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.