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 Pigafetta kept a journal of the voyage, and this is an important historical document describing the situation in this part of the world at that time.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.