30 December 2014


My trip to Turkey was on a tour with about 40 people, too many for a single bus. So we split into two: one for Chinese people, with a Chinese-speaking guide, and one mostly for Malays, with an English-speaking guide. I chose the former.

It was interesting that although the two groups had the same itinerary, we focused on different things. For example, In Capadocia, we managed to go on a balloon ride which was just splendid.

But only three of the Malay group decided to go on it. In contrast, when we got to Istanbul, we were scheduled to spend one and a half hours in the Grand Bazar.

But after one hour, the Chinese group got bored and all gathered outside, asking if we could go and have an early dinner instead. In contrast, the Malay group asked if they could have an extra hour in the Grand Bazar.

It worked out well, that the Chinese group could spend more time seeing things while the Malay group got extra time shopping. And I am so pleased I was with the Chinese group, as I am allergic to shopping.

26 December 2014

genuine fake

An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, such as 'deafening silence'. I saw this sign outside the ancient Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey.

'Genuine fake' is as classic an oxymoron as you can imagine. But what does it mean? The only interpretation I can derive is that the watches on sale are truly fake – there is no danger that you buy a fake Rolex and someone maliciously sells you a genuine one instead.

I suppose the real purpose of the sign is to capture one's attention. And the fact that I have taken a picture of it and put it on my blog suggests that it has succeeded. The only trouble is that I wasn't tempted to buy a watch. My Casio works perfectly well, so I see no reason to buy a Rolex, either genuine or fake.

But perhaps the sign has still been successful, as my putting it on my blog serves to encourage people to visit Ephesus (and thereby have a chance to buy one of these genuine fake watches). If so, well so be it. Ephesus is brilliant and definitely worth a visit. Here is a picture of the grand entrance of the library.

25 December 2014

selfie stick

I just spent ten days on a tour of Turkey. It was brilliant. One of the new words I learned while there was 'selfie stick', the extensible rod that allows one to take a selfie with a wider frame than can be achieved just with one's arm. They seem to be everywhere among tourists, especially those from China and Japan.

Here a selfie of our group on a hill overlooking Istanbul, taken using a selfie stick. (Should it be called a 'groupie' rather than a 'selfie'?)

One question arises: is 'selfie stick' the right name for it? Some people prefer to call it a 'monopod', though Wikipedia notes that monopod has a broader meaning, referring to the device that is used to hold a camera steady, so it is used for old-fashioned photography that needs long exposure time and it predates the selfie.

It is common for newly-invented devices and new technology to have uncertain terminology for a while. Initially, a 'mobile phone' was also called a 'cell phone' by many, though 'mobile' seems to be winning out. But it seems that 'selfie stick' is becoming established for this new device, though maybe some people still prefer a longer name 'monopod selfie stick'.

One other question is: how old is it? This page from the Guardian suggests that the earliest use of the device (though not the term) is 1926.

07 December 2014

adult stress

A Bruneian colleague was talking to me today about her research, and she consistently said 'aDULT' (with the stress on the second syllable), while I always say 'ADult' (with the stress on the first syllable). So I thought I'd look it up in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. This is what I found:

This shows that British speakers prefer stress on the first syllable, while stress on the second syllable is an alternative, but Americans are the other way round, preferring stress on the second syllable. And 88% of Americans prefer stress on the second syllable. So essentially, my colleague was using the American pattern. I don't know if that is the norm in Brunei, and also the extent to which American stress patterns are being adopted.

It is also interesting that the British-US difference is exactly the opposite of that for 'address' (as a noun), for which British speakers tend to prefer stress on the second syllable while Americans prefer stress on the first syllable.

levels of corruption

Here's a map of South-east Asia, showing levels of corruption (from the Independent). Australia in the bottom right is yellow, so it fares well. Malaysia is not too bad, being orange and ranked 50th out of 175. Indonesia fares less well (ranked 107), and Cambodia is even worse (at 156).

But what about Brunei? Unfortunately, there is no data on Brunei – it is the two white bits on the north of the island of Borneo, as shown in the black ellipse:

It is a bit of a mystery why no data is included for Brunei. Even North Korea is included (it is ranked 174th, second last, and only Somalia is worse). Perhaps there really is some data, but the map maker thought Brunei was too small to include the data on the map. Maybe that is the answer, as there also seems to be no data for Singapore.

06 December 2014


There is a belief by some people that code-switching is a sign of linguistic weakness, and that speakers mix their languages because they are insufficiently proficient in either language and need to use words from both to express themselves.

However, the reality in this part of the world is that proficient code-switching is actually a sign of sophistication. Not only does it show skills in two different languages, but it also demonstrates the ability to switch between them suitably.

I was reading a short story on page M4 of the Media Permata of 29 October 2014. The main character talks to his wife entirely in Malay. But when he speaks to his former girlfriend, someone who is well educated and has been away furthering her studies, he naturally code-switches between Malay and English. And you get utterances like this:

"Oh Farhahana! I ingat siapa tadi. Ya...I'm quite busy right now. Bagainmana you dapat nombor telefon ni?" soalku.

which might be translated as:

"Oh Farhana! I've just remembered who. Yes...I'm quite busy right now. How did you get this telephone number?" I asked.

Note not just the use of a complete English sentence "I'm quite busy now", but also the use of English pronouns 'I' and 'you' in Malay sentences. In fact, this use of English pronouns in place of Malay pronouns seems almost universal in this kind of code-switching.

The Media Permata almost entirely eschews mixing English in its coverage. However, code-switching is so common among educated people here that sticking just to Malay would make the dialogue in the story seem unnatural.

05 December 2014

car booth sale

An 'eggcorn' is the substitution of a word based on similarity in the speaker's pronunciation in order to make sense of a phrase. It originates from 'acorn' being reinterpreted as 'eggcorn', based on an acorn looking like an egg in its eggcup. Some other examples (from the Wikipedia site) are:

  • ex-patriot instead of expatriate
  • mating name instead of maiden name
  • preying mantis instead of praying mantis

Here is one I saw on page M2 of the Media Permata of 6 December 2014, discussing the marketing of some handicrafts in Malaysia:

... setiap hari Jumaat dan Ahad berkonsepkan 'car booth sales', saya juga aktif menyertai pelbagai karnival ...

which might be translated as:

every Friday and Sunday on the concept of 'car boot sales', I also actively participate in several carnivals

The use of 'car booth sales' instead of 'car boot sales' can be explained because the speaker does not distinguish /θ/ from /t/, and also because the stalls at car boot sales are rather like booths.

The original idea of a car boot sale was that people took various second-hand goods to be sold in the boot of their car; but nowadays the stalls are often rather more elaborate.

15 November 2014

Who is the Subject?

This morning, a colleague sent me this message:

As a data freak, I thought you might be interested in this alert sent to me by Nature.

So, who is the data freak? The initial clause ('as a data freak') is a non-finite subjectless clause, and according to the normative rules of English, the subject of the main clause must be its assumed subject – so my colleague is the data freak! Though he clearly intended it to refer to me. It's a bit like the sentence:

While walking to school, the birds were singing.

In this sentence, 'while walking to school' is similarly a subjectless non-finite clause, so its subject must be the subject of the main clause, 'the birds' – i.e. the birds were walking to school!

But these sentences are rather common, and nobody seems to misunderstand them. In fact, only pedants notice there is anything wrong with them. Or we could alternatively say there is actually nothing wrong with them, and the normative grammar has got it wrong. If the grammar taught by teachers tries to prevent us from using language as we all use it, then that grammar must be wrong.

14 November 2014


When I find something in Malay I don't understand, sometimes I try translating it into English to see if that helps. Today I saw sehenti in the newspaper, and I couldn't find it in my dictionary. Then I realised it must be a calque from the English 'one-stop'.

Actually, it occurred twice in the same newspaper, and it was only the second time I saw it that I realised what it meant:

  • pusat beli-belah sehenti ini ('this one-stop shopping centre') – Media Permata, 15 November 2014, p. 13
  • menawarkan perkhidmatan sehenti ('offers one-stop service') – Media Permata, 15 November 2014, p. 14

I don't know if sehenti is now an established word in Malay, or if it is a newly-created calque from English.

11 November 2014

Stealing/Borrowing Ideas

A few days ago, one of my colleagues told me that he was stealing some of my ideas to use in his class.

I replied that if he stole something from me, such as my money, then I would no longer have the money. But I still have my ideas. So he can't be stealing them.

OK, he said. He was borrowing my ideas.

But if he was borrowing them, surely he should give them back to me one day?

I feel that the idea of stealing or borrowing ideas is misplaced; and I suggest that he was using my ideas, but not stealing or borrowing.

Finally, there is no need to apologise for it, or even tell me. If someone finds something I do useful, then use it. And you don't need to tell me about it.

I realise that people get very sensitive about other people using their ideas; but I honestly don't see what the problem is. I am delighted if something I do or some idea I have can be of help to others.

29 October 2014


In recent posts, I have discussed the pronunciation of words borrowed from English into Malay, especially those with 'g' or 'a' in the English.

Recently, there has been an exhibition on science and technology in Brunei. In his titah opening the exhibition, HM the Sultan said the word teknologi many times, and he quite deliberately used /g/ every single time. (He also sometimes dropped the [s] at the end of sains – I wonder whether [sain] is becoming the standard way of pronouncing this word in Malay.)

Surprisingly, in her summary of the titah, the newsreader clearly used /dʒ/ in every single token of teknologi. I find this divergence between the pronunciation of HM and the newsreader's discussion of the titah quite surprising.

Finally in the Sudut Pelita ('Lamp Corner' – a short programme for government discussions) later in the day, the State Mufti was talking about the impact of science and technology on Islam, and he alternated between /g/ and /dʒ/ in teknologi. I'm not sure if he was uncertain about what pronunciation to use or was deliberately choosing an indeterminate form.

This neatly illustrates how the pronunciation of 'g' in borrowed words such as teknologi, generasi, agenda and alergi is uncertain.

25 October 2014

'e' or 'a' in borrowed words

Most words that are borrowed from English to Malay and have /æ/ in the English are spelled with 'e' rather than 'a' in Malay: e.g. kem ('camp'), setem ('stamp'), and teksi ('taxi'). This makes sense, as Malay /a/ is a central or back vowel that sounds rather like English /ʌ/ and is quite different from English /æ/.

The use of 'e' for English /æ/ helps explain why speakers in Malaysia and Brunei are sometimes unable to differentiate between /e/ and /æ/ in English. If kem and setem have /e/ in Malay, it is hardly surprising if speakers of Malay also use /e/ in 'camp' and 'stamp' when they are speaking English. Furthermore, if teks ('text') and teksi ('taxi') have the same vowel in Malay, it is not too surprising if 'text' and 'taxi' also have the same vowel for Malay speakers of English.

However, one word that is rather surprising is faks ('fax'). Why does it not have the expected 'e' instead of 'a'? Especially as pronouncing this word with a vowel that sounds like /ʌ/ is a bit unfortunate in English.

'g' or 'j' in borrowed words

Something I don't understand is why some English words borrowed into Malay retain a 'g' while others do not. For example, agenda, generasi, teknologi and alergi are all spelled with 'g', and then there is variation over whether they should be pronounced with /dʒ/ (as in English) or as /g/ (as suggested by the spelling).

In contrast, plenty of borrowed words get spelled with 'j', such as imej ('image'), kolej ('college'), mesej ('message') and caj ('charge'). It seems that 'j' is used for English 'g' at the end of a word, but 'g' is (mostly) retained elsewhere.

There are also a few words in which 'j' occurs in non-final position, such as enjin ('engine').

If 'j' can be used in kolej and enjin, I don't understand why it is not used in agenda and generasi as well.

23 October 2014


In my previous post, I discussed a Malay alphabet chart for kids, expressing surprise at the number of words borrowed from English that were included. Something else that is surprising is the inclusion of 'x' as a letter in Malay, with the word xilofon ('xylophone') to illustrate it.

My dictionary includes just two words for 'X': x-ray and xilofon. In fact, all other words borrowed from English with an 'x' in them are spelled with 'ks': e.g. teksi ('taxi'), oksigen ('oxygen'), faks ('fax'). So it seems that 'x' only occurs in x-ray and xilofon.

Is it really necessary to include the letter 'X' for just these two words? Surely x-ray could be written as eksrei, and xilofon could start with 's', as that is presumably how it is actually pronounced.

22 October 2014


I just saw this colourful alphabet poster for sale in a local shop, to enable Malay children to learn the letters of the alphabet:

What is rather surprising about this is how many words are borrowed from English: belon ('balloon'), epal ('apple'), foto ('photo'), helikopter ('helicopter'), jip ('jeep'), oren ('orange'), raket ('racquet'), van ('van'), wisel ('whistle'), xilofon ('xylophone'), yo-yo ('yo-yo) and zip ('zip').

While some of these are understandable, as sounds such as /v/ and /z/ are not native sounds of Malay and only borrowed words have the letters 'v' and 'z', others are more surprising: Why are native Malay words not used for letters such as 'b', 'j' and 'r'?

12 October 2014

tall tree

In the forest, it is really important for trees to grow tall, to enable them to reach the canopy. However, once a tree has reached the canopy, there would seem to be no advantage in growing still taller. So I'm not sure why this tree (seen in Tasek Lama) is so much taller than its neighbours. Wouldn't that make it more likely to be blown down in a storm?

Chinese has a proverb that reflects this: 树大招风 (shù dà zhāo fēng, 'the big tree catches the wind'), which suggests you should keep your head down and not become too prominent, for fear of attracting attention. It is rather similar to the English 'tall poppy syndrome', the idea being that the tallest poppies get chopped down (I guess).

Does Malay have a similar proverb? Or are Malays not so concerned about standing out from the crowd?

09 October 2014


I have mentioned lexical doublets in Malay before (e.g. here and here). In yesterday's titah ('royal speech') in celebration of Teachers' Day, HM the Sultan used two in one sentence (assuming that Media Permata are quoting him accurately):

Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia turut mengingatkan bahawa dalam penilaian dan rebiu mengenai Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad ke-21, SPN21, perlu juga dilihat dari segi kelemahan atau kekurangannya jika ada dan tidak hanya menonjolkan perkara-perkara yang bagus sahaja.

which might be translated as:

His Majesty also reminded us that the evaluation and review of the National Sistem of Education for the 21st Century (SPN21) should also look at weaknesses or shortcomings, if there are any, and not just showcase things that are good.

This includes two categories of doublets:

  • the use of a Malay term together with an English one: penilaian dan rebiu ('evaluation and review')
  • the use of two Malay terms with a similar meaning: kelemahan atau kekurangan ('weaknesses and shortcomings')

Given that it occurs in a royal titah, it also reminds us that this use of lexical doublets is part of the rhetoric of well-written Malay. Whether it should be retained in the translation into English is something that should be considered.

One more instance of what might be regarded as repetition in this extract is hanya ('only') as well as sahaja ('only'). In this case, I think it is clear that the English translation should just use one term.

06 October 2014

Bot Pam

A 'false friend' is a word that is borrowed from one language to another and then undergoes a change in meaning. It can be really tricky for the translator, as the temptation is to use the original word.

An example in Malay is kompaun, referring to an on-the-spot fine, such as one given out by the traffic police. It clearly comes from 'compound', and it may be related to 'compound fine'; but in English we do not use 'compound' to refer to an on-the-spot fine.

Today I saw bot pam in this extract from an article on page 10 of the Media Parmata, reporting an incident in Sabah, Malaysia:

... pasukan peronda berjaya menahan sebuah bot pam dinaiki tiga lelaki dan seorang wanita ...

which might be translated as:

... the patrol succeeded in catching a pump boat which was carrying three men and one woman ...

But what does 'pump boat' mean? Is this a false friend from English?

I checked bot pam in the on-line Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu, but there is nothing there. Next, I searched the web for bot pam, and I found this headline from the MStar newspaper of 4 September 2014:

Tentera Lepas Tembakan Ke Arah Bot Pam Penceroboh Di Perairan Pulau Selingan

So, what does it mean? I managed to find the equivalent article in English, in the online New Straits Times of 4 September 2014:

Soldiers fire at intruding pump boat off Sabah, arrest a man

Well, that doesn't help me much, except to confirm that writers in English use 'pump boat'. Finally, I found a Wikipedia entry for Pump Boat, which explains that it is an outrigger canoe widely used in the Plilippines.

So, it appears that 'pump boat' is not necessarily a false friend, and in fact the term now exists in English. Or at least it occurs in Wikipedia, which is maybe the same thing. Maybe we can say that it is a word in Philippines English, and people in Brunei and Malaysia may also be familiar with the term, though I doubt too many people in the UK or USA would understand it.

26 September 2014

buses / busses

What is the plural of 'bus'? I have always thought it was 'buses'; but then someone sent me something that included the word 'busses', so I thought I'd better look it up. And my New Webster's Dictionary allows both.

However, I still felt that 'buses' is more common, so I checked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There are 5354 tokens of 'buses' and just 119 tokens of 'busses', which confirms that 'buses' is the usual plural, but 'busses' does sometimes occur.

The next question is: why would 'busses' occur? After all, it is not usual for 's' to be doubled in creating a plural.

The explanation for this is that 'bus' is rather an unusual word in English, as words that end in /s/ after a vowel are generally spelled with a double 'ss': 'miss', 'hiss', 'fuss', 'mess', 'toss', 'pass', 'dress', 'press', 'cross', 'grass', 'gloss', 'glass', 'class', 'floss', 'bliss', 'stress', 'address', 'abyss', 'across' etc. The only words that I can think of that have a final /s/ and are spelled with a single 's' are: 'this', 'thus', 'us', 'pus' and 'cos' (a kind of lettuce).

In contrast, most words that are spelled with a final 's' after a vowel are actually pronounced with /z/: 'is', 'was', 'has', 'does', 'as', 'his', 'hers', etc.

Furthermore, in the middle of a word, 's' between two vowels is often pronounced as /z/: 'these', 'those', 'phase', 'please', 'raise', 'rise', 'hose', 'lose', 'nose', 'fuse', 'muse', 'rouse', etc, though there are quite a few exceptions is which the 's' is pronounced as /s/: 'case', 'mouse', 'dose', etc. In fact, there are some words in which the medial 's' may be pronounced as /z/ if the word is a verb but as /s/ if it is a noun or adjective: 'use', 'house', 'close'.

In conclusion, it seems that 'busses' is actually not a bad way to spell the word, even if it is not very common, as it clearly indicates that the medial consonant is pronounced as /s/ not /z/.

12 September 2014


Some mistranslations are just amusing, while others could have rather more serious consequences.

I saw this on a hand drier in one of the toilets at UBD:

The advice to 'place your hands in and out of the machine' sounds potentially lethal!

In contrast, this advice elsewhere on the same notice is not quite so dangerous:

The trouble with this one is that 'hang down' is an intransitive verb – it cannot take an object, so, for example, you cannot *'hang down your clothes in the wardrobe'. In consequence, as 'things' cannot be the object of 'hang down', the instruction must be that you should not yourself hang down from the machine. I guess people are not really likely to try and do that!

09 September 2014


My UBD colleague, James McLellan, sent me a link to an article published in the on-line Borneo Post of 4 September 2014 (here), discussing the actions of some people in Sarawak who want to secede from Malaysia.

Unfortunately, instead of 'secession' (= the act of seceding, or formally withdrawing), the fourth paragraph of the article mentions 'the cessation movement', and 'cessation' means 'stopping'. So it means that the movement wants Sarawak to stop!

In fact, 'secession' /sɪ'seʃən/ and 'cessation' /se'seɪʃən/ are pronounced almost identically, so the confusion is not too surprising. Nevertheless, one would have thought that a copy-editor might have checked it.

Or perhaps the Deputy Home Affairs Minister of Malaysia really did use the word 'cessation', and the Borneo Post is quoting him accurately.

28 August 2014

False Friends

False friends are words that are borrowed from one language into another, but then they undergo a change in meaning. Alternatively, they may be cognates (words derived from the same source) with different meanings in different languages. For example, librarie in French looks like it should be 'library'; but actually it is 'bookshop'.

So, what false friends are there in Malay? Maybe bonet which (at least in Brunei) can refer to the boot of a car, not its bonnet. Also plastic, which refers to a plastic bag. And there is kompaun, which comes from English 'compound' but which should probably be translated as 'fine'. Finally, there is doket, from English 'docket' but I have no idea what it means.

I saw this in the Media Permata of 6 August 2014, p. 6:

Sebanyak 202 kes kompaun dan lapan kes doket yang meliputi pelbagai kesalahan lalu lintas telah dicatatkan … sejak minggu pertama Syawal

which might be translated as:

A total of 202 fines and 8 court cases involving various traffic offenses have been recorded ... since the first week of the month of Syawal.

Here I have translated doket as 'court cases'; but I am not sure if that is correct or not. I looked in the Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu site, and the only word offered for doket is 'docket'. But that clearly won't do in the extract above.

Translators need to be especially vigilant when dealing with false friends such as this.

21 August 2014

Exam Results

The results of the Brunei-Cambridge 'A' levels were announced yesterday. Of the 610 candidates, 404 (66.2%) obtained at least one 'A' level. While this represents a small improvement over last year, it still means that just over one third of the candidates took the exams and got absolutely nothing, which seems very sad. They will have studied for two years and will leave school with no 'A' levels at all, not even an E grade in one subject.

For the 'O' levels, only 719 out of the 2,416 candidates obtained three or more 'O' levels. Again, this is an improvement over the previous results. But it still means that over 70% of the candidates got fewer than two 'O' levels. And it makes one wonder if 'O' levels set in Cambridge are the most appropriate exams for these people to be taking.

07 August 2014


I have previously discussed the use of 'pieces' in Brunei English, such as the following from The Brunei Times of 25/12/2011:

The police has seized 12 pieces of $100 notes ...

and also the following from the Borneo Bulletin of 25/10/2011:

We are currently producing about 2,000 pieces pf solid/engineered doors a month.

(Both these are from Deterding & Salbrina, Brunei English, 2013, p. 55.)

In standard English, 'pieces' would be redundant in both these extracts, as 'notes' and 'doors' are both count nouns, and 'pieces' is only used for noncount nouns like 'cheese' or 'advice'.

One possibility to explain the use of 'pieces' with count nouns in Brunei is that it is influenced by measure words in Malay, such as ekor for animals, orang for people, and biji for fruit. (Chinese similarly also has measure words, such as 本 for books and the general-purpose 个.)

Some evidence for the influence of Malay comes from this extract from a leaflet issued by the Ministry of Health:

Note the use of 'pieces' for bananas and also dates, even though these are count nouns in English. The equivalent text in the Malay version is this:

Note that biji is used for all items.

It is not clear why the English version uses 'pieces' for the plural items (bananas and dates) but not for the singular items. Nevertheless, it seems that the English has been influenced by the use of biji in the Malay.

05 August 2014


Sometimes translators just give up when they try to deal with different kinds of food. Here is an extract from a brochure output by the Ministry of Health giving guidance on sugar intake:

And here is the same information translated into English:

In the third list of items, it seems that the translator just gave up when trying to differentiate kuih-muih from kek and just used 'cakes' for both; and also no attempt has been made to deal with bingka, a dense cake in Brunei, so it is omitted.

25 July 2014


Here is a headline from page 2 of Media Permata of 26 July:

Ada majikan tidak bayar 'overtime' pekerja

which might be glossed as:

There are bosses who do not pay overtime to workers

Then, the first paragraph of the article starts with:

Sebilangan majikan didapati tidak membayar kerja lebih masa kepada pekerja mereka

which might be glossed as:

Some bosses are found who do not pay overtime to their workers

It is interesting that the headline uses the English 'overtime' but the article itself uses the Malay equivalent kerja lebih masa.

I quite often see English/Malay doublets, often presenting an English technical term and then its Malay equivalent, but this is the first time I have seen the English in the headline but the Malay equivalent in the text. However, I guess it works well enough.

20 July 2014


I just read a short article in the Guardian Online (here) about the invented word 'oxt'. Apparently, if today is Friday, then 'this weekend' would be tomorrow and the next day, while 'oxt weekend' would be the following week. (I'm not sure if anyone is actually proposing this new word, or if it is just a joke.)

What is interesting is this: we know what 'this weekend' means; and now 'oxt weekend' has been defined. So what does 'next weekend' mean?

And If today is Monday and I say "Let's meet next Wednesday", when are we meeting? Is it the day after tomorrow? Or is it the Wednesday of next week, i.e. in nine days' time? Nobody seems to know, which seems totally bizarre. Perhaps we really do need a new word such as 'oxt' to help sort things out.

04 July 2014

Long Sentences

I recently saw this sentence on page 6 of the Media Permata of 3 July. It is 76 words long.

Sepanjang bulan Ramadan ini, Jabatan Bomba dan Penyelamat mengambil kesempatan ini untuk menasihatkan dan mengingatkan kepada orang ramai untuk berhati-hati terutama sekali dari segi aspek pencegahan kebakaran khususnya suri-suri rumah tangga apabila berada di dapur untuk memastikan tidak meninggalkan sebarang masakan terbiar dan apabila meninggalkan rumah untuk memastikan membuat senarai semak iaitu untuk memastikan semua peralatan elektrik yang tidak digunakan hendaklah ditutup termasuk gas memasak di mana dikhuatiri berlaku kebocoran yang boleh membawa kepada berlakunya kejadian yang tidak diingini.

It might be translated (rather badly) as:

Throughout this month of Ramadan, the Fire and Safety Office is taking the opportunity to advise and remind the public to be careful especially with respect to avoiding fires particularly housewives when they are in the kitchen to ensure they do not leave their cooking unattended and when they leave the house they should ensure they complete a checklist namely to ensure all electrical tools which are not being used are switched off including the cooking gas whereby there are worries there might be a leak which could bring about an undesirable event.

In this rather literal translation, I have maintained the use of 'whereby' as a translation di mana, as lots of my students use 'whereby' in their English.

As far as I know, the Malay is fine; but English does not encourage such long sentences. It would be better to break it up, maybe something like:

Throughout this month of Ramadan, the Fire and Safety Office is taking the opportunity to remind the public to be careful especially with respect to avoiding fires. In particular, housewives in the kitchen should ensure they do not leave their cooking unattended. In addition, when they leave the house, they should complete a checklist to make sure all electrical tools which are not being used are switched off. Furthermore, they should be careful about the cooking gas, as there are worries there might be a leak which could bring about an undesirable event.

In addition to breaking it up into four sentences, I have avoided the use of 'advise and remind', which seems a bit redundant, even though menasihatkan dan mingingatkan is fine in Malay. I have also eliminated the repetition of 'ensure', even though memastikan occurs three times in the Malay.

Shortening of sentences and avoiding lexical repetition are issues that need to be considered when translating from Malay into English.

26 June 2014

Opaque Idioms

While watching the World Cup, I am always struck by how many opaque idioms the commentators use:

they're under the cosh (they're under pressure)
that's right on the money (the ball is just where he wanted it)
it's kitchen sink time now (the team is throwing everything forward)
he's got his foot to the floor (he's going as fast as he can)

and so on. I pity foreign language learners who are trying to make any sense of this kind of commentary.

Of course, opaque idioms are all around us, and we rarely stop to think about them. My wife recently heard that someone who had been in hospital for a while had 'turned the corner', and she thought that must be bad, as you don't know what's around the corner. But, in fact, 'turn the corner' is used to indicate that things have started to improve, and the person in hospital was now getting better.

Another idiom with an unexpected connotation is 'over the hill'. Logically, climbing a hill is hard work, and once you get to the top and can start going downhill, that should be good news. But in fact we use 'over the hill' to refer to someone who is past it and is no longer able to contribute much.

And one more: I always think that 'purple patch' ought to be something bad, as I associate purple with bruises and things like that. But, in fact, a purple patch is a period of notable success, especially for a writer or a musician. Apparently, it derives from Roman times, when purple was an exquisite colour that only the rich could afford to wear.

Of course, Malay is just the same. I came across ringan tulang (lit. 'light bone'), and I thought that must be bad. In fact it means 'hardworking'.

And in today's Media Permata I saw this: perkara pokok (lit 'tree matter'). Now, what could that mean? There seemed to be nothing about trees in the article! In fact, perkara pokok means 'the crux of the matter'.

Well, perhaps this last one is because pokok ('tree') has a secondary meaning, for it can also mean 'basic', as in gaji pokok ('basic salary'). Nevertheless, it reminds us how opaque idioms can be.

24 June 2014

Singular 'their'

I just wrote a reference for one of my students to study at York University, and the message that came back was:

Thank you for taking the time to upload a reference for Ms Xxx Xxx in connection with their application for the MSc in Forensic Speech Science.

(where I have blanked out the name to maintain anonymity).

It is interesting to see that the University uses 'their', even though the gender of the applicant is known to be female (note the use of 'Ms').

I find it encouraging that 'they' and 'their' are becoming increasingly acceptable for singular referents. It makes things so much easier than having to write 'his or her' or something clumsy like that.

17 June 2014


One of the biggest problems for learners of a foreign language is when their first language has a superordinate word and the foreign language has two (or more) hyponyms. For example, even after speaking Chinese for 40 years, I still get caught out by the distinction between 穿 chuān and 戴 dài, both of which are 'wear' in English. In Chinese, you use 穿 for clothes and 戴 for peripheral things like hats or seat-belts; but in English we say 'wear a shirt', 'wear socks', 'wear a hat' and 'wear a seatbelt'.

In speaking Malay, the same problems might occur for padi, beras and nasi, all of which are 'rice' in English. However, I find it easier to to keep those apart, as they are nouns, and it is easier to remember that padi is growing in the fields, beras is for sale in a shop, and nasi is already cooked.

What about the other way round? Chinese speakers of English often confuse 'he' and 'she' in English, because although they are differentiated in writing as 他 and 她, both are pronounced the same: .

For Malay learners of English, I would expect that the distinction between 'pain' and 'sickness' would be problematic, as both are sakit in Malay.

14 June 2014


I was just watching Chile against Australia in the World Cup, and the commentator (who seemed to be from Britain) constantly referred to the Chilean team as /tʃɪˈleɪən/. I have never heard that before, and for me it would be /ˈtʃɪlɪən/.

I then checked the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd edn), and indeed /ˈtʃɪlɪən/ is the only possibility listed for British pronunciation. However, for American pronunciation, /tʃɪˈliːən/ is given as the most common, followed by /tʃɪˈleɪən/, so the commentator was using the second pronunciation found in the USA.

I wonder if a sound change is taking place in how we are expected to say the word. When I was young, Caribbean was pronounced /ˌkærɪˈbiːən/ (with the main stress on the third syllable). But nowadays, it seems to be /kəˈrɪbɪən/ (with the stress on the second syllable). Perhaps the pronunciation of Chilean is also undergoing change.

08 June 2014


This picture (sent to me by Ishamina Athirah) is presumably advertising for a tailor, i.e. someone who cuts and sews.

The trouble is that 'sewer' has two different meanings in English: when pronounced /su:ə/, it is a drain; and when pronounced /səʊə/, it is someone who sews. However, the first meaning is much more common than the second, and in reality we never use the second meaning. Instead, we say 'tailor' or 'seamstress' or something like that.

My guess is that this use of 'sewer' is a direct translation of penjahit ('someone who sews'). In Malay pemotong dan penjahit ('someone who cuts and someone who sews') would make perfect sense.

26 May 2014


On Linguist List (here) I just saw this opening pane from a comic strip:

The posting is about the use of 'peak friend'. But what about 'BORF'? What does it mean? It looks like an acronym. But if it is, what does it stand for?

The online Hyperdictionary (here) defines it as:

To uncerimoniously (sic) disconnect someone from a system without prior warning.

But then it says that its origin is unknown.

Keeping track of new terminology is difficult; and it doesn't help when what appears to be an acronym has an unknown origin.

(It also doesn't help when 'unceremoniously' is misspelt. I guess the Hyperdictionary isn't the most reliable resource.)

25 May 2014

selfie, hashtag, tweet

I just read a report that selfie, hashtag and tweet are now going to be included in the dictionary of Malay published by the Malaysian Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka ('Language and Literature Bureau'). They will be labelled as 'bp', which stands for bahasa percakapan ('colloquial language'), as they are not regarded as bahasa baku ('standard language').

The rationale for including these words is that it is the job of a dictionary to reflect actual usage. On this basis, I wonder when they will include so and then as words of Malay. I regularly hear people using these two words in utterances that are otherwise completely Malay, so it seems it is only a matter of time before they are completely accepted as Malay words.

24 May 2014


Local languages in this part of the world typically fail to distinguish the gender of third person pronouns; so both 'he' and 'she' are dia in Malay, and though they are differentiated in Chinese writing as 他 and 她, these are both pronounced as [ta] on a high-level tone. As a result, even quite proficient speakers of English in the region sometimes continue to confuse 'he' and 'she'.

From a communicative perspective, does this matter? If someone says:

I have one sister and he works as a teacher

they are unlikely to be misunderstood, though a listener from somewhere such as the UK might find it a bit jarring.

However, breakdowns in communication can sometimes occur. I have been listening to some recordings I made in Guangxi Province, and in the 24 interviews, there are 41 expected uses of 'he' and 'she' and 7 unexpected ones, 4 uses of 'he' to refer to a mother or sister and 3 uses of 'she' to refer to a father or brother. None of these is an issue, as the meaning is clear in context. However, there is one additional instance which is problematic. A female speaker said:

I have a roommate. He er he's live in Shangrila.

In response, I said 'okay', hoping the student might elaborate about her roommate. But when this was not forthcoming, I changed the subject, asking about where she would like to travel to if she had the choice.

The problem is this: it is extremely unlikely that her roommate was male, especially in China; but she had used 'he'. So if I was to ask more about her roommate, should I use 'he' or 'she'? Instead I took the safe option and changed the topic.

It seems that confusing the two pronouns can sometimes be a problem.

20 May 2014

for good

My most recent book, published by De Gruyter, was on Misunderstandings in ELF (see here). My PhD student, Ishamina Athirah, is now replicating the work but focussing just on Brunei English. This is providing some fascinating data about what features of Brunei speech may be hard for people from elsewhere to understand.

This morning we were listening to a recording of a Bruneian talking to someone from Vietnam, and the Bruneian said:

when I went to Brunei for good

which the Vietnamese listener did not understand.

Although most misunderstandings seem to arise because of pronunciation, this one is caused by the Vietnamese not being familiar with the idiom 'for good'. And if you do not know this idiom, there is no way you could work out that it means 'permanently'.

Sometimes idioms are really opaque; and this is a fine example. When we are talking to people from elsewhere, we should try to be careful about using opaque idioms that they may not know.

On the other hand, 'for good' is such a common phrase in English that we may not realise that others do not understand it. Furthermore, it is probably quite hard to immediately think up an alternative to 'for good' when we are talking to someone.

18 May 2014


It always leaves me bemused when I see a line of Malay with no space between the words. This is from page 2 of the Media Permata of 19 May 2014.

The first line would be a bit easier to read if it were written as:

Berada di lapangan terbang bagi menucapapkan
Present at           airport           to         say

They must have special software to enable them to crunch the words together like that. If you tried to do it in ordinary wordprocessing software like Microsoft Word, it would force you to have a new line; and reducing the spacing between words is not straightforward.

It is also a mystery why the final word mengucapkan is not hyphenated: mengucap-kan. Later in the same article bertujuan ('to intend') is hyphenated as ber-tujuan and membuka ('to open') is broken up as mem-buka; so why the same is not done with mengucapkan is bizarre.

17 May 2014


I just read (here) that Vietnamese has a word for elder brother (anh) and elder sister (chi), but the same word for both younger brother and younger sister (em). This is the same as Malay, were elder brother is abang, elder sister is kaka, and younger sibling is adik, and no difference is made between younger brother and sister.

Of course, there is no suggestion that Malay and Vietnamese are connected, as they belong to entirely different language families. But I wonder if it might be an aerial feature, a feature of language that extends across language families because of proximity?

Or maybe it is just a coincidence.


Prefixes in Malay are highly productive, so it is easy to create new words which others can immediately understand. This morning I heard about menasik, which is the meN prefix added to tasik ('lake'), so it means to walk around the lake. Or, in this case, to walk in the Tasik Lama recreational park, a popular hiking spot in the middle of BSB.

It shows also that people know the rules about affixation, as the initial /t/ gets omitted when the prefix is added, and everyone knows that even if they have probably never been taught it explicitly.

The only question I have about menasik is why the meN prefix is used, as verbs with this prefix usually have an object. I would have expected the ber prefix to be used instead, as verbs starting with ber are generally intransitive. But maybe the ber prefix is less productive than meN.

16 May 2014

QWERTY and names

There is a hypothesis (see here) that we prefer typing with our right hand, and as a result, as more and more people have become accustomed to using a computer keyboard, there is a greater preference for names that predominantly use the right side of the keyboard. This would predict that John would become more popular (all four letters are typed with the right hand) while Edgar would become less popular (all five letters are typed with the left hand).

Well, maybe. I'm not convinced.

This hypothesis predicts that David would become less popular, as all but one of its letters are typed with the left hand; and the names I gave both my children, Alexander and Elizabeth, would also be dis-preferred, as both are predominantly left-sided. But they were born before I started to use a computer on a regular basis, so the hypothesis is irrelevant for them.

What about Malay names? I have 29 students with Malay names in my year one class at UBD. If we just analyse the names before the bin or binti, we find that:

  • 15 have a right-sided name: Nurul Amirah, Norazlinah, Nur Liyana, Nur Bazilah, Noor Atikah, Nurol Izazi, Mohd Khairul, Muhd Amaluddin, Muhd Alqurnain, Nurul Nadiatul, Amalina, Muhammad Zulfadhli, Nur Aqilah, Nur Hanizah, Muhammad Ghazali
  • 3 have equal right and left-sided letters: Nur Haidatul, Nur Diyanah, Abdul Qawiy
  • 11 have more left-sided letters: Siti Izzatul Aliah, Mohammad Iskandar, Siti Nurfaizzah, Fatihah, Muhammad Amir Syaddad, Emmyra Nurfazrenna, Nur Khadizeah, Farah Mahirah, Wa'iz, Izaz Fahad

So there is a slight preference for names that are typed with letters on the right side of the keyboard.

However, I would be very surprised if this was connected in any way with keyboard usage. I suspect that few of their parents were accustomed to using a keyboard when these students were born. A more likely explanation for the slight preference for right-sided letters is the common occurrence of 'N' in these names.

12 May 2014


When words get borrowed into Malay, final consonant clusters are nearly always simplified. For example, note the missing final /t/ in: lif, kos, pos, hos, arkitek, and the missing final /p/ from kem and setem.

However, even though native Malay has no initial clusters, they are not seen as so problematic, especially if the second sound is /r/. For example, the following words are all listed in my dictionary, and they all start with /tr/: tradisi, trafik, tragedi, traktor, transformasi, trofi, troli, trombon, trompet, tropika. Indeed, their meaning in English is usually immediately apparent.

But what about trengkas ('shorthand')? It must come from English (I assume). But what is the origin of the word?

07 May 2014


This morning, I was reading an article on page 7 of Media Permata of 8 May 2014, and I came across this extract:

telah menerima aduan daripada orang awam mengenai kedai-
fan keluarga itu yang memerlukan bantuan

which might be glossed as:

have received complaints from the public about the pover-
ty of this family which needs help

When I got to kedai- fan, I was confused, as kedai means 'shop', and then I wondered what fan might mean.

Of course, I was mis-parsing it, as kedaifan means 'poverty', and it consists of daif ('poor') with the ke+an circumfix to convert an adjective into a noun. I would have thought that it would have been better to hyphenate it as kedaif-an rather than kedai-fan.

Looking through other cases of hyphenation in the same article, I found:

  • hu-kuman ('judgement')
  • un-tuk ('for')
  • penggu-naan ('use')
  • ka-wasan ('region')
  • se-lain ('other')
  • men-genalpasti ('identify')
  • tem-pat ('place')

The rule seems to be that a hyphen always occurs before a consonant. If there are two consonants, then the hyphen occurs between them; but if there is just one consonant, then the hyphen is inserted before it.

Now, this makes sense from a phonological perspective, where a single medial consonant tends to belong with the following syllable rather than the preceding one, as we prefer consonants to be in the onset of a syllable rather than its coda. But I still think that maintaining the morphological integrity of a word should sometimes be allowed to override this placement of a hyphen before a single consonant.

01 May 2014


I have been listening to some data I recorded in Nanning, China, about three years ago. I interviewed 24 undergraduates at Guangxi University, and one pattern I find quite often is the use of 'yes' in answer to a negative question. For example, in the following extract, 'F3' is the Chinese student, while 'Int' is the interviewer (me):

Int: you don’t want to teach in primary school?
F3: yes

And in a further extract, from an interview with another student, 'F8':

Int: you don’t want to be a farmer?
F8: yes

In both of these cases, a native speaker would be more likely to say 'no' to agree with a negative assertion. But use of 'yes' to agree with something is common in New Englishes around the world.

The next example is from a Bruneian speaker, F12 (from page 68 of my book Brunei English: A New Variety in a Multilingual Society, published by Springer; see here):

Int: but you don't remember that now
F12: yes, I don't remember

I predict that this use of 'yes' to agree with a negative assertion will one day become accepted as the norm for international English, regardless of what native speakers like me do.

25 April 2014


There is a word in Malay, sepet, to describe the almond-shaped eyes of East Asians such as Chinese and Japanese. But what's the English equivalent?

My dictionary gives 'narrow eyes', but that doesn't sound like something we would say. My guess is that we actually say 'slitty eyes', but that is clearly perjorative. Maybe 'slant eyes'? My feeling is that that is also insulting. So what is the English equivalent?

I suspect we don't have one, and there is no polite way to describe the shape of eyes of East Asian people. Perhaps there's no real need for such a word!

24 April 2014

Teaching Pronunciation

As a phonetician, I usually avoid trying to change the way people speak. I aim to raise awareness about the sounds of speech, to enable students to hear things in detail and also to let them produce various sounds; but I don't generally tell them how they should sound.

However, recently I have been working with three exchange students from China who are preparing to sit for the IELTS exam, and they have asked me for guidance on improving their pronunciation; so in this case I have made an exception. And one of the things I note is that I am telling them to use patterns of speech that native speakers do not use. Let me give some examples.

  • The biggest problem is probably with voiced fricatives, as Chinese has none, and /v/ is often pronounced as [w]. As a result, 'verb' may have [w] at the start, and 'never' may have medial [w]. The solution I have suggested is to use [f]. Now, [f] in 'verb' and 'never' is not quite right (according to native-speaker norms); but it is much better than [w], and it will enable you to be understood.
  • L-vocalisation (using a vowel for /l/ at the end of a word) is also an issue. Now, this is something that many native speakers do all the time, especially those from London but also throughout the UK and Australia. However, I heard 'meal' and 'feel' spoken by these Chinese students as 'mew' and 'few' respectively, and I suspect they will be marked down when taking the IELTS exam. I had problems getting them to use a proper dark-L (maybe I am not a very good phonetician!), so I suggested making these two words bi-syllabic: [mi:jəl] and [fi:jəl]. Now, this is somewhat different from how a native speaker would say the words, but it does seem to achieve good intelligibility, which is surely the main goal.
  • Finally, there is use of a glottal stop for final /t/, something which is again very common in many varieties of native speech. In one recording, the speaker said 'not yet' with a glottal stop in place of both /t/s, and it was a bit hard to understand. So, even though many native speakers would do exactly the same thing, I suggested that this speaker try to articulate all /t/s carefully.

In conclusion, in helping foreign language learners of English to achieve a high level of intelligibility, we should not be getting them to blindly mimic the patterns of native speech. There are various strategies that can be used to improve intelligibility, and that must be the main goal, regardless of what native speakers actually do.

Whether my advice helped the students with their IELTS exam or not, I do not know.

07 April 2014

berkesan dan effective

I have previously mentioned the pairing of Malay and English words (see here). Not surprisingly, this particularly occurs in semi-technical writing, where it may be important to match a local word with its English equivalent. For example, in an article on mosquito-born diseases in the Media Permata of 8 April 2014, we find:

penghapusan filaria atau untut
  eliminate   filaria   or   untut

where untut is (presumably) the Malay equivalent of 'filaria'. In the same article, we find:

siasatan entomologi atau kaji serangga
investigation entomology or study insects

where the technical term 'entomology' is provided a Malay gloss kaji serangga.

A bit more surprising is when the same kind of pairing occurs with adjectives. So we also find:

tatacara yang paling berkesan dan efektif
method which most effective and effective

where the Malay word berkesan is paired with its English equivalent 'effective'. This seems rather more redundant. But perhaps adding an English term adds gravitas to the writing.

One more example from the same article might be added:

kerjasama orang ramai dan penglibatan semua stakeholders
cooperation people public and involvement all stakeholders

In this case, penglibatan semua stakeholders seems pretty much the same as kerjasama orang ramai. Maybe this just reflects a Malay tendency for lexical doubling, perhaps to emphasise a point.

04 April 2014


You would expect deviations from Standard English to simplify things: they are likely to omit final consonants, drop suffixes, and so on. But sometimes one finds the opposite. Take this sign I saw on the door of a shop in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

Note the spurious 'd' on the end of 'closed'. Perhaps one could regard this as a case of hyper-correction: the user is so concerned about omitting suffixes that a 'd' is added here even when it is not needed.

19 March 2014


When my wife was doing some shopping in BSB yesterday, a sales assistant told her that, as a result of the introduction of shariah law, she might in the future have to wear a cardigan to cover her arms properly. But she pronounced 'cardigan' with /dʒ/ at the start of the final syllable instead of the expected /ɡ/.

This might be regarded as a case of hyper-correction. In Malay, the letter 'g' is always pronounced as /ɡ/. However, in English, 'g' is sometimes /ɡ/ and sometimes /dʒ/, and the speaker got the wrong one.

Actually, a little knowledge of phonics would have resolved this problem. In English, 'g' is always pronounced as /ɡ/ before 'a', 'o' and 'u'. For example, 'gate', 'garden', 'goat', 'gone', 'gut', 'guest', etc. It is only ever pronounced as /dʒ/ before 'e', 'i', and 'y', in words such as 'general', 'gesture', 'ginger', 'gin', 'gyro', and 'gymnasium'.

In fact, before 'e', 'i' and 'y', there are rather a lot of exceptions: 'get', 'gear', 'give', 'girl', 'gynecologist', and many more all have 'g' pronounced as /ɡ/ rather than /dʒ/. But there are no exceptions for its pronunciation as /ɡ/ before 'a', 'o' and 'u'.

Now that phonics is being taught in Brunei schools, one wonders if the error with 'cardigan' might no longer occur when today's primary school students grow up.


An exchange student from China, Huang Luyin, is taking my module on Translation in which the written assignment required her to find a passage in Chinese, translate it into English, and comment on the translation. In doing this, she translated 肠子('intestine') as 'tharm'.

I assumed that this was a typo, and I asked her what she intended to write. But she insisted that her on-line dictionary, 有道词典, gives 'tharm' as the translation of 肠子. Then she showed it to me, and it does indeed give 'tharm'.

I have never heard of 'tharm', and it is not listed in my New Webster's Dictionary. I have just checked on-line, and it seems that 'tharm' is an archaic word for 'intestine'. Furthermore it seems to be accepted in Scrabble, so I'll remember that.

Even if it is acceptable in Scrabble, it is not a word of modern English, and its listing in the on-line dictionary is bizarre. The inclusion of archaic words in an on-line dictionary is unfortunate, and it illustrates the perils of relying on such resources.

11 March 2014

like her

I was reading an article on The Guardian online (here), discussing a book called Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, in which a sentence started with:

In Lean In, Sandberg aimed to help women like her

When I read this, I thought she was trying to get people to like her. Actually, she was trying to help people who are similar to her. As you might see, this sentence is ambiguous.

I believe that writers should be sensitive to the potential ambiguity of things that they write, and they should try to resolve any such ambiguity. It might have been better to say:

In Lean In, Sandberg aimed to help women who are like her

First Lines

I was just reading an article in the on-line Independent (here) about the importance of first lines in novels, and it included the sentence:

And, of course, Pride and Prejudice starts with the only opening sentence of a novel that everyone knows by heart.

Well, I like to think that I am moderately well read, but I confess that I didn't know what the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is. So I looked it up, and it is:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I guess I should have known that. But I didn't. And my guess is that most people don't know it. Which just reminds me how out of touch many newspaper columnists are. Most people in the modern world simply are not familiar with the contents of nineteenth century fiction.

Or maybe I am just ignorant.

24 February 2014

Where's your plane?

I often go walking in Tasik Sarubing and Bukit Markucing with my colleagues. Yesterday, I was walking there with one colleague. A local chap had seen three of us walking there earlier in the week, and he asked:

Where's your plane?

This left me bemused. Fortunately, my colleague understood it correctly as:

Where's your friend?

and gave a suitable reply.

I felt really stupid, as I should have been able to understand it in context. /f/ is often pronounced as [p] locally, as Malay does not have /f/, except in a few borrowed words such as faham ('understand') and fail ('file'). (see here)

I guess I'm not very good at accommodating to local patterns of pronunciation, even though I've been in Brunei for over six years now.

22 February 2014


February 23 is Brunei's National Day, involving a big parade in the National Stadium. In connection with preparations for this parade, I have recently often seen the word raptai ('dress rehearsal') in the Media Permata. Surprisingly, raptai is absent from my dictionary (Collins Easy Learning Dictionary), which is a bit surprising as it seems to be a reasonably common word. Fortunately, it is included in the excellent Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu, together with some helpful examples of its usage. I guess printed dictionaries are on the way out, and nowadays everyone uses web-based sources.

One other thing about raptai is how it should be pronounced. Is it two syllables, like cukai ('tax')? Or is it three syllables like mulai ('begin')? There is no way to tell from the spelling, which illustrates the limitations of the Malay spelling system. For it to be three syllables, the final 'i' would have to be a suffix; but there is no way to tell if the root of the word is rapta or not.

I have subsequently heard it spoken on the Nasional FM radio news, and it seems to be two syllables; so it is a single morpheme.


Traditionally, 'who' is the subject of a clause while 'whom' is the object. So the first sentence in the following (from a BBC page on Oscar acceptance speeches) is just fine: 'who thanks whom'.

But what happens when the same sentence gets passivised? It should be 'Who is thanked ...', not '*Whom is thanked ...', because 'who' is the subject of the verb, not its object.

But people seem to find the selection of 'who'/'whom' rather confusing. Maybe this is one reason why most people are nowadays abandoning the use of 'whom' entirely.

16 February 2014

Devoicing of /b/

/b/ can occur at the start of words in Malay (e.g. barang 'thing', burong 'bird') and in the middle of words (e.g. habis 'finish', ibu 'mother'), but it can only occur at the end of words that are borrowed from Arabic (e.g. sebab 'because', wajib 'cumpulsory', adab 'good manners') or English (e.g. arkib 'archive', rizab 'reserve'). Note that, in the last two, English final /v/ becomes /b/ in Malay.

When these words have a final -an suffix, the /b/ tends to stay (e.g. peradaban 'culture', from the root adab). However, if the suffix is -kan, the final /b/ may actually be pronounced as [p]. For example, menyebabkan ('to cause', from the root sebab) is usually pronounced with [p] before the /k/ (see here), except perhaps in very careful speech.

This devoicing of root-final /b/ when a suffix starts with a voiceless sound is similar to what happens in English: 'describe' / 'description', 'absorb' / 'absorption'.

However, there is one word in Malay that seems strange: kewajipan ('obligation') has a /p/ in it, even though the root wajib has a final /b/ and the suffix is -an and not -kan. I cannot provide an explanation for this.

09 February 2014

Banana Joke

A couple of days ago, I heard this joke on the local radio station, Pelangi FM:

Q: What did the banana say to the doctor?
A: I'm not peeling too well.

I guess that only really works in places such as Brunei where /p/ and /f/ tend to be merged. In fact, there was originally no /f/ in Malay, so words borrowed from Arabic that begin with /f/, such as faham ('understand'), tend to be pronounced with a /p/ at the start: paham.

The opposite process can occur, probably as a form of over-compensation. When my wife was learning to drive here, she had to attend some initial classes, and the only thing she remembers from them was when the teacher said:

When you are parking, be careful.

Unfortunately, he used a short vowel in the first syllable of parking, and the initial sound was pronounced as /f/, so it didn't come out as intended.

04 February 2014

Relaxing in Temburong

This is the view over the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre in Temburong. Relaxing there for a couple of days was just brilliant.

While we were there, when we weren't walking in the forest or chatting with friends, it was a splendid place to chill out with something to read. That is something I really looked forward to, as I rarely have time to read simple fiction. And I specially bought a simple detective novel which I finished while I was there.

It was interesting to note that nearly everyone on the trip had taken a book to read; but then we were nearly all expatriates, from the UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. I imagine that a similar bunch of Bruneians would have spent their time using their mobile phones, checking and updating Facebook, but few would have brought a book to read.

But maybe nobody reads books any more, apart from old-fashioned people like me. Maybe the modern literacy is contributing to Facebook and reading on-line materials, so the modern generation doesn't read books. And perhaps surfing the net and contributing to stuff on Facebook is an even richer kind of literacy than reading printed fiction. But I still love to read a book.

02 February 2014


I just spent three days in Belalong, Ulu Temburong, which to me is the magical heart of Brunei. Here is the view from the top of the canopy walk.

What is surprising, for something that is so special, is how poorly it is maintained. Here is the sign at the base of the canopy walk. Hmm, not very helpful!

In fact, the steps up to the canopy walk can be really slippery and quite dangerous at times. It is hard to fathom why the place is not maintained better. Never mind, the view from the top is quite breath-taking:

29 January 2014

te- prefix

Malay has lots of prefixes. For example:

  • ber- is an intransitive verbal prefix, so berjalan ('to walk') has no object.
  • meN- is a transitive prefix, so membuat ('to do') requires an object after it.
  • ter- is either the superlative prefix, e.g. terbaik ('the best'), or it is a passive prefix, e.g. terputus ('be cut').

But what about the te- prefix? Examples include:

  • tetapi ('but'), which means much the same as tapi.
  • tetamu ('guest'), which is the standard term, but tamu also exists.
  • tetangga ('neighbour'). I haven't come across this one, but my dictionary lists it. The root tangga means 'steps', but rumah tangga means 'family'.
  • tetikus ('computer mouse'), where tikus is an ordinary mouse.
  • tetingkap ('computer window'), where tingkap is the window in a building.

I suspect that nobody really uses the last two, as most people probably generally use the English terms 'mouse' and 'window'. But I saw tetikus in the Media Permata today, in an article on e-payment.

This te- prefix is different from the other prefixes because it can only occur with a word that begins with 't'; so it is not really a prefix but more of a kind of alliteration. And I am also not sure how productive it is. For example, would it be possible to have ?teturun ('to fall') or maybe ?tetutup ('to close')? I don't think these exist; but maybe words such as these will emerge, by analogy with the five listed above. Perhaps in relation to computers? Maybe teturun and tetutup might become used to refer to downloading material and closing a computer window?

28 January 2014

Postponed Dinner

We just received a notification from the Assistant Registrar in the Assistant Vice Chancellor's Office of UBD that the annual dinner has been postponed. The message is written in both English and Malay, so this allows us to compare the two. The English version is:

On behalf of the Registrar and Secretary, I wish to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, date for the annual dinner has been postponed to Wednesday, 05 March 2014 at 7:30 pm.
The theme remains the same (Black and Bling) and the venue will be at Berkshire Hall, Royal Brunei Polo and Riding Club, Jerudong.
Tickets will be distributed in due time. Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused.
Thank you for your kind attention.

and the Malay version is:

Dengan penuh hormat sukacita memaklumkan bahawa atas perkara yang tidak dapat dielakkan, tarikh Majlis Makan Malam Tahunan UBD bagi sesi tahun 2013/2014 adalah ditunda ke hari Rabu, 05hb Mac 2014 pada jam 7:30 malam bertempat di Berkshire Hall, Royal Brunei Polo and Riding Club, Jerudong
Tema bagi tahun ini adalah "Black and Bling" dan tiket akan diagihkan pada masa yang terdekat.
Terima kasih atas perhatian semua.

The most obvious difference is that the English begins with 'On behalf of the Registrar and Secretary, I wish to inform you that', while the Malay has Dengan penuh hormat sukacita memaklumkan bahawa ('With full respect, please be informed that'). I am not sure why the English identifies the Registrar and Secretary as the source of the message while the Malay does not; and I am also uncertain why the Malay has 'with full respect' but the English does not. Perhaps English needs full attribution of the source of a notification, while Malay needs additional formulaic language but attribution is less important?

The other main difference is the English has 'Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused.' near the end of the message, but the Malay does not have this apology. Again, I am not sure why the apology is included in the English but not the Malay.

27 January 2014

Borneo Bulletin

Last Saturday, I gave a public lecture on Brunei English. It seemed to go well. There were about 50 people there, and I hope they found it reasonably interesting.

On page 2 of the Borneo Bulletin of Sunday, 26 January, there was a half-page spread covering my presentation:

I guess that's a good thing, though I find it weird to see a picture of myself in the national newspaper. But I suppose that's to be expected in such a small country.

21 January 2014


I always find it interesting when a word in one language has a broader meaning than its equivalent in another language, something that can cause problems for translation. For example, the Malay tikus can be either 'rat' or 'mouse' in English. We can say that Malay has a superordinate term (with a broader meaning), while English has two hyponyms (with narrower meanings).

This cross-linguistic comparison of superodinate/hyponyms can also apply to verbs. I had always understood lemas to mean 'drown'. But I just read an article in Media Permata about an 87-year-old man who was lemas when he was caught in a fire at his house, and it was then that I realised that lemas could mean 'suffocate' as well as 'drown'.

18 January 2014

Public Lecture

On Saturday, 25 January, at 9:00 am, I will be giving a public lecture entitled: Brunei English, Intelligibility, and Emergent ASEAN English. It will be in the Senate Rooms, Chancellor Hall, UBD.

I guess the time is a bit strange, as most people will be working then. But anyone who is interested will be welcome.

16 January 2014

Passives in Malay

Passive verbs (using the di- prefix) are common in Malay; and their function is a bit different from passive verbs (using 'be' plus -ed participle) in English.

The main purpose of a passive construction in English is to change the order of the subject and object. For example, if we say:

John was bitten by a dog.

instead of the comparable active:

A dog bit John.

then the main purpose of using the passive 'was bitten' is to get 'John' to the front of the sentence (to function as the theme) and to place 'the dog' at the end.

An alternative purpose in English is to avoid mentioning the agent. So, if we say:

The students were warned about their behaviour.

then the purpose behind use of the passive verb 'were warned' is to avoid stating who did the warning.

Although these two roles for the passive, changing the word order and avoiding stating who the agent is, both occur in Malay, a major reason for the use of the passive in Malay is to express the fact that the subject is not the agent. For example, take this sentence start, from page 1 of the Media Permata of 16 January, quoting the Minister of Development in Brunei:

Saya difahamkan bahawa ...
    I     am-believed   that ...

In English, we would say 'I believe that', but a more accurate translation might be 'I am led to believe that'. However, 'led to believe' is rather a marked construction in English, while difahamkan is perfectly normal in Malay, and this use of the passive in Malay does not suggest there is anything particularly unusual about how the Minister gained his understanding.

My guess is that the passive construction is rather more common in Malay than the equivalent in English, but we would need to look at some equivalent texts in the two languages to confirm that. That could offer a nice little research project for a student.

14 January 2014

Text Length in Malay and English

In my previous post, I compared two New Year messages sent out by the Dean of FASS, one in Malay and the other in English; and I noted that although the Malay message seems to be longer, in fact the English message has more words.

In fact, we can analyse this a bit further. First, the Malay has 61 words, but many of them are morphologically complex, so it has 81 morphemes. For example, diucapkan ('said') can be analysed as three morphemes: di+ucap+kan. In contrast, only four of the English words are obviously morphologically complex: 'going', 'taking', 'friends' and 'celebrating'. This means that 66 words in the English version have a total of 70 morphemes. The greater number of morphemes in Malay (81 vs 70) partly explains why the Malay text seems longer.

Next, we can consider word length. The average word length in Malay is 5.66 letters, while that in English is 3.89 letters. So the Malay text really does have longer words.

One other interesting contrast between these two texts is the extent of lexical repetition. Malay tends to tolerate repetition of words, while English does not. And we can see that kepada ('towards') occurs four times in the Malay, while there is no word that occurs so often in the English; and selemat occurs three times in the Malay, but the closest equivalent 'happy' only occurs twice in the English.

13 January 2014

New Year Message

Recently, the Dean of FASS, Dr Noor Azam OKMB Haji-Othman, sent a New Year message to all staff. It was both in Malay and English. The Malay was:

Kini kita sudah sampai ke penghujung Semester I dan tahun 2013. Saya ingin mengambil kesempatan ini untuk mengucapkan berbanyak Terima Kasih kepada semua staff atas segala sokongan dan kerja keras abis kita semua selama ini. Kepada yang bercuti, selamat berehat bersama keluarga di musim percutian ini. Kepada yang meraikan, Selamat menyambut Hari Natal. Kepada semua, diucapkan Selamat menyambut tahun baru 2014!

while the English version was:

We have come to the end of Semester I and the year 2013. I would like to thank all FASS staff for all your support and hard work during this time. For those who will be going away or taking leave, I wish you a happy holiday with your family and friends. For those celebrating, have a good Christmas. And to all, Happy new year 2014!

While these are similar, they are not quite identical; and comparison reveals some interesting things:

  • The Malay seems to be longer, but in fact it has fewer words (61 vs 66). The perception of greater length probably arises because some of the Malay words are quite long (e.g. mengucapkan vs 'thank'), and many of the English words are short function words ('to', 'of', 'the', 'a')
  • The Malay has mengambil kesempatan ('take the opportunity'), but this is omitted in English.
  • The Malay has berbanyak Terima Kasih ('many thanks'), while the English just has 'thank'. Are Malay colleagues offered more thanks?
  • The Malay has yang bercuti ('those on holiday'), while the English has 'those who will be going away or taking leave'. Maybe English readers are more likely to go away, as they have fewer family here?
  • The Malay has bersama keluarga ('with family'), but the English has 'with your family and friends'. Maybe English readers are more likely to spend time with friends as they are in a foreign country?

11 January 2014


From page A5 of the Brunei Times of Sunday, 12 January, describing a fire at the residence of the Brunei High Commissioner to Malaysia:

... the fire occurred at about 9pm, damaging a 30 sqaure metre area on the second and third floors of the bungalow ...

Second and third floors of a bungalow? My dictionary defines 'bungalow' as a one-storey house.

Actually, the word 'bungalow' originally meant Bengali-style house. Were they all on one floor? Or were there multi-storey Bengali-style houses? If the latter, then this local use of 'bungalow' to mean a detached house may have reverted to its original meaning.


On Thursday, as I was driving home, I was listening to the evening news on the Nasional FM radio channel, and there was an item about some new facility for students preparing for their exams. A student was asked for her opinion about it, and in her reply, she said:

if ada question yang unexpected keluar, ...
if have question which unexpected come-out, ...

Code switching is of course very widespread among young people in Brunei; but the extent of the mixing in this extract is the greatest I have come across. The student was alternating English and Malay words.

Such alternation is only possible in cases where the structure of the two languages is similar. For example, the Malay relative pronoun yang is almost identical to the English 'which', so it is straightforward to switch for just that word. And I am pretty sure that this student would usually have longer stretches in each language. Nevertheless, I thought that the fluency of this mixing was impressive.

I'm not sure that the authorities would agree, though. She was cut off rather quickly, as the news bulletin is entirely in Malay, and the presenters almost never include English words in their news reports.

04 January 2014

Second Hand

I have previously mentioned calques, or word-for-word translations across languages, such as the following from English into Malay: kenderaan pacuan empat roda ('4 wheel drive vehicle'), mengambil bahagian ('take part'), and sepakan percuma ('free kick'). Another one is pencakar langit ('skyscraper').

In fact, calques are common in many different languages. The Wikipedia page on calques (here) lists a calque of 'skyscraper' into 43 different languages.

Chinese also has plenty of calques from English. Sometimes it is not clear if a word is a calque or an indigenous creation. For example, is 书店 'bookshop') a calque from the English word or just a creation from Chinese morphemes with no influence from the English word? It is hard to tell.

However, some are easier to determine, and it seems that 二手 (second hand) almost certainly comes directly from English. The picture on the right was taken outside a shop offering second hand goods in Taitung, Taiwan.

02 January 2014


Can you guess which country in Southeast Asia has the highest daily intake of protein per person? The surprising answer is Myanmar; but Brunei is not far behind.

Below is from a table extracted from page 9 of a recent ODI report ranking the countries in Southeast Asia by how much the daily intake of protein per person exceeds 50 grams, which is the recommended intake for a moderately active adult. (It is not entirely clear why Singapore is omitted from this list.)

This table suggests that Bruneians are consuming about 33 grams of protein more than they should every day, which is rather alarming, indicating a huge health problem in the future. But I guess we already knew that.

Of course, it is not as bad as some countries, particularly the USA, Mexico, Kuwait, Belgium, the UK, and New Zealand. But it is still rather worrying.


You may have read that Oxford Dictionaries have chosen selfie, a photograph of oneself, to be their word of the year. (For example, see this Guardian article.) Some commentators think this reflects the increased narcissism of young people today. I think maybe it just reflects the ease with which people can nowadays take a photo of themselves and put it on Facebook. People have always loved pictures of themselves; but it used to be harder to take them.

Anyway, here is my selfie, with my wife. Though, of course, it is not really a selfie, as someone else took it. In addition, there are two photos, taken 34 years apart.

The one on the left was taken on the balcony of our apartment outside Taipei when we had just got married in 1979, and the one on the right was taken last year on the balcony of our apartment in Brunei. One interesting thing is that the view is almost identical – it is almost as if we have moved back to our original home, but in a different country.

The other stunning thing is that my wife seems hardly to have aged at all, even after 34 years, while I look about 50 years older. Oh, well, such is life. And it illustrates why I don't usually takes selfies.

01 January 2014

Taitung and Dogs

Taitung City takes great pride in being a pleasant place. They have a saying to describe the place:

good mountains good water

to which some people add:

lots of alcoholics

But, indeed, the environment is very pleasant; and the air seems a lot less polluted than Taipei, or Hong Kong (though maybe not Brunei, which is one of the reasons we live here).

One other description or Taitung is:

(there are) more dogs than people

which may or may not be true. But there are certainly lots and lots of dogs. One thing I found stunning is that most of the dogs are wearing winter coats.

Now, it can get quite chilly in Taitung, but never less than 10 or 12 degrees, so it seems quite weird to see the dogs wearing coats. In the UK, where it can get much colder, I have very rarely seen dogs wearing coats. But maybe Taiwanese dogs are not so hardy.