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/.