same page, this is the headline and picture reporting on a visit by a minister from Canada on the Senior Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, the Crown Prince of Brunei:This second headline might be translated as 'Senior Minister consents to receive visit'.

The use of mengadap ('visit') is interesting here. I was unable to find it in my Malay dictionary, as the Standard Malay equivalent is menghadap (the root being hadap, with an 'h'). In fact, mengadap (with no 'h') is a Brunei Malay word. (It is usual in Brunei Malay to have no initial 'h', so for example hitam ('black') in Standard Malay is itam in Brunei Malay.)

But mengadap is not just a word in Brunei Malay; it is also a word in Bahasa Dalam, the formal Palace Language that is used to refer to the activities of the Sultan and his family.

This suggests that sometimes the most colloquial language, Brunei Malay, and the most formal, Bahasa Dalam, use the same forms that both deviate in a similar fashion from Standard Malay.

Actually, this might be quite widespread in languages. For example, in British English, both the upper-class aristocrats and also less well-educated working class people in places such as Norwich tend to use ‑in rather than ‑ing at the end of gerunds. So upper-class speakers are well-known for talking about huntin and fishin.

12 February 2012


Here is a sign along the trail in Bukit Shahbandar which Adrian Clynes reckons is ungrammatical.The Malay reads munuju keluar ('towards exit'); but he notes that keluar is really ke + luar ('to outside'), so it is underlyingly a prepositional phrase, and the sign is literally 'towards to outside'.

But is keluar really a prepositional phrase? Maybe it has been used so often to mean 'exit' that it has undergone conversion (partly under the influence of English), and now it can also be regarded as a noun. If that is the case, then perhaps menuju keluar is fine.