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: