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.