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.