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.