12 December 2015

Berbahasa Satu

This is the central section of the mural on the front of the library building in the middle of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

The words say: Berbahasa satu, Berbangsa satu, Bernegara satu (One language, One race, One nation).

While this is not very encouraging for efforts at preserving minority languages, it is perhaps not unusual in countries around the world, where the desire to have a common language throughout the country is widespread. For example, there is a movement to establish English as the national language of the United States, even though there does not seem to be any real threat to the dominance of English despite the fears of some people that Spanish might one day replace English; and in Indonesia, establishment of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language even though it was originally the home language of virtually nobody has been a central national policy over the past few decades.

11 December 2015


In Malay, belas is the suffix given to numerals to indicate the numbers 11 to 19, so 11 is sebelas, 12 is dua belas, and so on.

Then there is the Malay word belasan, to refer to the age group 11 to 19. My dictionary gives the gloss for belasan tahun as 'teens'.

However, this is not quite right, as in standard English, the teens only start at 13, and people aged 11 and 12 are not teenagers.

I wonder if there is a shift of meaning of the word 'teenager' in Brunei English, influenced by the Malay word belasan?

One further influence might be from Chinese, as there is no easy translation of 十几岁 ('aged between 11 and 19') in English. It seems possible, therefore, that this shift in the meaning of 'teenager' is found quite widely in the region, including in Singapore.

05 December 2015


When I started out as an academic, I believed it was my duty to do research and publish it, but I found self-promotion tacky. Well, I guess that's all changed, and now I make things available on my website and on ResearchGate, just like everyone else. I accept that we have to promote our research, and we can't just sit back and hope that somehow people will find it.

Now, as part of my role as Webmaster for my Faculty, I have been tasked with creating and maintaining a 'News' page in the faculty website. (See here).

Is this the sort of thing an academic should be doing? Well, I suppose in the modern world where universities have to promote themselves, just like businesses, it probably is. And even if it does take time away from research, I have to accept that this sort of work is what we all have to do. (Anyway, it beats being on another committee!).

Maybe some people will find it interesting and useful, who knows.

27 November 2015

Ivory Tower

It is interesting when a calque form one language into another involves a shift in meaning. In English ivory tower always has a negative connotation, suggesting a university that is cut off from reality. But look at this paragraph from page 1 of the Media Permata of 28 November:

Dua adik-beradik menarik nafas lega apabila cita-cita mereka untuk melanjutkan pelajaran ke menara gading di Malaysia tercapai dengan adanya bantuan biasiswa penuh daripada sebuah syarikat tempatan hari ini.

which might be translated as:

Two sisters breathed a sigh of relief today when their ambition to continue their studies at an ivory tower in Malaysia succeeded with the help of a full scholarship offered by a local company.

Note that menara gading ('ivory tower') does not suggest anything negative in this context. Indeed, my dictionary gives the meaning of menara gading as 'institution of higher learning'.

15 November 2015


This photo, of an Australian coffee shop in London, was sent to me by Benjamin Tucker:

The use of an -ie (or -y) suffix is well-known in Australia: so you have:

  • barbie (barbeque)
  • mozzie (mosquito)
  • u-ie (u-turn)
  • eskie (ice box for keeping beer cold)

So, the purpose behind the name Beanie seems to be show it is a coffee shop from Australia. Quite imaginative, really.

05 November 2015

TPP Countries

In a report by the BBC on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) (see here), near the top there is a link to a video which starts by showing the flags of the 12 nations that are involved:

Then, near the end of the article, it is stated that:

The member countries of the TPP account for some 40% of the global economy and include Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Given that eleven countries are listed, why not the twelfth country, Brunei Darussalam?

I know that Brunei is small, but it still seems bizarre to omit it when all the other participant countries are listed.

02 November 2015

Car Booth Sale

Here is an extract from an article on page 2 of Media Permata of 2 November 2015, about activities to be held in Tutong District:

Manakala pada 6 hingga 8 November pula akan diadakan Car Booth Sale bertempat di Taman Rekreasi Sungai Basong. [italics in the original]
which might be translated as:
Meanwhile from 6 till 8 November a Car Boot Sale will be held at Sungai Bason Recreational Park.

'Car Booth Sale'? This reflect two aspects of pronunciation: in Brunei English, there is often no distinction between /θ/ and /t/, so speakers are uncertain about the sound at the end of 'boot' and 'booth'; and voiceless TH at the end of a word is pronounced as [t] rather than the [f] that would be expected in Singapore, which reflects the fact that Brunei English is distinct from other varieties of English in the region.

One might also note that this is a kind of folk etymology, where language users re-interpret words to make more sense to them. Bruneians don't use 'boot' for the back of a car, and Brunei Malay uses the word bonet. (I have no idea why people got the wrong end of the car for this term.) Given that 'car boot sale' doesn't make much sense to people who do not use the word 'boot' for the back of a car (the 'trunk' for Americans), 'booth' seems logical to refer to a small stall to sell second-hand goods.

This reinterpretation of a word is also termed an 'eggcorn', after someone who mistakenly used the word 'eggcorn' in place of 'acorn'. (See Wikipedia article.) Some other eggcorns in English are:

  • 'wet the appetite' instead of 'whet the appetite'
  • 'ex-patriot' instead of 'expatriate'
  • 'mating name' instead of 'maiden name'

14 October 2015

Words borrowed from English

My Brunei Malay dictionary shows some words with 'Ig', to indicate that they come from English. While the origin of some is obvious (basikal, batri, kompeni, radiu), others can be more puzzling. See if you can guess what the following might be. To help, I'll give you the meaning.

bikium : a machine to clean the floor
guhit : to move forward
gustan : to move backwards
kulbat : a drain
kumpum : to validate
pain : money you have to pay
putbul : a game
waksap : a place to get your car repaired

The answers are as follows:

bikium : vacuum
guhit : go ahead
gustan : go astern
kulbat : culvert
kumpum : confirm
pain : fine
putbul : football
waksap : workshop

Of course, it helps to know that Brunei Malay doesn't have /f/ or /v/, so /p/ and /b/ are used in their place.

Even so, some of the entries are bizarre, For example, kiket ('ticket') is also listed even though Brunei Malay has a /t/.

10 October 2015


In American English, cooties is used as a term of abuse by children, indicating some other child is abnormal in some way. Typical usage might be 'Now you've got cooties.'

Originally, apparently it referred to lice, but now it seems to have become extended to refer to anything abnormal.

One of my students today told me that it comes from the Malay word kutu, meaning 'louse'.

01 October 2015

wezi sar

A friend was negotiating with an Indian grass-cutter for the fellow to come and cut his grass, and he got the following text reply:

Sar tumaru tudy am wezi sar

He eventually worked it out as:

Sir, tomorrow; today am busy, sir.

I have to admit that it left me completely perplexed; but I guess that people who use text messages more frequently than me might have no problem.

27 September 2015


This is the front of a booklet written by my five-year-old granddaughter, Elsie. Can you read it?

In fact, it says 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'. To understand it, you have to realise that she gets 'd' and 'b' confused, and she just uses a single letter for 'the'. In addition, she seems to have 'f' at the start of 'three'.

This kind of creative writing, spelling things out as best she can and guessing at words she doesn't know, is actually highly encouraging. It shows she is understands the principles of phonics rather well. In time, she will sort out 'd' and 'b' and the standard spelling of all words.


I recently saw this notice on a glass door at UBD:

The usual wording would be 'CAUTION', not 'CAUTIOUS'. (In fact, the sign has now been corrected.)

But why? CAUTION is a noun, while CAUTIOUS is an adjective. So, why is a noun expected here, not an adjective? In fact, CAUTIOUS seems just as (un)grammatical as CAUTION.

My conclusion is that CAUTION is expected simply because that is the convention, and appeals to logic or grammaticality make no sense.

26 August 2015

Glasgow Subway

While I was in Glasgow, I travelled on their subway system, which consists of a simple line looping round the city.

When you catch the trains, you can take the grey line which is labelled 'Inner' or the orange line which is labelled 'Outer'.

Now, while it is technically correct that the trains along the grey line go along a track that is always on the inside of the loop compared to the trains along the orange line, that reflects an engineering point of view which is not particularly helpful for users. What customers need to know is whether the trains are going clockwise or anticlockwise, and that is far from obvious. (There is a little arrow there, showing the orange line going clockwise, but it is far from obvious, and the signs in the stations don't show it.)

I guess locals get used to it, and Inner and Outer make perfect sense once one gets used to them; but it doesn't seem very user-friendly for a first-time visitor to Glasgow.

Free Cash

I was in the UK for a few weeks recently, and everywhere I went there were notices advertising free cash.

But however many times I tried, I was unable to get hold of any of this free cash. Very frustrating.

Of course, the signs are not offering 'withdrawals of free cash'; instead, they are offering 'free withdrawals of cash'. In other words, 'free' is modifying 'withdrawal', not 'cash'. Or, using brackets, one might show it as [free [cash withdrawals]] rather than [[free cash] withdrawals].

Pity, as withdrawals of free cash sounds like a splendid idea.

28 July 2015


How do you pronounce gaol? If you are in Brunei, you might not know this spelling; but it occurs in the UK. Here is a street sign in Hereford:

In fact, it should be pronounced as /dʒeɪl/, and it is an alternative pronunciation for jail.

The problem with gaol is that it starts with 'ga', and when 'g' is followed by 'a', it is nearly always pronounced as /g/ (e.g. in gas, gap, gastric, gallant, gander, gain, gate, ...). Although 'g' can be pronounced as /dʒ/, this is only when it is followed by 'e', 'i', or 'y' (e.g. gender, generation, gel, gene; ginger, gin, Giles; gym, gyrate, gyroscope ...). Although most speakers of English are unable to state this rule explicitly, they subconsciously know it, which is why they do not expect gaol to be pronounced as /dʒeɪl/.

Although there are no residential properties on Gaol Street in Hereford, there are some offices in addition to the police station, and I was told that when people in those offices need to give their address, they often pronounce it as /gaʊl/, as saying /dʒeɪl/ is unlikely to be understood.

I suspect that the spelling jail may be a pronunciation spelling (in which the spelling of a word changes to reflect its pronunciation), but I need to check that. It is possible that gaol and jail have always been alternative spellings of the word.

20 July 2015


I saw this headline in the Times of 4 July 2015.

When I first read it, I could not understand the final word on the first word: chicest. I thought for a moment that it must be a typo for choiciest.

In fact, it means 'most chic' (where chic, pronounced /ʃi:k/, means 'fashionable'); it is just the use of the superlative suffix -est added to a fairly common adjective chic. So what's the problem? The -est suffix is fairly productive, so it should not be a problem to add it to an existing adjective.

The problem is this: in English spelling, 'c' followed by 'e' is always pronounced as /s/: cell, ceiling, centre, certain, certificate, ceremony, celestial; receive, deceive, incentive, recent, etc. So when I read the word, I initially imagined that it must be pronounced as /tʃaɪsɪst/.

In most cases, if a word ends with 'c' and then a suffix starting with 'e' is added, then 'k' is inserted: e.g. panicked, picnicked. However, in the case of chic, this is not an option, as chickest would look like something else. As a result, there is no alternative but to have 'c' followed by 'e' in chicest.

The only exceptions to the rule by which 'c' followed by 'e' is pronounced as /s/ that I can think of are: cello, in which the 'c' is pronounced as /tʃ/; and celtic, which starts with /k/ if it refers to a language (but /s/ if it is a football club). So now we seem to have one more: chicest.

21 June 2015

Signs in Japan

I was recently in Japan, where some of the signs can be quite challenging. Take this one, on the outside wall of a Buddhist temple.

I think the message is 'Live life in the present', though I'm not sure. Actually, 'Now, Life is living you' seems rather Zen, so maybe it's not so bad after all!

This one was inside the bathroom of my hotel.

I think it is saying that the alarm will go off if you have a shower with the door open; but 'Sound the alarm for steam' is maybe not the best way of expressing this.

In contrast, this one is abundantly clear, especially with the illustration to help:

Maybe we could do with this one in public restrooms in Brunei!

11 June 2015


The word jerayawara ('roadshow') is (I believe) mostly used in Brunei, though I note one entry in the Malaysian PRPM resource (here), so maybe it does sometimes get used elsewhere.

The trouble is it is almost unpronounceable: the 'r-y-w-r' sequence is really tough. Or maybe local people don't find it so difficult? I don't hear Radio Brunei newscasters stumbling over it, so maybe it is just me.

Fortunately, there is no 'l' in it, or it would be truly impossible!

23 May 2015

Tong Sampah

I recently saw this sign in the washroom at the Bangar ferry terminal in Termburong:

The Malay says 'Throw rubbish into the dustbin provided'.

I wonder why the extra word disediakan ('provided') is used in Malay? It doesn't seem to add anything extra to the message. So I wonder why the writer in Malay felt that it was necessary?

21 May 2015


The level of complexity and allusion in some cartoons is stunning. Take the following Dilbert cartoon:

It involves two people, Alice and Walter. Alice's statement "I hate Mondays more than Garfield" is intended to mean "I hate Mondays even more than Garfield hates Mondays", but Walter understands it by its alternative meaning "I hate Mondays even more than I hate Garfield".

However, in the next pane, by making an allusion to Garfield and lasagna ownership, Walter is showing that he knows all about Garfield, so he is basically saying that he is perfectly aware of Garfield's dislike of Mondays. In other words, he is saying that his misunderstanding of Alice was quite deliberate.

Alice understands this, which is why she gets angry. But in the final pane, her threat not to talk to him is taken by Walter as a promise; it is what he was hoping for.

On first reading this cartoon, I failed to grasp much of that; and it was only on reading the explanation on Language Log (here) that I understood it. Partly, that is because I am not very familiar with Garfield and his dislike of Mondays and disregard for ownership of lasagna. But I'm not sure I would have got it even if I had known about these things. I suspect most of us miss the subtle meanings of lots and lots of cartoons.

20 May 2015

berfikir di luar kotak

I saw this headline for an article on page 11 of Media Permata of 18 May 2015:

This can be translated as:

Young people of Sabah urged to think out of the box

Of course, berfikir di luar kotak ('think outside the box') is a direct calque from English.

It seems sad to me, when Malay has such a rich range of idioms and proverbs, that direct translations are taken from English rather than using something indigenous. But maybe this is wrong. Perhaps absorbing idioms from English (and other languages) serves to enrich the Malay stock, so there is nothing wrong in using new idioms wherever you find them.

One other thing about my translation: I used 'young people' rather than 'youths' as an equivalent for belia, as I feel that 'youths' tends to have a negative connotation in English. But that is not how 'youths' is used in the region; so maybe I should have followed local usage and just gone for:

Youths of Sabah urged to thing out of the box

19 April 2015

Progress (?)

One of my favourite views of Brunei is from the forest trail in Tasek Lama, where I go walking with my wife two or three times every week. The picture on the left was taken in 2009, while the one on the right was taken this morning. (The quality is not as good, as I took today's photo with my mobile phone, while the previous one was taken with a digital camera.)

Do you notice the difference?

The crane in the background is involved in the construction work building a bridge across the Brunei Bay, connecting BSB with Lumapas opposite, thereby eliminating the need for a 40-minute drive (or a quick trip across the bay by boat). I guess that's progress, and it will make things easier for lots and lots of people. But still, even in Brunei where the preservation of the forest is done better than in most places, it feels that the jungle is slowly being destroyed.

13 April 2015

Royal Wedding

Last week, the radio news and the local newspapers were dominated by the wedding of Prince Malik, or Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Duli Pengiran Muda 'Abdul Malik (to give him his full title) to Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak Isteri Pengiran Raabi'atul 'Adawiyyah. Here is a picture from page 3 of the Media Permata of 13 April 2015, showing the happy couple surrounded by various members of the royal family.

The reporting of the wedding often involved giving a long list of names. In the article associated with the picture above, 33 people are listed as attending the wedding, including 16 people in addition to the 17 shown in the picture, and the full titles of all of them are presented. On average each person's name plus title is 12 words long, with the shortest being 7 words: Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Bini Hajah Faizah. Not surprisingly, listing all 33 people takes up the whole page.

The radio news bulletin at 8:00 in the morning usually lasts about 10 minutes, but on the morning of 13 April, it took 20 minutes. Not only were all the names of these 33 important people read out in full, but most of the names were repeated at least once as the roles of the different people were listed.

Does anyone listen to all of this? Or maybe it just functions as comforting background noise, reassuring listeners that everything is fine. And does any other country pay so much attention to listing out the names and titles of all the VIPs who attend a function? Maybe this elaborate respect for the royal family is a unique feature of the traditions in Brunei.

24 March 2015

Jungle Tracking

On page M3 of the Media Permata of 24 March, I read that some school children had been involved in Jungle Tracking. I wondered if this is a mistake for jungle trekking. Malay speakers of English often do not distinguish between /e/ and /æ/ (the DRESS and TRAP vowels), so this kind of confusion is expected.

Or is jungle tracking a different activity from jungle trekking? I just looked up both terms in the COCA corpus, and there is one token of each. Then I looked them up in the British National Corpus, where I found one token of 'jungle trekking' and none of 'jungle tracking'. So this is pretty inconclusive.

I guess the meaning of jungle tracking is fairly obvious, so even if it is an error for jungle trekking, it is unlikely to cause any misunderstanding.

21 March 2015

University Abbreviations

It seems to be the common practice for universities around the world to adopt three-letter abbreviations. So you find UBD and ITB in Brunei, NTU and NUS in Singapore, MIT in the USA, and HKU in Hong Kong.

While these might work well locally, this does not seem to be such a good idea globally, as there are too many institutes using the same three letters. For example, in Singapore NTU stands for Nanyang Technological University, but in Taiwan the same three letters refer to National Taiwan University.

I was reminded of this when I was asked to supervise a student doing his third year internship at ITB. Great, I thought, I'll just pop down the road to the Institute of Technology Brunei, about five minutes away from my office, to see how he's getting on. Unfortunately, he is in Indonesia, at the Institute of Technology in Bandung. I guess I won't be able to visit him after all!

05 March 2015


This week, I registered for TelBru's e-bill facility, which lets me monitor my usage of the internet as well as pay my telephone bills electronically. It is a really useful facility, as it enables me to ensure that I do not exceed my usage quota in any month.

In registering, I wanted to change my passport from the default password I was sent (Abc123!@#). And I discovered that not only was I required to have at least one number and both upper-case and lower-case letters, but I also had to have at least one punctuation mark. It seems that the requirements on passwords are getting stricter and stricter, resulting in them becoming less and less memorable. There seems little choice but to write them down.

The funny thing is that, for this e-bill account, the only two things I can do are monitor my internet usage and pay my telephone bill. Now, I really don't care if other people find out about my usage; and I would be absolutely delighted if someone decided to pay my bill for me! So why do I need such a secure password? Bizarre!

17 February 2015


I was reminded of the difficulties of using a Malay dictionary when I tried to look up pengecas.

To use a Malay dictionary, you need to identify the root of the word. Clearly, pengecas starts with the noun-creating peng- prefix. But what is its root?

Three immediate possibilities I tried were: kecas, ecas, or ngecas, as adding a peng- prefix to any of these would result in pengecas. But none of these is correct.

I finally found the answer: the root is cas, so the word is borrowed from the English word 'charge'; and pengecas means 'charger' (as in mobile phone charger). Because the root is a single syllable and Malay prefers bisyllabic roots, an extra syllable is added. (On a side note, it is interesting that the English word 'charge' has been borrowed twice into Malay: as caj for a financial charge, and as cas for an electrical charge. I wonder if there are any other words that have been borrowed into Malay twice?)

It is somewhat frustrating for a learner to have to grapple with these issues when using a Malay dictionary; but perhaps such issues are soon to be a thing of the past. Most people nowadays probably just look up a word directly in a computer dictionary, which should list pengecas with no need to work out what the root is. Maybe printed dictionaries will cease to exist in a few years' time.

10 February 2015


In today's tutorial, Ishamina Athirah asked her students whether 'creativity' can have a plural: 'creativities'. All her students agreed that the plural noun is fine. This seems, therefore, to be part of Brunei English, and it is consistent with other mass nouns having a plural in Brunei: 'furnitures', 'equipments', 'advices', 'staffs', etc.

I am sure that the majority of speakers of New Englishes around the world would agree with these plurals, and they probably represent the future of English; but users of English in Brunei and elsewhere need to be aware that this is not (yet) standard usage in English.

05 February 2015


When I teach phonetic transcription, I tell my students that all syllables must have one vowel and only one vowel. (I include a schwa in the second syllable of words like 'bottle' and 'fashion', as syllabic /l/ and /n/ tend not to be used in places like Brunei.),

So I tell them to count the number of syllables in a word and then make sure that they have that number of vowels.

Yesterday, one of the words I gave them to transcribe was 'beautiful', so I asked them how many syllables it has. And they all answered: four. Hmm, no wonder they tend to transcribe it as /bɪuːtɪfʊl/.

31 January 2015


In a recent post, I mentioned my surprise to see my picture in the newspaper as a result of my recent trip to Turkey. Here it is again, in the Borneo Bulletin, in connection with the hot air ballooning that we did during the trip.

By my count, that's seven times that my picture has appeared it the papers in the seven years I have been in Brunei. I don't believe that it has ever been in the newspapers in the UK, or that it ever would appear there; but I guess Brunei is a smaller place.

Anyway, hot air ballooning in Turkey was splendid, so if someone wants to share some photos of it in the newspaper, that's fine.

15 January 2015

Fried Data Recorder

I was listening to a news report about the search for the crashed Air Asia plane, and when I heard the Indonesian official mention the 'fried data recorder', I immediately thought, oh no, the data has been destroyed and is no longer usable.

Of course, that is not what the official said. In fact, he was referring to the 'flight data recorder'. But my momentary misunderstanding illustrates two things. First, context does not always enable us to understand things. You would think that the context would make this misunderstanding impossible, yet I was briefly confused. (Well, alright, I admit that maybe I am not a very good listener. But I believe that misunderstandings like this are quite common.)

Second, we can analyse what caused the misunderstanding. There are two basic features of pronunciation involved:

  • the occurrence of /fr/ instead of /fl/ at the start of the word
  • confusion between /t/ and /d/ at the end of the word

In my book on Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca, I found that confusion between /l/ and /r/ in initial consonant clusters like /pl/ and /fr/ was one of the most common causes of misunderstanding, so the occurrence of /fr/ at the start of 'flight' is indeed predicted to be a problem.

The second pronunciation issue needs careful consideration. In fact, the final /t/ in 'flight' usually gets dropped before a following /d/ in all varieties of English. However, in most native varieties of English, the difference between word-final /t/ and /d/ is maintained by means of the duration of the vowel: the vowel in a word such as 'flight' is shorter than in a word such as 'fried'. However, this distinction in the duration of the vowel before voiceless and voiced word-final consonants is not maintained in many new varieties of English.

My guess is that local users of English would not be confused by this neutralisation of word-final /t/ and /d/, and it is only native speakers like me that would get confused. And this illustrates that people like me should work harder to get accustomed to different ways of pronouncing English.

10 January 2015


I constantly find it amazing how many times my photo turns up in the newspapers. There was even a recent report in the Borneo Bulletin (here) reporting on my recent trip to Turkey, with a photo showing all the participants on the trip at the ancient Roman town of Hierapolis:

09 January 2015


I really don't understand the logic of the spelling of English words borrowed into Malay. If 'th' becomes 't' (as in tema, terapi, teater ...), why does 'g' sometimes become 'j' (imej, ejen, caj ...) and sometimes get retained as 'g' (generasi, teknologi, agenda ...)?

It would seems more logical if 'g' always became 'j', so 'ornithology' should be ornitoloji rather than ornitologi.

You might say that keeping the 'g' enables people to read English more easily; but on that basis, 'th' should always be kept as 'th'.