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.