31 December 2013

Yellow Duck

One of the things I did while in Taiwan these past two weeks is turn the television on to a news channel and listen to the news over and over again. By the time I have heard the same item five or ten times, I can usually understand almost all of it, which is just brilliant in my efforts to improve my Chinese.

One of the amazing aspects of the news channels in Taiwan is the banality of some of the items. For example, some of the items that ran and ran while we were there are:

  • Some students were dissatisfied with the service in a small restaurant so one of them screwed up the menu and tossed it into a bowl of soup.
  • An old man didn't have enough money to buy a canister of gas to allow his wife to have a hot shower, so he stole one from outside a shop. But when he got home, his wife criticised him so much that he took the stolen canister back and returned it to the shop he had taken it from.
  • Some youths tossed a number of bicycles into the river, apparently because thy were bored.
  • A son-in-law of the President, Ma Yingjiu, got into an argument with someone in a restaurant.
  • A giant plastic yellow duck was inflated in Keelung harbour.

This last item was particularly prominent in the news all the time we were there. The problem was that, after a few days sitting in the harbour, the duck got rather dirty, and then the authorities tried to wash it. But the first efforts failed, and after research into appropriate detergents, half of it was cleaned, and then for a while it was a half-grey-half-yellow duck. Finally, just as it was all cleaned, it suddenly burst. This news even made it onto the BBC World News.

This repetition of really mundane news stories is just splendid for me. In all the time I was there, I heard almost no international news stories. Maybe some channels report international news, but I didn't find any such channels. It makes the news reported in Brunei's Media Permata or Borneo Bulletin seem quite weighty in comparison.


I spent the last two weeks in Taitung, in the east of Taiwan. For me, it was splendid to be surrounded all the time by people speaking Chinese – virtually nobody spoke English to me in all the time I was there. It is so different from Brunei, where I almost never have the opportunity to speak Malay, despite all the efforts I have spent trying to learn it.

One other thing about Taitung is how friendly and helpful people are. For example, I was walking along the road one day with my wife, who asked me (in Chinese), "Is this Qiangguo Street?", and someone who was just going past on her motorbike answered, "Yes, it is." We thought it was hilarious, that someone riding her motorbike would try and be helpful like that.

I spent quite a bit of time walking with my wife. One day, we walked out to the splendid Forest Park (森林公園), and then back again a couple of hours later, and an old fellow had seen us going and then coming back. He thought we were lost, so he hurried over to help us find the way, and as far as I could see, he wasn't trying to sell us anything or guide us to his own hotel or anything. When we assured him we were fine, he left us alone.

Finally, one more little anecdote: I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for my order, and two little girls, maybe five or six years old, came up to me, stared at me for a moment, and then asked (in Chinese), "Why is your nose so big?" So I asked them, "Why is your nose so small? Are you sure it's big enough to let you breathe?" They went away laughing, and then a couple of minutes later, they came back and asked, "How do you say 'sister' in English?" So I told them and said they should try and remember it for next time I saw them. It is hard for me to imagine that kind of interaction taking place in Brunei, where it is extremely unlikely that children would come and address me in Malay.

can / can't

I was recently doing some translation of a text from Chinese to English, together with my wife, and I translated the following:



you should do your best to see if you can't change things

My wife looked at it and suggested it should be can, not can't. When I looked at it again, I could find no way to explain why can't seems to be OK, and I could see no clear difference between the text above and:

you should do your best to see if you can change things

Given that this second version is more transparent, I decided to use it. But I find it bizarre that the sentence seems to mean the same thing whether it includes can or can't.

11 December 2013


All books have typos. Even my own books have a few, despite my efforts at proof-reading the text again and again and again. And while they can be annoying, a few typos don't matter too much. But sometimes if they are too frequent, they can seriously interfere with one's ability to understand a text.

I was recently reading a short story entitled The Phenwick Phenomena by the Singaporean writer Simon Tay, published in an anthology entitled One: The Anthology, and on page 127, I read this sentence:

He tried to rearrange the Singaporean poetry books in alphabetical order on the shelf next to the last, sun-faded copies of his own book but, as he diet he started flipping the pages of the boob he had meant to reshelf and reading the poems again, sitting down on another pile of books as if un a low stool.

Presumably, boob is supposed to be book, and un should be on. But diet? I am lost there.

The book is published by Marshall Cavendish, and one wonders what kind of copy editors they employ. How can a sentence like that be published?

03 December 2013

Brothers and Sisters

I previously discussed (here) the fact that Bruneians tend to include themselves when counting their siblings; so if I have one brother and two sisters, then speakers of English in Brunei would tend to say that I have four siblings.

My UBD colleague, James McLellan, has told me that this comes from Malay, where the following sentence:

Saya ada empat orang adik-beradik
    I   have   four (people) brothers-and sisters

would mean 'I am one of four children', not 'I have four brothers and sisters'; and various FASS collaeagues, including our Dean, Noor Azam, yesterday confirmed this usage.

24 November 2013

Misunderstandings in ELF

My new book, Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca: An Analysis of ELF Interactions in South-East Asia, has now been published by De Gruyter. More details are available from the publisher (here).

The book analyses 183 tokens of misunderstanding that occurred in recordings of conversations in Brunei, to try to determine what caused them and how they were dealt with. The basic finding is that most misunderstandings arise out of pronunciation. Unfamiliar words and idioms occasionally cause a problem, but grammar is rarely an issue. The most common way of dealing with misunderstandings is following the 'let-it-pass' strategy, in the hope that things will sort themselves out naturally.

The book is priced at about 100 Euros, which seems a bit expensive. Maybe libraries will get copies, as I feel it contributes substantially to knowledge about what is important in English teaching.

The book is available from Amazon (here), though it appears to be 'temporarily out of stock'. Hmm, well I guess that means someone must have bought it! Something really bizarre about the Amazon offer is this:

So it is cheaper new than used! I know some things, such as antiques and some wines, get more valuable with age; but my book? Very strange!

original colour

I saw this sign on a display board that is being installed at UBD:

This raises two questions:

  1. What does 'being original colour coming along with birth' mean?
  2. If we assume it is a Google translation from some language, what language is it from?

My guess is that it means 'natural colour', so 'coming along with birth' serves to elaborate 'original colour'; but I have no idea what language it is from.

On the right, there is mention of a German standard for installation, so maybe it is from German.

22 November 2013

east / west

Something I find constantly amazing is how bad English is at differentiating crucially important words. For example, the numbers 'fifty' and 'fifteen' are almost identical. And in American English, 'can' and 'can't' are pretty hard to distinguish.

For the basic digits, the biggest problem is between 'nine' and 'five', both of which are monosyllables with the same /ai/ vowel. In air traffic control, people are instructed to say them as 'niner' (with two syllables) and 'fife' (devoicing the final consonant). Maybe that solves the problem, though away from air traffic control, most ordinary speakers do not follow this pattern.

It is interesting that Chinese does better: the digits that are confused are yi ('one') and qi ('seven'), because they both have the same vowel on the same high-level tone. But even ordinary folk usually know it is better to change yi into yao when reading out phone numbers. It is strange that English speakers generally don't know how to do something comparable with 'nine' and 'five'.

Even people working in air traffic control get into trouble with some English words. I just read a news report (here) about a pilot in the USA who landed his plane at the wrong airport partly, it seems, because he confused his hand-written 'west' with 'east'. It is stunning that we do not make these two terms maximally distinct instead of both having four letters ending with 'st'.

17 November 2013


I just saw this sign outside a construction site near Jalan Muara. (Awas means 'caution'.)

It would be more standard to have 'danger' rather than 'dangers'. But why? After all, 'dangers' also occurs in standard English. Indeed, it crops up 5865 times in the COCA corpus. So what is the difference between the mass noun 'danger' and the countable noun 'dangers'?

I could not immediately think of the answer. We can usually detect a difference in meaning between a mass noun and a count noun: 'glass', refers to the substance, while 'glasses' are either cups or spectacles; 'stone' is the substance, while 'stones' are little round things; and 'wine' is the generic item, while 'wines' are types of wine. But 'danger' versus 'dangers'?

No wonder the count/mass distinction is so fragile in World Englishes!

14 November 2013


I just looked at a splendid new resource that shows the change in forest cover across the world between 2000 and 2012 (here). Below is a screenshot that zooms into part of the north coast of Borneo. Undisturbed forest is shown as green, forest that has been lost is red, and forest that has been gained is blue.

The big patch of red on the left (with just a bit of blue in there) is near Miri, in Sarawak. Overall, the findings confirm that Malaysia is one of the countries with the greatest loss of forest over the past 12 years.

This screenshot confirms that there has not been too much forest loss in Brunei, though there is a little around Muara and also some in the middle, presumably in Tutong District.

It is fascinating that you can easily make out the map of Brunei, especially its south-western border with Sarawak, by looking at the undisturbed green area. On the right, you can also make out Temburong fairly clearly, while there has been a little more forest loss in the Malaysian district of Limbang between the two parts of Brunei.

07 November 2013


In English, blends usually involve the first half of one word and the second half of another:

'smoke' + 'fog' = 'smog'
'motor' + 'hotel' = 'motel'

In contrast, in Malay they seem to involve the first part of successive words:

cerita ('story') + pendek ('short') = cerpen ('short story')
taman ('garden') + didik ('education') + kanak ('child') = tadika ('kindergarten')

But on page 4 of the Media Permata of 8 November 2013, I saw ucaptama ('keynote speech'), which seems to be a blend of ucapan ('speech') + utama ('primary') – so it is following the English pattern of first part of one word and second part of another.

I wonder how many other blends like that there are in Malay.

06 November 2013

Brunei Times

The Brunei Times daily synopsis of the news (here) offers some splendid material for comparative linguistics because it has the same reports in English, Malay and Chinese. Analysis of these videos provides some fascinating insights into the structure of the different languages.

For example, I have been comparing the English and Malay summaries for 10 September 2013 (available on YouTube here and here). The English version lasts 1 minute 49 seconds, while the Malay equivalent is 2 minutes 26 seconds. Given that they are presenting exactly the same material, what causes this difference in length?

One key difference is that, in the English version, the ending takes just 4 seconds, while in the Malay it takes 12 seconds. The reason for this is that there are a number of formulaic things which need to be said in Malay but which can be skipped in English.

But quite apart from this, there are some interesting differences in the linguistic material within the individual news reports. For example, there is an item on the newly-introduced strain of Laila rice. In English, this takes 17 seconds, while in Malay it takes 24 seconds. Here is a snapshot of the English presenter:

And this is the Malay presenter:

So what causes the difference in length? Here is the text of the English:

In other news Bruneians love the taste of the Laila rice variety but researchers continue to look into new strains of paddy that promise better resistance against diseases and of course the promise of higher yields. Initial results of studies show positive results. (43 words)

And here is the equivalent text in Malay:

Dalam berita lain, rakyat dan penduduk negara ini suka dengan beras Laila. Namun begitu, para kaji selidik terus berusaha untuk menemukan jenis padi baru yang mampu melawan penyakit tanaman. Dan sudah setentunya, jenis padi baru itu boleh memberikan hasil tuaian yang lebih tinggi. Keputusan awal kajian itu menunjukkan hasil yang positif. (51 words)

There seem to be three principle differences:

  • In the first line, the English has 'Bruneians' while the Malay has rakyat dan penduduk negara ini ('citizens and residents of this country'). I don't know why the Malay avoids mentioning Brunei, but I have noticed a comparable avoidance of mentioning Malaysia in the Media Permata newspaper, as the phrase negara jiran ('neighbouring country') often occurs instead.
  • The English has 'the promise of higher yields' without stating what offers this promise, because this can be determined from the context. In contrast, the Malay repeats the phrase jenis padi baru ('new strain of rice'). Such repetition of words is not encouraged in English. We can conclude that Malay achieves cohesion by repeating phrases, while English avoids this kind of repetition and uses ellipsis instead.
  • Some of the Malay words take longer to say. For example, the English has 'And of course' while the Malay has Dan sudah setentunya. Both versions consist of three words, but the English is three syllables while the Malay is seven.

04 November 2013


I have previously discussed the occurrence of tautologous expressions in Malay (see here).

In a test for my fourth year UBD module on translation (see previous post), I asked my students to translate into English a short Malay text from page 12 of the Media Permata of 19 October 2013 about someone who managed to persuade a hunter to release a kongkang ('slow loris') that he had captured, and it included the following:

... berjaya memujuk dan meyakinkan pemburu tersebut untuk meyerahkan kongkang berkenaan ...

which might be translated literally as:

... successfully urged and convinced the hunter to release the slow loris ...

It seems to me that 'urged and convinced' is tautologous in English, as 'convinced' carries the full meaning.

Despite the fact that avoidance of tautology is something we have discussed many times in this module, ten of the 23 students taking the test included both 'urged' and 'convinced' in their translation. This seems to reflect that fact that acceptance of tautology is common in Brunei English, though one might alternatively say that my students were attempting an accurate rendering of the text and they might have chosen a freer translation instead.

one of

On page 54 of my book on Brunei English (see here), I list the following examples of 'one of' followed by a singular noun:

one of the queen
one of the actor
one of my life's luxury
one of my cousin
one of our relative
one of the tourist site

In the test for a fourth year UBD module, my students were asked to translate into English a short Malay text which included the phrase:

salah satu daripada haiwan di negara ini

Seven of the 23 students translated it as 'one of the animal in this country', with no 's' on 'animal', so this gives us an estimate of the frequency of occurrence of this pattern among fourth year students at UBD.

28 October 2013


I have one older sister, one younger brother and one younger sister. In other words, I am the second of four in my family. So, how many siblings do I have?

The surprising answer in Brunei is: four. Bruneians seem to include themselves when stating how many siblings they have. For example, I have a recording of one of my students saying he has seven siblings when it turns out he is actually the fourth out of seven, so in my English, we would say he has six siblings. And I confirmed this way of counting with my first-year class.

23 October 2013

anak damit

The Standard Malay for 'baby' is bayi. However, this word is never used in Brunei, as bayi means 'pig' in Brunei Malay. Instead, even in official documents, the local alternative anak damit ('little child') is used, as in this newspaper headline from page 3 of the Media Permata of 21 October 2013:

The headline can be translated as:

Mother's milk is best for babies.

This is the only case I know where a Standard Malay word is avoided in official publications in Brunei.

19 October 2013

Smart Phone

I recently bought a Samsung Smart Phone. OK, so maybe that's not the smartest thing for an old fogey like me to do. But, hey, you've got to try and keep in touch with these new-fangled thingies, and the lady in the shop assured me that it was dead easy to use.

So finally I got most of it working, though I admit I needed some help with the roaming function and also with Chinese character input. But still, I got there eventually. And then someone called me. What should I do now?

Well, there's a green button flashing at me and also a red one, so obviously if you want to answer the call, you touch the green button, and if you don't, you touch the red one. Seems straightforward, doesn't it?

But, of course, nothing happened. So I gave it to my wife, and she couldn't make any sense out of it either. Eventually, having missed the call, I went and found the manual booklet, which is when I discovered that I should have swiped, not touched.

This might seem obvious to you, especially with those little arrows there to guide you. But it was not at all obvious to me. And I think that any new device that requires you to look something up in the manual is not very well designed. Or maybe I am just out of touch with the way that things are done nowadays, and I should just stick with old-fashioned technology.

16 October 2013

Malik / Malek

I have previously discussed uncertainty over spelling in Malay, particularly the use of 'i' or 'e' in the second syllable of a bisyllabic word. For example, tasik ('lake') is often written tasek; and I noted that the name Abin may alternatively be spelt Aben, as illustrated on the two competing signs for the same place (here).

It is interesting that this uncertainty even extends to members of the royal family. The second second son of the Sultan is usually referred to as Prince Malik, as in this extract from page 8 of the Media Permata of 26 September 2013:

But on page 4 of the same newspaper on the same day, he is referred to as Malek:

13 October 2013

to save his life

Reading English football news in a Malay newspaper can be quite challenging. Take this extract from page 22 of the Media Permata of 12 October 2013, about Joey Barton commenting on Sir Alex Ferguson.

Saya tidak berada di sini untuk tidak menghormati Fergie - seorang pengurus hebat, ikon, kemuncak pengurus-pengurus Britain - tetapi dia tidak dapat meletakkan kejurulatihan untuk menyelamatkan jiwanya.

This might be translated back into English as:

I am not here to disrepect Fergie - a wonderful manager, an icon, the best of British managers - but he couldn't leave the training to save his life.

What? "he couldn't leave the training to save his life"! What does that mean?

The trouble here is that English has a saying "he couldn't X to save his life", where X is any action. So: "he couldn't write a book to save his life", or "he couldn't kick a ball to save his life" ... But the translator has kept the 'to save his life' part, and then must have assumed that 'lead the training to save his life' didn't make sense, so has changed 'lead' into 'leave'. But it just doesn't make any sense.

Anyway, I looked it up on the web, and I found the original here:

The more complete quote can be found here:

07 October 2013


A rather common word in spoken Malay nowadays is the conjunction so, borrowed from the English word. I haven't seen it in any dictionary yet; but it seems to be very common, especially with younger speakers.

This clip from the Singapore newschannel Berita Suria (here) suggests that the person being interviewed says jadi dalam situasi begini ('so in a situation like this'); but he doesn't actually say jadi; he says so.

It is interesting that the people doing the subtitles are happy to accept situasi as a word of Malay, even though it comes from the English 'situation'; but they feel a need to change 'so' into jadi. I wonder how long it will take before 'so' is accepted as a word of Malay.

01 October 2013


The phonology of Malay has a rule of vowel harmony: if the vowel in the first syllable of a bisyllabic word is /e/, then the second syllable can have /e/ or /o/ but not /i/ or /u/. (The vowels must agree in height - see here.) However, even official media channels sometimes get the spelling wrong.

Here is a screen shot of a news report from the Singapore TV station, Suria, of 19 December 2012, about money that is paid out by the organisation Pertapis:

The second word is dicedok ('ladled out'). But note that it is spelled deceduk instead of the expected dicedok.

29 September 2013

stress on

We usually claim that stress is a transitive verb, so there is no need for a preposition such as on between stress and its object. And, on page 69 of my book on Brunei English published by Springer (here), I claim that the following extracts from local newspapers reflect Brunei English usage:

The driving schools are also advised to stress on the importance of patience ...
The minister stressed on the importance of paying attention to the field of science and technology ...

However, today I saw the verb stress followed by the preposition on in an article about the visit of the Australian PM to Indonesia in the BBC World website (here):

This makes me wonder if the usage is becoming the norm. It is just the sort of change we would expect to take place in English, as it regularises the grammar by making the verb stress behave like the noun. Furthermore, one can focus on something, so why not stress on? Maybe Brunei English is leading the way with the evolution of English!

27 September 2013


I have previously discussed calques, where a phrase is translated word-for-word from one language into another. Calques seem to be rather common in Malay, including mengambil tempat ('take place') that I mentioned in my previous post.

Another kind of calque is where two separate meanings of a word in English are found for the same word in Malay. In English, 'fall' can refer to something dropping down or to the season between summer and winter, and we find the same for the Malay word luruh. For example, duan-daun yang luruh means 'leaves that have fallen', but musim luruh means 'autmum', otherwise known as 'fall' in American English.

Incidentally, the American usage of 'fall' to refer to this season is not an innovation. As with so many features of American English, it is actually retaining a traditional word, and 'autumn' is the new word, borrowed from French in the 13th century and eventually displacing the Germanic term 'fall' in England but not the USA.

16 September 2013

mengambil tempat

Sometimes I can only understand something written in Malay by first translating it word-for-word into English. For example, in an article on page 5 of the Media Permata of 17 September 2013, one of the pragraphs begins with:

Banyak perubahan telah mengambil tempat ...

which can be glossed in English as :

Many changes have taken place ...

I could not understand the use of mengambil tempat until I put it into English; it seems to be a direct calque from the English 'take place'.

I have checked in the Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu webiste (here), and there are plenty of instances of mengambil tempat, such as:

Dia mengambil tempat berdekatan dengan pintu agar dialah orang pertama yang dapat bercakap dengan Menteri.

for which the translation is given as:

He positioned himself next to the door so that he would be the first to speak to the Minister.

But they all seem to carry the literal meaning of 'take place' meaning "adopt a position", and not the figurative extension of the phrase to mean "happen".

So, is the use of menagmbil tempat found in the Media Permata a new extension of the phrase? Or is it just a lazy reporter translating word-for-word without considering the context? I don't know the answer to this.

07 September 2013


This is an extract from an article on page 1 of Media Permata of 7 September 2013 about a titah by HM the Sultan of Brunei, who has been attending the G20 summit in St. Petersburg:

... menyokong cadangan untuk memberikan keutamaan kepada penyertaan semua pihak atau inclusiveness.

Baginda juga bertitah bahawa pencapaian pertumbahan yang inklusif telah menjadi teras kapada matlamat ASEAN ...

which might be translated as:

... support the proposal to give priority to the participation of all parties or inclusiveness.

His Majesty also said that achieving growth that is inclusive has become a key goal of ASEAN ...

It is interesting to see how inclusiveness is first glossed in Malay as penyertaan semua pihak ('the participation of all parties') together with the original word in its English spelling, but then immediately afterwards inklusif is used with a Malay spelling ('k' instead of 'c', and 'f' instead of 'v').

This seems to offer a glimpse into the process of English words being borrowed into Malay.

The Dangers of Being Left-handed

I just saw an article on the BBC website (here), discussing some research showing that left-handed people tend to die nine years earlier than right-handed people. This seems an extraordinary finding. Can it really be true that tools such as knives and scissors are mostly designed for right-handed people, and they are dangerous for left-handed people to use, with the result that left-handers injure themselves more often and die off earlier? Surely not!

In fact, as pointed out in the BBC article, the research is completely flawed. But it is interesting to consider why, and also to see if you can spot the flaws.

In the original report, the researchers traced the families of 2000 people who had recently died and asked whether they had been left-handed or right-handed. And they discovered that the average age of the left-handers when they died was nine years less than the right-handers. It seems straightforward, doesn't it? Can you see the flaw? I admit that I couldn't, and I had to read the explanation.

In fact, until quite recently, it was the practice to encourage left-handers to conform to the norm, so there was substantial pressure in the home and at school for them to change. This means that many of the older people who were reported by their family to be right-handed would actually have been left-handed if there had not been that social pressure. In contrast, the same pressures would not have existed for the younger people to conform, so the proportion of left-handed and right-handed younger people who died would have been more natural.

What is stunning is that this research was published in top medical journals and nobody spotted the flaw. It seems that we are sometimes not very good at quite elementary logical and statistical analysis.

17 August 2013

dived / dove

What is the past tense of dive? For most people, it is dived, but for a significant minority of people, particularly in the USA, it is dove.

Now, you probably think that dove is an archaic form that has been preserved by a few more conservative speakers. But actually, it is not. Historically, dive was always a regular verb, so this occurrence of dove is in fact an innovation.

This is rather surprising, as we expect verbs to become more regular, not less. For example, brew, chew, shove and suck were all once irregular, but now they all take the usual -ed past tense suffix. So why has dive gone in the opposite direction and become irregular for some speakers?

My guess is that it is by analogy with drive. I suspect that drive became used rather more often in the twentieth century as more and more people owned cars, especially in the USA; and the irregular nature of drive/drove has influenced dive as well. (The only other verb with this -ive/-ove pattern that I think of is strive/strove, but this is such a rare verb that I suspect its influence is less substantial.)

In Brunei, I have never heard dove as the past tense of dive, but maybe it will appear one day. I read today that Brunei has 1 car for every 2.65 people, which makes it the eighth highest rate of car ownership in the world. According to Wikipedia, the highest rate of car ownership is for San Marino, which has more cars than people. (This Wikipedia page lists Brunei at number 36, but maybe those figures are out of date.)

One way or another, people in Brunei have a lot of cars, so presumably the verb drive/drove is used rather regularly in Brunei English, and it is possible that this will provide a stimulus for the adoption of dove as the past tense of dive in Brunei.

01 August 2013


How do you pronounce longitude?

I have always pronounced it [lɒŋgɪtju:d]; and I have just checked Wells' Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, which confirms that 85% of people in Britain prefer this pronunciation, while 15% opt for [lɒndʒɪtju:d]. It is gratifying to confirm that I am in the majority.

However, I have just watched a short BBC documentary (here) about the development of technology to measure longitude, and the presenter consistently pronounced it as [lɒŋɪtju:d] – i.e. with no [g] at the end of the first syllable. This alternative does not even feature in Wells' dictionary. So did the presenter get it wrong? Or maybe the pronunciation is changing.

Actually, the pronunciation of words with long as the stem is interesting. While most words that end with [ŋ] have no [g] when suffixes are attached (e.g. sing/singer, ring/ringer, cling/clinger, etc), long is an exception, as longer does have [g]. Another exception like this is stronger which also has [g].

However, maybe the announcer is actually following a rule: long/longer involves an inflectional -er comparative suffix; and maybe this suffix behaves differently from the derivational suffix that converts the verb sing to the noun singer. And maybe longitude actually has a derivational suffix on the end, so it should behave like sing/singer rather than long/longer.

Nevertheless, longitude with no [g] in the middle sounds odd to me.

30 July 2013

Use of Mobiles

Don't you hate it when people use their mobile phones when driving? And it seems just as prevalent in Brunei, maybe more, than the rest of the world.

But I bet you do it yourself! In fact, people seem to expect others to answer their phone immediately, whether they are driving or not. So, on the one hand we all agree that using a mobile while driving is not a good idea. But at the same time we all do it!

I just read a news report that the driver of a train in Spain was on the phone when it crashed, killing 79 people (see here). So even train drivers do it!

For the record: I never, ever use my mobile phone when I am driving. So don't be annoyed if I do not respond immediately to your call sometimes.

07 July 2013

'o' instead of 'u'

Someone recently asked me why the letter 'o' is pronounced as /ʌ/ in so many words of English: come, company, some, done, money, monkey, dove, love, above. Why are these words not spelled with 'u'?

The answer is this: in cursive handwriting, the sequences 'um', 'un' and 'uv' are rather difficult to decipher, because there are so many short vertical lines occurring one after another. As a result, scribes preferred to use 'o' rather than 'u' before 'm', 'n' and 'v'. Note that there is no such problem before letters such as 's' or 'p', which is why words like must and cup have the expected 'u'.

The only words that don't fit into this pattern involve 'o' before 'th': other, nothing, mother, brother, smother, etc. I don't know why 'o' rather than 'u' occurs in these words.

One other observation: in Brunei, there is a tendency for spelling pronunciation to occur, and about half of UBD undergraduates have /ɒ/ rather than /ʌ/ in the first syllable of company. I don't know how many other words have this kind of spelling pronunciation.

In fact, this shift is also found in some words in Britain: about 30% of people in Britain now have /ɒ/ rather than the traditional /ʌ/ in one, and this trend is strongest among the younger generation, suggesting it will one day become the norm. Furthermore, Coventry once had /ʌ/ in its first syllable but it usually now has /ɒ/, and covert used to be /kʌvət/ but 46% of people in Britain now have /əʊ/ in the first syllable of this word.

It seems that spelling pronunciation is widespread, and places like Brunei may be leading the way in this respect!

(All percentages for British English above are from: Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.). Harlow: Longman. The data about UBD undergraduates is from page 41 of: Deterding, D, & Salbrina, S. (2013). Brunei English: A New Variety in a Multilingual Society. Dordrecht: Springer. The observation that scribes avoided 'u' before 'm', 'n' and 'v' is from page 118 of: Algeo, J. (2010). The Origins and Development of the English Language (6th ed.). USA: Wadsworth Cengage.)

06 July 2013

Book on Brunei English

My book (together with Salbrina Sharbawi) on Brunei English has now been published by Springer, which is nice. One problem is: how can people in Brunei buy it?

Of course, you can get it from Amazon (here). One really strange thing about the Amazon information: you can buy a new copy of the book for US$103.90; or you can buy a used copy of the book for US$103.90. Bizarre!

It seems a pity if a book about Brunei is not actually for sale in Brunei, so I have tried to persuade Booker's in Gadong to stock it. The boss there was a bit hesitant, as it is likely to cost nearly $200 and he doesn't think too many people will buy it. But he agreed to get one or two copies. I just hope he doesn't get stuck with them and be unable to sell them. Maybe a few of my students will see that, even at $200, it will be relevant for so many of their courses at UBD that it is worth buying. We will see.

02 July 2013

Bruneian English : Wikipedia

Yesterday, I created a new Wikipedia page on Brunei English (here). I notice there have already been several edits to it, mostly by SamX (who I assume is a member of staff at Wikipedia). The majority of the edits are helpful, putting in relevant links to other Wikipedia pages for example. But the title of the page has now been changed from Brunei English to Bruneian English. Hmm ... I'm not sure about that one.

Never mind. I just hope the page provides a valuable resource. I have also tried to create a reasonably wide-ranging list of references which, I hope, can offer a sort of bibliography on Brunei English. I will try to add to that, so that it offers a useful resource for researchers and students.

I believe the page as it stands is well constructed. Of course, anybody can add to it or change it how they like. I just hope that people will reference things properly when they add to it; but maybe I am being naive here, as undoubtedly all kinds of things will be added. Let's just hope that what people add is constructive.

23 June 2013


A question that sometimes arises in Malay-English translation is this: Is Malay wordier than English? One way to look into this is to compare comparable texts and see how long they are.

If we look at the Malay version of the daily news summary for 23 June from The Brunei Times (here), it is 3 minutes 3 seconds long, while the English equivalent (here) is just 1 minute 40 seconds long. So, why is there such a large difference?

The first difference is that the Malay newsreader starts with the full Islamic greeting, which takes about 6 seconds, while the English newsreader just says hello.

The second difference is that the Malay newsreader gives the full title for Prince Sufri: Duli Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Pengiran Bendahara Seri Maharajara Permaisuara Pengiran Muda Haji Sufri Bolkiah. This takes about 7 seconds to say. In contrast, the English newsreader just says: His Royal Highness Prince Sufri Bolkiah. This takes less than 2 seconds.

But what about ordinary text? I'll need to analyse that further. But one immediate observation: the Malay version has berkenan berangkat (lit. 'consented to attend') while the English equivalent is the single word graced.

22 June 2013

Pronunciation of Chinese

Newsreaders in Brunei have to get the Malay names right, and they can be impressively proficient in reading the full name of the Sultan and other important people without stumbling. However, there seems little effort to find out how Chinese names or words should be pronounced. It can't be that difficult to find out how to pronounce names and words written in Pinyin, and I don't understand why they don't do it.

Take, for example, the Brunei Times Berita video for 20 June (here). The newsreader reads the news pretty proficiently, but when she gets to the Chinese word Xiyouji Qingzhi, she pronounces it as [sijoutʃi tʃiŋtʃu] instead of [sijoudʒi tʃiŋdʒə], which would be much closer to the correct pronunciation without introducing any unfamiliar sounds. It's a pity that broadcasters in Brunei don't do more to help their newscasters to say something that is a bit more accurate.

In comparison, the English newsreader for the same clip (here) gets the words completely right (presumably because she is Chinese, so she probably speaks Mandarin). So why didn't the Malay newsreader ask her Chinese fellow newsreader for advice?

16 June 2013

Brunei Times Berita

An excellent resource for me in my efforts to learn Malay is the daily 2-minute news summary in Malay provided by the Brunei Times. It is splendid because it allows me to replay the clips repeatedly and thereby try and work out the bits I cannot decipher first time through.

I was listening to the video for 11 June (here). Two things surprised me about it:

First, 16 seconds from the start, the newsreader pronounces berita ('news') as [bitɐ], with just two syllables and barely a hint of [r]. While it is expected that a common word like this will exhibit some reduction, the omission of the [r] is surprising given that the Malay spoken in Brunei is usually fully rhotic.

Second, this is not a live recording but an edited video; so it surprises me that they did not re-record the parts where the newsreader stumbles over words, particularly at location 1:18 from the start. Of course, we all stumble when speaking, and newsreaders are no exception; but for an edited video, one would have thought this could be corrected.

15 June 2013


I just learnt about the word plasticarian from WorldWideWords. It refers to someone who tries to live without using plastic. Of course, it is a blend of plastic and the -arian ending. What is a bit unusual about it is that -arian usually indicates something positive: a vegetarian loves vegetables, and a humanitarian loves humans, but a plasticarian hates plastics.

Regardless of how the word is formed, we need a few more plasticarians in Brunei. Plastic bags and bottles are all over the place, not just in Kampung Ayer and in the Brunei River, but even in the forests. And while it is true that it almost impossible nowadays to live without plastic, it would be helpful if a few more people reduced the amount they used, or at least did not discard their rubbish so carelessly.

11 June 2013


A few years ago, I did a survey among my fourth-year students at UBD, and about half of them selected Brulish as the name for the colloquial variety of English in Brunei, while the other half said there was no common name for it. This contrasts with the situation in Singapore, where everyone would agree that Singlish is the common name for the colloquial variety. They may not like this term, and some of them may not approve of the use of Singlish, but everyone would agree that the name exists.

This illustrates the different status of English in Singapore and Brunei. In Singapore, a colloquial variety is established, and there is a common name for it; but in Brunei, it is not clear that a distinct colloquial variety of Brunei English exists. This is partly because English is the universal inter-ethnic lingua franca in Singapore, while Brunei Malay more often takes on that role in Brunei.

However, last week some teachers told me that their pupils use the term Brunglish. I don't know if this term is widespread or not; but if it does become established, it might indicate that a wider role for a colloquial variety of English is emerging in Brunei.

01 June 2013


When my grandchildren were here earlier this month, it gave me the chance to hear new words that are being used in UK. When my granddaughter has a tantrum, her parents say she is having a strop.

The noun strop is derived from the adjective stroppy by a process we call back-formation. The more usual process of word-creation is derivation: you add a suffix on the end of a word to create a new word. So -y can be added to the noun wind to make the adjective windy, or cloud to make cloudy, or to sleep to make sleepy. But by the reverse process, you can take off what seems to be a suffix, which is why you can take the -y off the end of stroppy to create strop.

The process of back-formation has been around for some time, so donate was created by removing the -tion from donation, and edit was created from editor. I don't know if back-formation is becoming more common nowadays.

The other thing I don't know is how widespread the use of strop is. It might be just a coinage that is used by my son and his family.

26 May 2013


In my previous post, I discussed the pronunciation of tomato with an American accent by my grandson Oliver, which seems to be influenced by TV. However, most of his pronunciation seems to be influenced by the people around him, though it can deviate from the way his parents speak.

For example, he has [f] at the start of three, while both his parents have [θ]. And his favourite word why has a vowel that sounds like [ɔɪ] rather than the [aɪ] that his parents have. Both these features of pronunciation may be attributed to the influence of London accent.

This illustrates that we tend to learn our pronunciation from our friends and the people around us but often do not sound like our parents.

13 May 2013


Some linguists claim that television has little influence on the way we speak. We learn our accent from the people around us, not from what we hear on television.

My five-year-old grandson Oliver has been staying with me this past week. He uses the American pronunciation for tomato: [təmeɪtoʊ]. He lives in England and he does not know any Americans, so it seems unlikely that he has heard that pronunciation from people around him. I asked him where he learned it from, and he said it was from a programme called Pepper Pig.

This seems quite convincing evidence that he has learned it from the television, not from people around him.

01 May 2013

Bad News

There seems to be a persistent perception in the UK and perhaps everywhere that things are bad and getting worse. But what evidence is there to support this?

Of course, there are reports in the papers about murders and rapes and other violence. But what evidence is there that these are widespread and that they are more frequent than before?

So let me ask you a question: Which country in Western Europe has seen the largest fall in violent crime over the past few years? The answer is: England and Wales. (See this BBC report.)

And here are some more statistics: Between 2003 and 2012, the homicide rate in the UK fell from 1.99 homicides per 100,000 people to 1.00 homicide per 100,000 people. And the number of people treated in hospital for violent crime fell by 14% in 2012. (See this BBC report.)

So why does everyone seem to believe the opposite? It seems to me that the popular press delights in reporting bad news; and in the absence of any major wars in the world at the moment (with the exception maybe of Syria), they are now focussing on bad news in the UK.

I really think we have to stop believing the popular press. The distorting effect that they have on people's perception is stunning.

18 April 2013

A Nobel Prize

I just read in the newspaper that Simon Cowell hopes one day to win an Oscar.

Well, I am hoping to win a Nobel Prize. I have no idea which category – maybe World Peace? But I reckon that if Simon Cowel can dream of winning an Oscar, I should be allowed to dream of winning a Nobel Prize.

16 April 2013


Why is the Malay word biskut ('biscuit') rather than biskit? If it were derived from the pronunciation of the English word, it should be biskit.

The Malay word must be influenced by the spelling of the English word. People must have seen the word written and not heard it spoken when they borrowed it into Malay. So this is a kind of cross-linguistic spelling pronunciation.

01 April 2013


I was just listening to a recording of a Bruneian female talking to a Chinese female. In it, the Bruneian asks what the Chinese did when she visited Temburong, and the Chinese answers:

rafting and trekking

Subsequently, the Bruneian transcribed the recording, and she wrote down 'checking' for the last word (though she put it in brackets to indicate she was not sure).

In fact, it is pronounced [tʃekɪŋ], so it is not too surprising that the Bruneian heard it as checking.

The problem is that, in many varieties of British English, initial [tr] is pronounced as something that is rather like [tʃ], so train and chain are almost homophones. It seems as if the Chinese student has imitated a British speaker a bit too closely. And the result is a pronunciation that is likely to be misunderstood in most of the world.

This illustrates the fact that it is not very helpful to imitate people from Britain too closely. There are clearer ways of speaking, and using [tʃ] at the start of words like train and trekking is probably not a good idea.

28 March 2013

Book on Brunei English

I just saw the announcement on Amazon of my book Brunei English: A New Variety in a Multilingual Society, written together with my colleague Salbrina Sharbawi and soon to be published by Springer.

Trouble is, how are people in Brunei going to buy it, given the lack of bookshops?

But you, dear reader, can get it directly from Amazon! And, at US$106.56, worth every cent!

Yes, alright, it does seem a bit expensive. I'm not sure if there will be a paperback version one day. Perhaps that will be a bit less expensive.

15 March 2013

Birds' Nests

This post has nothing to do with language, but never mind. Here is a picture of the bougainvillea in the window-balcony outside the guest bedroom in my apartment.

In the middle, you can see a birds' nest. We have had quite a few birds nesting in there, and we often wake up to the sound of little birds chirping, as we have nests outside our main bedroom as well.

But what is even more interesting is that a new bird has recently nested in the corner of the balcony, squeezing into a comfy spot between some flower pots and the corner: an owl. And now the baby has hatched, so it sits there waiting for its mother to bring it things to eat every day.

I haven't tried to provide a photograph, as I don't want to disturb it. But it is rather special to have an owl nesting outside one's window, no more than one metre away from where I am sitting at the computer and typing this.

13 March 2013

Lexical Doublets

There is a great fondness for paired expressions in Malay, otherwise known as lexical doublets. On page 5 of the Media Permata of 13 March 2013, in an article on rumours that circulate in cyber space, we are told that one particular rumour:

adalah palsu dan tidak benar sama sekali

which might be translated as:

is false and not true at the same time

Of course, English also has some lexical doublets, such as rules and regulations, due care and attention, and goods and chattels, but I suspect that they are mainly found in the legal domain and are less common in ordinary language. In fact, in English I would describe 'false and not true' as tautologous. But it seems to be fine in Malay.

12 March 2013


It is interesting to compare sentence length in English and Malay. Here is the final paragraph in an article from page 3 of Media Permata of 12 March 2013 about changes in the speed limit that have been introduced, quoting the Minister of Communications:

Beliau juga menyatakan bahawa perubahan itu juga adalah untuk keselesaan dan keselamatan pemandu kenderaan berat dan komersial di mana dari permerhatian yang dibuat, had laju yang ada pada masa ini telah banyak menyebabkan pemandu-pemandu kenderaan berat melanggar peraturan seperti memandu melebih had laju atau membawa lebih muatan kerana ingin cepat sampai serta mengaut keuntungan yang lebih.

This might be translated (rather badly as) as:

He also said that this change also was for the comfort and safety of drivers of heavy goods and commercial vehicles whereby from observations that have been made, the speed limit that exists at the current time too often causes drivers of heavy vehicles to break the rules such as driving over the speed limit or carrying too large a load because they want to be fast and grab a greater profit.

Obviously, this is excessively long in English, though it seems to work fine in Malay. And this illustrates the tolerance for long sentences in Malay. Note in particular the use of di mana in Malay as a general-purpose linking conjunction. I have translated this as whereby in the English, but we really don't use whereby like that.

One problem is that students often do use whereby in their written English, and this seems to be influenced by written Malay. I sometimes advise students never to use whereby ever again. It is quite a rare word in English, and its use by Bruneian students almost always creates sentences that are too long.

22 February 2013

English and Saving

There has recently been lots of attention to work by a Yale professor called Keith Chen who claims that the use of a future tense in a society can predict the amount of money that is saved. (See for example this BBC report. Also, see this posting in Language Log.) For example, German has no future tense, and Germans tend to save lots of money. But in English, we have will to express the future, and people in the UK and USA tend to save less. Apparently, if you conceptualise the future time in the same terms as the present, then you are likely to save money; but if you compartmentalise the future using a different tense, then you are less likely to save money.

This sounds to me completely whacky, though I understand there is some solid research behind it, based on the language used in weather forecasts in different countries. But I have one fundamental problem with it: English does NOT have a future tense. First, will is a modal verb, not a tense. Second, there are many ways of expressing a future action: 'I will leave tomorrow', 'I am leaving tomorrow', 'I am going to leave tomorrow', 'I leave tomorrow', etc. Third, notice that the last example involves the simple present to represent future time.

Let us next consider Malay. Presumably, this is classified as having no future tense, but I don't see any clear evidence that Malay speakers have a tendency to save lots of money. And furthermore, in Malay you can express future time with akan. So, how is akan any different from the English will?

I simply don't understand it. And it seems completely off-the-wall, even if there is lots of good research supporting it.

13 February 2013


This morning, I heard on the radio a report that the authorities in Malaysia are trying to promote the use of the words maging ('carnivore'), being a blend of makan ('eat') and daging ('meat'), and maun ('vegetarian'), being a blend of makan ('eat') and daun ('leaf').

One might note that these words take the English pattern of blends, with the first part of one word and the last part of another (e.g. smog from smoke + fog) rather than the more common Malay pattern with the first part of each word (e.g. cerpen 'short story' from cerita 'story' + pendek 'short').

It will be interesting to see if these new words get accepted by the public. My feeling is that words promoted by the authorities often fail to catch on. In Brunei, the authorities try to promote the use of awda ('you'), derived from awak ('Mr.') and dayang ('Miss'). But even though one often hears awda used in official announcements, I have never heard ordinary people actually saying it.

06 February 2013


Looking up words in a Malay dictionary can be problematic, as you have to identify the root of the word. I was reminded of this just a couple of days ago when I was trying to find mengerikan in the dictionary, and I didn't know if the root was eri, keri or ngeri so whether I should be looking it up under 'e', 'k' or 'n'. (In fact, the root is ngeri, 'fear', and mengerikan means 'frightening'.)

Just like Malay, English has prefixes and suffixes. But fortunately in English, prefixes in English change the meaning substantially (they are derivational), so for example you look up distrust under 'd' and not 't'; and words like walks, walking and walked which have inflectional suffixes are all listed under 'w', so there is no problem.

Mind you, the problems of looking up a word in a Malay dictionary are trivial compared to the difficulty of looking up Chinese characters. When using a Chinese dictionary, you need to guess the radical and then count the number of strokes, and that can be a serious challenge. In comparison, the difficulties posed by Malay dictionaries are minor.

04 February 2013


On Sunday, a bunch of us from the Brunei Nature Society and the UBD club 1stopBrunei went to the Teraja Waterfall near Labi. It was a splendid trip through the forest.

While we were there, we released into the wild a pangolin (ant-eater) that had been found along Jalan Jerudong.

Something I learned from the Media Permata this morning is that the word pangolin comes from the Malay pengguling, which means 'thing that rolls up' (from the root guling, 'to roll up'). Indeed it did roll itself up most of the time while it was with us, probably as a defence mechanism, or maybe it was just shy.

26 January 2013

Admiring the Sunset

Here a picture of the sunset from my apartment in Brunei.

There's a story from Chinese philosophy that goes like this:

There was once a monk who every day went out for a walk. And each day he would invite one of his disciples to accompany him. There was just one rule: no talking.
One day, he went out as usual with a selected disciple. As they stood on the top of a hill, there was a magnificent sunset. And the disciple blurted out, "That's magnificent!"
From that day on, the monk never again invited that disciple to join him.
One day, the disciple asked him, "Why are you so cruel? I only said two words!"
And the monk replied, "Yes, but when you were saying those words, you were no longer appreciating the sunset."

Why do we have this constant urge to say something? Why can't we just admire the sunset in silence? What is it about humans that makes us need to keep on talking all the time?

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, an intergalactic visitor to Earth, called Ford Prefect, ponders this same question:

One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in "It's a nice day", or "You're very tall", or "Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?" At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour. If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months' consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical.

I am with Ford Prefect here. I have never understood the need for us humans to talk all the time. And if we talked a bit less, maybe we would think a bit more.

Anyway, here's another sunset from my apartment.

19 January 2013

Associate Professor

There is a tension in Malay between indigenous vocabulary and words borrowed from English. So, for example, one finds both kegiatan and aktiviti, which both mean 'activity'.

Sometimes, this affects not just words but also phrases, so a calque from English can compete with an indigenous phrase.

The usual Malay for 'Associate Professor' is Profesor Madya. However, I saw Profesor Bersekutu on page 2 of the Media Permata of 17 January, 2013:

where bersekutu means 'federated' so is presumably the equivalent for 'associated'.

Or perhaps Profesor Bersekutu does not really occur in Malay, and this was just a mistake by a translator who was looking up every word separately in a dictionary..

17 January 2013

Frogs on the Wall

Here's a story from the Analects of Confucius (论语):

There were a bunch of frogs sitting at the base of a wall. They had heard that there was a splendid view from the top, and if they climbed up there, they would be able to lie happily in the sun, admiring the view. So they all started climbing.

But, after a while, one of them said, "This is tough. Do I really want to climb all the way up there? I'm going down."

On hearing this, another one said, "He's right. Why are we doing this? It's much too tiring." And he too quit.

Soon, one by one, the frogs all abandoned the attempt and returned to the bottom. Except for one frog, who kept on going, steadily climbing, till he reached the top. Then he happily sat in the sun, admiring the view.

All the other frogs were amazed, and when that one frog eventually came down again, the others asked him, "How come you continued going when we all gave up?"

But he did not answer them. Because he was deaf.

And the moral of the story is this: if you want to get on in life, don't listen to the moaning and griping from the people around you. Just get on and do it.

I sometimes think we all spend a bit too much time listening to the complaints of people around us rather than getting on with things.

13 January 2013

Presents from Santa

In England, we have certain spoken routines for children. For example:

Parent: What do you say when someone gives you something?
Answer: Thank you.

And here's another one:

Parent: What do you have to be to make Santa give you presents?
Answer: I have to be good.

But sometimes children don't give quite the expected answer. I was just watching a video of my granddaughter, Elsie, aged 2 years 10 months, talking to her Dad about Christmas.

Dad: What do you have to be to make Santa give you presents?
Elsie: I want to be a princess.

08 January 2013

Borneo Bulletin

This is from page 10 of the Borneo Bulletin of 8 January 2013, quoting from the welcoming speech for the new intake of students given by the Vice Chancellor of UBD:

It starts out:

UBD is not simply about rote learning and memorising facts, it is not about examinations and testing what you do not know, it is about preparing you for a job in the Civil Service ...
Unfortunately, this seems to be misquoting the VC. The context suggests that he actually said:
... it is NOT about preparing you for a job in the Civil Service ...

What a big difference a little word like not can make!