18 December 2016

Bhutan English

In my previous post, I discussed the pronunciation of 'monk' by our guide in Bhutan. In this picture, he is on the left, wearing traditional Bhutanese dress.

He asked me how to improve his pronunciation. In fact, his English was excellent, so I was reluctant to criticise anything; but seeing as he asked for feedback, I provided him with a brief overview of some of the non-standard features of his pronunciation, including 'monk' as [mɒŋk] even though I'm not sure that it matters too much. Here are a few of the other features, some of which might be a bit more important for maintaining intelligibility.

  • /b/ and /v/ are sometimes confused, so 'visit' might be [bɪzɪt]
  • complex consonant clusters can be simplified, so the /r/ is omitted in 'extract'
  • /ɑː/ is generally used when 'a' occurs in the spelling, even when /ɔː/ is expected, including the first syllable of 'always' and 'August'
  • stress is generally on the first syllable, even for verbs where it is expected on the second syllable, such as 'subdue' and 'converted'

So, which of these is important? Confusing /b/ and /v/ can be a problem, and so can consonant cluster simplification. But what about the others? I'm not sure that /ɑː/ in 'always' would ever be misunderstood, and perhaps stress placement is not too important in English in an international setting.

In fact, the most important advice I could give him was to slow down when using difficult words. And sometimes, intelligibility can be enhanced by avoiding imitating native speakers too closely. For example:

  • 'deity' is an unusual word, so it needs to be clearly three syllables, even if native speakers might often merge the first two syllables; the first time he said it, I heard 'dainty'
  • 'eighteen' and 'eighty' are easily confused; the best way to say 'eighteen' is to stress the second syllable clearly, even when native speakers do not! For example, in the phrase 'eighteen years', native speakers tend to shift the stress to the first syllable of 'eighteen', but in order to maintain intelligibility, it is best not to do this
  • 'guava' starts with the unusual cluster /gw/, and I heard it pronounced as [gɑːvə], which is not easy to understand; to avoid this, it might be best to make it three syllables: [guˈɑːvə] (so long as stress is placed on the second syllable)

I don't know if this advice was helpful. I suspect that, like most learners of English, he was a bit alarmed at my advice to avoid imitating native speech patterns.


Last week, I was in Bhutan. It was brilliant.

While climbing up to the Tiger's Nest temple (see above), at one point we were walking behind some monks, and this led me to ponder over the pronunciation of 'monk'.

The standard pronunciation is [mʌŋk], but our guide consistently pronounced it as [mɒŋk], using what might be called a spelling pronunciation. (He sees an 'o' in the spelling and pronounces it as [ɒ] rather than [ʌ].) This gives rise to the question: should he try and change his pronunciation?

There are a number of issues here:

  • Although the pronunciation of 'monk' as [mɒŋk] does not occur in native accents of English, it is probably quite common in New Englishes. For example, I suspect it is quite common in Indian English. (I have no evidence to support this, apart from the fact that our guide said that he was taught English by teachers from India.)
  • Use of spelling pronunciation for 'o' is quite common even in native accents. For example: 'comrade' once had [ʌ] in its first syllable but now it has [ɒ]; the city of Coventry similarly once had [ʌ] but now generally has [ɒ]; and the first syllable of 'constable' seems to be going through a similar shift. Maybe one day we will all be saying 'monk' as [mɒŋk] instead of [mʌŋk], so perhaps our guide is just ahead of us in this shift.
  • There seems little danger of [mɒŋk] being misunderstood, as there is nothing it might be confused with.

For these reasons, there seems little need for our guide to change his pronunciation of 'monk'. Indeed, there are more important things to focus on. I will discuss these in my next post.

07 December 2016

Language of the Courts

In my previous post, I highlighted one of the chapters contributed by a student in our new book, The Use and Status of Language in Brunei Darussalam, published by Springer. In this post, I would like to highlight one more chapter written by a student at UBD.

Chapter 10, by Hjh Masmahirah Hj Mohd Tali, is entitled 'Coutroom Discourse: A Case Study of the Linguistic Strategies in Brunei Draussalam Courtrooms'. The author attended eleven trials in the Magistrates' Court and also the High Court in Brunei, and she transcribed the interactions that took place. It is interesting to note that the language of the court is almost entirely English, but many of the defendants don't speak English. So everything has to be translated for them. As a result there are exchanges such as the following, where J is the Judge, I is the Interpreter, and D is the defendant (from page 148 of the book):

J : Now, do you agree that this ... this ... gambling ... this ... traffic light thingy is called gambling?
I : Adakah kita mengaku bahawa perjudian ... yang ... lampu isyarat ini dikirakan menjudi?
D : Ya
J : It's gambling is it?
D : Ya
I : Yes
J : All right.

It doesn't seem ideal that so much has to be translated into Malay, and also the Malay of the Defendant has to be translated into English. There is also the question of how accurate the translation is.

01 December 2016

Language in Brunei book

In my previous post, I discussed the quandary I had in preparing a News Item for our Faculty website − specifically, whether to feature pictures of important people or to focus more on the contents of the presentations at our recent Brunei-Malaysia Forum.

I faced a similar decision regarding the News Item (see here) for the launch of our book The Use and Status of Language in Brunei Darussalam, recently published by Springer. Should I show pictures of people attending the launch (as is the custom in Brunei)? Or should I focus instead on some of the chapters in the book?

In the end, I went for the first option, partly because there were other books being launched. But now I would like to focus on the contents of some of the chapters, particularly those written by students.

Chapter 4, by Susilawati Japri, analyses the language of shop signs in a modern shopping centre in Brunei. Now, by law, all signs are supposed to include the name in Jawi, and the Jawi is supposed to be twice the size of other scripts. Here is a sign that includes Jawi, though it does not seem to be twice the size of the Rumi script:

However, not all shops follow these rules:

In fact, the research reports that 42% of the shops in the three shopping malls in the Times Square Area (near Brunei's international airport) do not include Jawi.

In my next posts, I will outline the contents of chapters written by three more students.

27 November 2016

Brunei-Malaysia Forum

In my previous post, I discussed the tendency for local news reports to highlight the participation of members of the Royal Family or other dignitaries in events that they attend. It is similar for reports about conferences or seminars, in which the Guest of Honour is invariably mentioned, and also the Keynote Speakers, but the other individual presentations may get less coverage. Furthermore, there are usually lots of pictures of people, but I think it would be more interesting to see a few charts or other details from some of the presentations.

In preparing a 'News Item' for our Faculty website regarding our recent Brunei-Malaysia Forum (see here), I faced a quandary: should I show a picture of all the important people lined up, as is the usual practice? Or should I focus more on the contents of some of the presentations?

In the end, I adopted a compromise: I included the obligatory picture of the important guests:

But, after that, I showed some Figures from student presentations, two from UBD students and two from the University of Malaya.

The first is from the presentation by Blessing Gweshengwe of UBD entitled 'Is there congruity between the conventional poverty measures & contemporary conceptualisation of poverty?'

The second is from the presentation by Mahazril ‘Aini Yaacob and Dr Siti Hajar Abu Bakar of the University of Malaya entitled 'Can we own a home? Road to independent living'

The third is from the presentation by Nur Muhammad Sufi Bin Redzwan of UBD entitled 'A Comparison of Rhoticity between Brunei and Singapore English'.

Finally, this figure is from the presentation by Manimegalai A/P Ambikapathy and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hasmah Zanuddin of the University of Malaya entitled 'Visual Framing of the “Lahad Datu” conflict coverage in Malaysian mainstream newspapers'.

(If you want to know more about these presentations, you'll have to access the website.)

I hope that, by starting with a picture of important people and then focusing on student presentations, I have achieved a balance but also managed to celebrate the participation of students.

22 November 2016

Performance at ISB

On page 1 of Media Permata of 18 November 2016, there are the following two pictures with a four-line caption below them, describing the performance of a band at ISB:

On page 1 of the Borneo Bulletin on the same day, there are two similar pictures (one of them is clearly shared with Media Permata) describing the same event.

Though the event is the same, there are some interesting differences in the text describing it. Here is the Malay version in Media Permata:

Yang Teramat Mulia Pengiran Muda ‘Abdul Muntaqim dan Yang Teramat Mulia Pengiran Anak Muneerah Muneerah Madhul Bolkiah kelmarin berkenan berangkat menyaksikan persembahan pencaragam Armada ke-7 Tentera Laut Amerika Syarikat (AS) dan Angkatan Bersenjata Diraja Brunei (ABDB) di Teater Sekolah Antarabangsa Brunei (ISB). Berangkat sama ialah Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak ‘Abdul Haseeb dan Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak Raqeeqah Raayatul Bolqiah. – Berita Lanjust di Muka 3

And here is the English version in the Borneo Bulletin:

Some 800 students enjoyed an electrifying performance by the US Navy 7th Fleet Band, supportedby the Roya Armed Forces (RBAF) Band, yesterday, at the International School Brunei (ISB) Theatre. Among those who attended the musical performance were Yang Teramat Mulia Pengiran Muda ‘Abdul Muntaqim ibni Duli Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Pengiran Muda Mahkota Pengiran Muda Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah and Yang Teramat Mulia Pengiran Anak Muneerah Muneerah Madhul Bolkiah binti Duli Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Pengiran Muda Mahkota Pengiran Muda Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah – (Full Report on Page 3)

The main differences between them are as follows:

  • The Malay version foregrounds the royal prince and princess; in contrast, the English version only introduces them in the second sentence.
  • The Malay version has a shorter version of their names, not listing their father's name; in contrast, the English version gives their full names, including their father: ibni/anak Duli Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Pengiran Muda Mahkota Pengiran Muda Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah.
  • The Malay version lists two additional royal attendees: Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak ‘Abdul Haseeb and Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak Raqeeqah Raayatul Bolqiah; in contrast, the English version does not.
  • The Malay version only mentions the royal attendees; in contrast, the English version states that 800 students enjoyed the performance.
  • The Malay version omits any comment on the quality of the performance; in contrast, the English states that it was 'electrifying'.

Given the importance of the Royal Family in Brunei, it is not surprising that the Malay version foregrounds the attendance of the prince and princess. And it is also not surprising that more royal persons are listed in the Malay version.

The shortening of the names in the Malay but not the English is a little surprising. Perhaps that was done to ensure there was enough space to include the extra two people.

18 November 2016

Borrowings into Malay

On page 13 of the Media Permata of 18 November, there is a short article (sourced from the Malaysian Bernama organisation) with the heading:

Jangan terlalu banyak guna kata pinjaman - Dr Rais Yatim

which can be translated as:

Don't use too many borrowed words - Dr Rais Yatim

Dr Rais Yatim is a Malaysian politician, and he was making a speech urging the avoidance of borrowed words primarily from English. It is rather ironic, therefore, that the article includes the following words of Malay, all of which are borrowed from English: proses, sistem, buku, akademi, and tradisional.

Is it possible to avoid borrowings entirely? Are there indigenous words that could have been used instead of these borrowings? I suspect it is not possible to avoid all borrowings. But perhaps he is right that people should try to avoid using too many, and they might be encouraged to use an indigenous word when there is a suitable candidate.

An alternative viewpoint is that borrowings into Malay don't matter. Maybe one of the strengths of Malay is its ability to absorb words from other languages (a bit like English, really). So perhaps, instead of decrying too much borrowing, we should celebrate the ease with which Malay borrows words from English.

The Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect describes a situation where efforts to prevent access to data have the opposite effect and actually increase access to that data. (It arises from an incident in 2003 when Barbara Streisand tried to prevent people from accessing photographs of her beach-front property; but as a result of her efforts, lots and lots of people now access those photographs. See the Wikipedia article, which helpfully shows a nice picture of Barbara Streisand's house.)

On page 1 of the Media Permata of 18 November 2016, there is an article with the headline:

Laporan meganews306 tidak benar

which might be translated as:

The report on meganews306 is not true

The article states that a report on the website www.meganews360.com about His Royal Highness Prince 'Abdul Malik is not true. Now, I have no idea what this report is about, so I suppose I'd better go to the website and find out.

This raises a question about what we should do when inaccurate reports are published. Should we try to deny them, and thereby incur the risk of making the report more widely known? Or should we keep quiet and let the inaccurate report remain unchallenged? I have no answer to this dilemma.

03 November 2016

Initialisms in Malaysia

I have previously mentioned the frequent occurrence of Malay-English initialisms in Brunei (e.g. here). Here are some Malay-English initialisms from a single article on page 6 of the 2 November 2016 edition of Berita Harian, a newspaper published in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. See if you can figure out what the English expansion of each initialism is:

  • Jawatankuasa Kira-kira Wang Negara (PAC)
  • Teknologi Maklumat dan Komunikasi (ICT)
  • Makmal Pengurusan Nilai (VML)
  • Persekitaran Pembelajaran Maya (VLE)

All of them except ICT had me stumped, and I had to search the Internet to figure them out. Here are the answers:

  • PAC : Public Accounts Committee
  • ICT : Information and Communication Technology
  • VML : Value Management Lab
  • VLE : Virtual Learning Environment

I guess they are not a problem if you see them often and so become familiar with them. But they had me stumped, and it was hard for me to understand the article without being able to expand them.

01 November 2016


Just like most universities around the world, academics at UBD are judged by their publications, and in particular by the number of times they are cited. And Scopus is the key platform for determining these things.

The problem with Scopus is that it focuses on journal articles and tends to overlook books, and for the social sciences, books and book chapters can be vitally important. But quite beyond that, Scopus is seriously flawed

I recently checked my Scopus listing, and I was surprised to see a book review shown. Now, I write quite a lot of book reviews, often in top journals, but they have never been shown in Scopus before. So it was a nice surprise to see this one listed. The screen shot of my three most recent Scopus entries is shown here:

However, on looking more closely, I realised that it is not actually a book review; it is a corrigendum to a book review.

What happened is this: I wrote a book review and it was published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Subsequently, it was discovered that I had typed the name of one of the editors wrongly, and in the next issue of the journal, a correction was published (a corrigendum). And that is what is listed in Scopus!

How awful is that? I make a mistake, and as a result I get an extra listing in Scopus!

I considered deleting it, but then I thought that it is such a neat illustration of how awful Scopus is that I'll just leave it.

31 October 2016


I was listening to the midday news on RTB Nasional FM today, and once again I heard Calais pronounced as /kʌlaɪs/ rather than the expected /kæleɪ/. Given the frequency with which this name crops up at the moment, as the French police are trying to clear the migrants camped there, one would have thought that RTB announcers might try and get it right.

Or maybe the standard pronunciation in Malay actually is /kʌlaɪs/. Given the reasonably close association between pronunciation and spelling in Malay, perhaps the norm is to closely follow the spelling for all foreign names.

However, if that is the case, surely it should be /tʃʌlaɪs/ rather than /kʌlaɪs/, as 'c' is always pronounced as /tʃ/ in Malay.

29 October 2016


I have sometimes previously discussed the tension between use of a native word of Malay and an equivalent borrowed word (e.g. petua vs. 'tips'). Sometimes the relevant authorities promote an indigenous word even when speakers actually use a borrowed word.

This is from a news item broadcast by Berita Suria in Singapore on 6 March 2015. The speaker, Ahmad Md Tahir, a local writer, says that, in order to promote their works, "there must be cooperation between writers, publishers, lovers of language, students and organisations."

The words at the bottom suggest he uses the indigenous word pertubuhan; but in fact, he uses the borrowed word organisasi. It is interesting that Berita Suria think it is appropriate to replace organisasi with pertubuhan even though most people would accept the former as a word of Malay, given that it is generally included in Malay dictionaries and its pronunciation and spelling have been adapted for Malay.

28 October 2016

Raspberry Picking

My granddaughter, Elsie, aged 5 and a half, loves to write. Here is a little story she wrote on yellow stick-it sheets while we were visiting in July

While she does not know the spelling of some words, such as 'lady' and 'bush', she is pretty good at guessing, based on the pronunciation. And I have to admit that I had to look up 'raspberry' in a dictionary to find out how to spell it. (Why is there a 'p' in the middle?). Here is the second sheet.

Note that 'behind' and 'frightened' follow the pronunciation quite closely, even if they deviate from standard spelling. It is hardly surprising that she omits the slient 'gh' in 'frightened'.

One rule of phonics that she has not yet learned is that 'c' followed by 'e' or 'i' is always pronounced as /s/. No doubt she will learn this rule one day, and then she will no longer put a 'c' in 'basket'.

Here is the third sheet:

One other rule of phonics that she has not yet learned is that a short vowel, as in the first syllable of 'happened', needs to be followed by a doubled letter; on the basis of this rule, 'hapend' would be pronounced with /eɪ/ rather than /æ/. This is another rule that she will one day learn.

Here are the fourth and fifth sheets:

Overall, her spelling is pretty impressive, and she makes an excellent attempt to spell words that she does not know. At school, they are now taught phonics, and when she is reading, she is really good at sounding out words she has not seen before and guessing what they are. It seems that the teaching of phonics can be quite helpful in enabling children to read and write.

16 October 2016

Faux Amis - prestasi

Faux Amis ('false friends') are words that involve a shift in meaning after they have been borrowed from one language to another. Or, more technically, they are words that have the same etymological root but a different meaning in two languages. For example, in French, the word librarie means 'bookshop', not 'library', and abuser means 'take advantage of', not 'abuse'. It is easy to make mistakes as a result of faux amis when speaking a foreign language.

In Malay, I find concrete things not too different to handle. For example, it is quite easy to remember that bonet refers to the back of a car, not its front. However, I have more trouble with abstract concepts.

The word prestasi presumably comes from the English 'prestige'. However, it means 'achievement' rather than 'prestige'. I always stumble over it, even though it is quite a common word. For example, on page 13 of Media Permata of 15 October 2016, I had to pause when reading the paragraph that started:

Dengan prestasi yang semakin meningkat, ...

which might be glossed as:

With achievements that are constantly increasing, ...

15 October 2016

UBD Convocation

At the UBD Convocation yesterday, I was interested to hear how many English words occurred in the Sultan's titah, which you would expect to be entirely in Malay. I noted the following, though I am sure there were more: marketability, employability, life-long learning, knowledge-based society, relevance, professional and global. That is in addition to the following, which might all nowadays be regarded as words of Malay: program, ekonomi, institusi, inisiatif, graduan, identiti, kualiti and senat.

Are there no Malay equivalents for these terms? Although it is no doubt possible to express marketability in Malay, it's probably true that there is no easy equivalent; so use of the English word is more efficient.

Some people might decry the lack of indigenous words for these concepts; others might celebrate the flexibility of Malay that allows it to absorb words from other languages so easily. Anyway, perhaps marketability soon will be regarded as a word of Malay (in which case, presumably, it will be spelled with a final 'i').

05 October 2016

gramar and grampar

This is a picture drawn by my granddaughter, Elsie, aged 6.

Note how she spells Grandma and Grandpa. She is following the way she says the words quite accurately: she has a non-rhotic accent, so it is not surprising that she spells /ɑː/ at the end of both words as 'ar'. Secondly, she omits the /d/ in both words, and then the /n/ is next to a bilabial sound (/m/ or /p/), so it gets assimilated to [m].

Her spelling of these words shows quite a sophisticated ability to spell out words that she has probably never seen written. One day, she will no doubt learn the standard spelling. But, in the meantime, her ability to guess the spelling of words based on her pronunciation is quite impressive.

Goodness knows what happened to my hands; but she accurately shows that I don't have much hair!

10 September 2016

/æ/ vs /eɪ/

In my phonetics class yesterday, I asked my students to transcribe 'complicated'; and half of them used /æ/ instead of /eɪ/ in the third syllable. The fact that they cannot differentiate between /æ/ and /eɪ/ confirms that speakers of English in Brunei tend to merge the TRAP and FACE vowels.

Why should this be? It is quite different form Singapore, where people tend to have a close monophthong for the FACE vowel, and this vowel is quite distinct from the TRAP vowel. (The latter tends to be merged with DRESS, and both are pronounced as [ɛ].)

The first thing to notice is that there is a systematic link between /æ/ and /eɪ/ in English. For example, 'vane' has /eɪ/ while 'vanity' has /æ/, and the same is true for 'sane'/'sanity', 'profane'/'profanity', 'nation'/'national' and many other pairs of words. And it is not surprising if some speakers use the same vowel in both the base form of the word ('vane', 'sane', etc) and its derivative ('vanity', 'sanity', etc.). Furthermore, there are a few words in which there is variability: in both 'patent' and 'patriot', some speakers have /æ/ while others have /eɪ/.

However, this does not explain why there is a different pattern in Singapore and Brunei. And for this, we must consider the dominant indigenous languages.

Most Singaporeans are Chinese, so we would expect their English to be influenced by Chinese. Now, Chinese has lots of words with the /ei/ diphthong, such as 给 (gěi, 'give') and 黑 (hēi, 'black). However, there is no such diphthong in Malay. In Malay, /ai/ can occur at the end of words such as cukai 'tax' and sungai 'river' (though we can actually argue that these are monophthongs followed by an approximant; see here), but the /ei/ diphthong does not occur.

Then we might note what happens to English words with /eɪ/ when they are borrowed into Malay. In most cases, /a/ is used: radio, status, stadium, agensi and templat all have /a/ while the original English has /eɪ/ (though there are some exceptions: kek 'cake' and ejen 'agent' bother have /e/ rather than /a/).

Next, we might note that, according to my dictionary, 'plate' becomes plat in Malay (as in plat nombor), while 'plaque' becomes plak, so we can see that though the vowel is different in these two words in English, it is the same in Malay.

It seems that it is probably this influence from Malay, particularly the way that English words are borrowed into Malay, that influences the pronunciation of English in Brunei.

05 September 2016


I've previously mentioned the problem of adjectives and verbs ending in 'c'. If you want to add 'ed' or 'ing' to 'panic' or picnic', you need an extra 'k', so we get 'panicked' and 'picnicking'.

But what about words like 'chic'? What is its comparative form (meaning "more chic")? If you write 'chicer', it looks like the 'c' is pronounced as [s]; but 'chicker' is no good. So it is basically not possible to write the comparative of 'chic', even though the word can be said.

And if 'to mic' is a verb (meaning "to put a microphone on someone"), what is its progressive form? If someone is doing it to you, are they 'micing' you? Or maybe 'micking' you? Neither one works.

I just saw another example of this in a BBC report of a football game between Wales and Moldova. If 'arc' is a verb (meaning "to move in an arc"), what is its progressive form (or, in this case, its derived adjective)?

The BBC used 'arcing', but that does not work for me, as 'c' followed by 'i' must be pronounced as [s], not [k]. But what alternative is there? It seems that 'arcking' isn't quite right.

So there doesn't seem to be an easy solution. I guess the rule that 'c' followed by 'e' or 'i' is always pronounced as [s] now has a few exceptions.

31 August 2016


In the new Gadong Health Centre, the walls of the waiting rooms are decorated with pictures and advice on healthy eating, ways to protect your teeth, and various other things. All of it is in Malay, except 'tips' in this heading (which might be translated as 'tips for healthy teeth for your children'):

I'm not sure why the English words 'tips' is used when there is a perfectly good Malay word petua. I don't think there is anything specialist or unusual about petua, so it seems strange to use the English word instead.

25 August 2016


My Malay dictionary tells me that platform is a word in Malay. But how is it pronounced?

I have often heard it said with an initial /f/ by newsreaders of Nasional FM in Brunei. Why would this be? Surely we would expect an initial /p/?

There seem to be three reasons why it might be pronounced with initial /f/:

  • The is no /f/ in Brunei Malay, with the result that words with initial /f/ borrowed from English tend to have /p/ instead. For example, 'file' becomes pail, 'fine' becomes pain, 'fashion' becomes pisin, and 'football' becomes putbul. Similarly for words from Arabic: 'faham' ('understand') becomes paham, and 'fikir' ('think') becomes pikir. It is possible that the newsreaders are so keen to avoid this kind of substitution when they are reading the news in Standard Malay that they overgeneralise and use /f/ when /p/ is actually expected.
  • It is possible that the /f/ later in platform influences the pronunciation of the initial consonant; so there is a kind of long-distance assimilation between the consonants.
  • Maybe people think there is some element of 'flatness' in 'platform', so this encourages speakers to start the word with /f/.

I don't know which of these factors is key. Maybe all three contribute to the occurrence of /f/ at the start of the word.

19 July 2016


In a recent post, I discussed the lack of concern by Brunei newscasters about how they pronounce foreign names; and I had always been under the impression that the BBC took more care over it. After all, they have a pronunciation unit whose job it is to give advice over the issue.

Last night, I watched the BBC programme HARDtalk, in which Zainab Badawi was interviewing the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Mehmet Şimşek, and inevitably much of the discussion involved the President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan.

Throughout the programme, Zainab Badawi pronounced Erdogan as [ɜːdəʊɡæn], while Mehmet Şimşek pronounced it with no [ɡ], as is usual in Turkish - the 'g' is a silent letter.

So, why did Zainab Badawi persist on pronouncing it wrongly? Did she fail to notice that her pronunciation deviated so obviously from the native speaker? Or did she believe that the anglicised version of the name should have a [ɡ] in it, even if the Turkish pronunciation has no [ɡ]?

It seems that the BBC is not as careful about getting foreign names right as I believed.

06 July 2016


This is the directory of departments for the First Emporiurm Department Store in BSB. Luggages?

I would never use 'luggage' in the plural. For me, it's a mass noun.

But logically, there's no reason why it shouldn't be countable. So it is just like all those other logically countable things which are often counted in varieties of English such as that of Brunei: furniture, equipment, accommodation, information, and many more.

I suspect that 'luggages' will become standard in the not-too-distant future, and it will only be a few old-fashioned people like me that cling to the traditional form and insist that 'luggage' cannot be used in the plural.

05 July 2016


This is the headline from page M6 of the Media Permata of 4 July 2016:

Corak ringkas, warna pastel pilihan busana Hari Raya

which might be translated as:

Simple design, pastel colours (are) selections for Hari Raya clothes

I did not know the word busana. I looked it up in my Malay dictionary, and it was not there; and it was not in my Brunei Malay dictionary either. Eventually, I looked it up on the Internet and found that it is an Indonesian word for 'clothes'.

The Malay of Malaysia is generally used in Brunei. But I wonder how extensive the use of words from Indonesian is. Furthermore, I wonder how distinct Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia are. Are they merging? Or are they diverging? And how familiar are people in Malaysia with words such as busana from Indonesian?

My impression is that British and American English are merging. For example, most of the words for things involved with computers (mouse, hard disk, software, etc) are the same. In contrast, many words associated with cars (windscreen/windshield, gear lever/gear shift, bonnet/hood, etc) differ between British and American English. This is presumably because of the ease of international communication, and because of widespread access to films from both countries. But what about Malaysia and Indonesia? Are their languages also merging? That would be an interesting research topic.

03 July 2016

Foreign Names

The newsreaders at RTB (Radio Television Brunei) take great pride in pronouncing local names correctly. For example, it would be a major faux pas to mispronounce the name of anyone in the royal family; and the way they read the name of the Sultan (which is rather long) is impressive.

However, they take much less care over foreign names. In fact, it seems they can't be bothered to even try and get them right. Yesterday, on Nasional FM, I heard Francois Hollande called [fræŋko] (a better approximation would be [frɒnswɑː]); and this morning I heard Calais referred to as [kælaɪs] ([kæleɪ] would be better, or maybe [kɑːleɪ]). It is disappointing that RTB newsreaders don't look up the pronunciation of these words and try to get them reasonably accurate.

Mind you, if people in Britain can pronounce Paris with a final [s] (instead of the French [pɑːriː]), maybe people in Brunei putting an [s] on the end of Calais is no different. Perhaps you could say that foreign words are pronounced according to their spelling in Malay?

20 June 2016


In Brunei, initialisms are very common. Examples include UBD (Universiti Brunei Darussalam), BSB (Bandar Seri Begawan), and OGDC (Oil and Gas Discovery Centre).

One interesting phenomenon is when the initialism is for the English version, and the expansion is in Malay, as with this road sign for JIS (Jerudong International School):

On pages 6 to 8 of Media Permata of 14 June 2016, I found the following examples of the Malay name followed by the English initialism:

  • Pusat Perubatan Jerudong Park (JPMC)
  • pertubuhan-pertubuhan bukan kerajaan (NGOs)
  • Majlis Perniagaan Wanita (WBC)
  • tanggungjawab sosial korporat (CSR)

Sometimes it can be tricky to work out what the original English is, though I think I can get these four: Jerudong Park Medical Centre, Non-Government Organisations, Women's Business Council, and corporate social responsibility.

This phenomenon seems also to be common in Malaysia. The following examples are from page 11 of Media Permata of 11 June 2016. They are from the Malaysian Bernama news agency, and I assume that the wording is how it was written by Bernama:

  • Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kota Kinabalu (KKIA)
  • Program Penajaan Pendidikan Petronas (PESP)
  • Sistem Binaan Berindusti (IBS)

These stand for: Kota Kinabalu International Airport, Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme, and Industrial Building System, though this site claims the last one is actually Industrilised Building System.

31 May 2016


Last week, I was in Myanmar. This is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

Our guide told us that there is a large ruby at the top, and Myanmar produces the 'most rubies in the [wɔː]'. When she said this, I had an image of the Second World War cutting supplies from everywhere else, but somehow Burma (as it was then called) managed to continue producing them. It took me a while to realise she was saying 'most rubies in the world' – and indeed, Myanmar produces about 90% of the world's rubies (according to the Lonely Planet guide, page 272).

This use of [ɔː] for the NURSE vowel with words starting with 'wor' (as discussed in my previous blog) seems to be very common around the world. I wonder if it will become the standard pronunciation in World Englishes. Maybe it already is the standard, and people like me need to get used to it.

18 May 2016


Having been in Brunei for nearly nine years now, I like to think I have adjusted to the local pronunciation of English. However, I still get caught out sometimes.

Recently, I went to the Ong Sum Ping clinic in BSB for a medical check-up, and I was told that I needed to go to Piplo. At first, I thought this must be some other place in Brunei, and the lady had to repeat it a few times before I realised she was saying 'fifth floor'. Actually, I should have got that, as it is only the use of [p] instead of [f] – in this case, all three [f]s become [p]. (In addition, the final TH in 'fifth' is omitted; but this is hardly surprising, as the TH is surrounded by three other consonants, [f] before it and [fl] after it, so omission of the TH sound is not unexpected.)

Then, when I went to register for the check-up, the man at the counter asked 'Are you [wɔːkɪŋ]?'. I heard this as 'walking', so I said 'No, my car is outside' (perhaps they wanted to know if I kept fit by doing regular exercise). But when it was repeated with 'Are you at ITB', I realised he was saying 'working', not 'walking'. This misunderstanding is interesting, as it involves an instance of spelling pronunciation. Most words with 'or' are pronounced with [ɔː]: 'fort', 'port', 'sort', 'short', 'sport', 'fork', 'pork', 'stork', 'born', 'corn', 'torn', 'worn', 'sworn', 'cord', 'ford', 'sword' etc, and I can only think of five in which 'or' is pronounced as [ɜː]: 'word', 'worm', 'worse', 'world' and 'word'. (I'm not sure why they all involve 'w'.)

Given that 'or' is usually [ɔː], it is not too surprising that 'working' sometimes gets pronounced as [wɔːkɪŋ] rather than the expected [wɜːkɪŋ].

22 April 2016

Ambiguous Headlines

Sometimes, headlines can be really confusing. I just saw this headline on the Guardian online of Tuesday, 16 February, 2016. (Although it is two months old, there is a link to it from a current article.)

When I read it, I thought, "That's good. Donald Trump is supporting the Paris deal, and he is warning people that it should not be scrapped."

Unfortunately, that is not true. In fact, 'warned' is a passive verb, so the true meaning of the headline is, 'Donald Trump has been warned about the danger of scrapping the Paris climate deal'.

I wish that headline writers would think a bit more and make their headlines clearer. Or maybe they do it deliberately, to get us to read the article and find out what is going on.

20 April 2016

Labels on Trees

I recently went on a walk around Bukit Mentiri, and it is splendid to see that lots of the trees are labeled, not just with the scientific name but also often with the local names. For example, in the case below, the name of the tree is given in Kedayan and also Iban.

However, it is a pity that the labeling isn't a bit more accurate. Saurauia is a member of the family Actinidiaceae (See this Wikipedia page), not Fagaceae (it is not an oak tree).

07 April 2016

FIFA Rankings

The latest FIFA rankings for world football have been published, and Brunei Darussalam is ranked at No 195 (out of 210), a fall of 11 places since the last ranking:

It seems extraordinary that Brunei has such a low ranking, given the amount of money that is spent on supporting sport in the country.

Never mind. At least it is ranked higher than Tahiti and Papua New Guinea.

29 March 2016

Noun Phrases in Headlines

I've never understood why headline writers favour densely packed noun phrases. Take this one that I saw on the Guardian website today:

The trouble with this headline is that it is what we called a 'garden-path' sentence: when I first read it, I believed that 'Trump campaign manager' was the subject and 'questions' was the verb; but then you get to the end and find it doesn't make sense. So you have to start again, and then you realise that the subject is 'Trump campaign manager questions' and the verb is 'lead'. This seems to me really opaque.

It would be much better to express it as 'Questions about Trump campaign manager lead CNN town hall'. That is one more word, but it is so much easier to parse. So why don't headline writers do it? They seem to take perverse pleasure in creating headlines that are as hard to understand as possible. Why?

And do headline writers in Brunei do the same thing? Is there some international conspiracy among headline writers of English news stories to confuse the poor reader as often as possible? I'll need to look through the Borneo Bulletin and the Brunei Times to see if they do it. That would make rather a nice research project for someone: to compare the syntax of headlines in Brunei and international news stories.

11 March 2016


The pronunciation of words borrowed from English into Malay sometimes affects the way those words are pronounced in English by speakers of Malay. For example, Standard Malay has [t] at the start of teater, so it is not too surprising if 'theatre' is also pronounced with an initial [t]; and there is no [t] at the end of pos, so it is not surprising if 'post' is also pronounced with no final [t].

Today I saw this headline on page 3 the Media Pemata of 11 March, 2016:

It can be translated as 'Finding a way to resolve the issue of monopolies of the shares of cooperatives'.

Note that 'cooperative' is koperasi in Malay. The standard pronunciation of 'cooperative' is [kəʊˈɒpərətɪv], but Malay speakers are more likely to say it as [ˈkɒpərətɪv], with one fewer syllable. And it seems that 'cooperation' is similarly affected, with many speakers having [kɒp] at the start.

07 March 2016


This headline, from the Media Permata of 19 February, 2016, p.1, caught me out:

'Child dies in Fire'

When I read it, I assumed that kanak-kanak referred to the plural, as is usual in Malay reduplications: rumah-rumah 'houses'; orang-orang 'people'; barang-barang 'things'. But the article seems to indicate that there was only one child involved.

In fact, apparently, the singular kanak does not exist, so kanak-kanak can refer to a singular 'child'.

While reduplication in Malay does not always indicate the plural (e.g. membeli-belah 'go shopping'), in general there is some change with either the consonant or the vowel in the second word; kanak-kanak is the only non-plural reduplication of a noun with no such change that I have come across.

curhat, taska

I just learned two new words of Malay:

  • curhat, 'to pour your heart out': a blend of curah ('to pour out') + hati ('heart')
  • taska, 'kindergarten': a blend of taman ('park') + asuhan ('take care') + kanak-kanak ('children'). I'm not sure of the difference from tadika, which also means 'kindergarten'

It is interesting that both these blends involve the first part of words, as is the usual pattern for blends in Malay (e.g. cerpen 'short story' = cerita 'story' + pendek 'short'; tadika 'kindergarten' = taman 'park' + didik 'educate' + kanak-kanak 'children').

In contrast English uses the first part of one word plus the end of another (e.g. 'smog' = 'smoke' + 'fog'; 'infotainment' = 'information' + 'entertainment').

05 February 2016

Estet Industrial

This is a picture taken by James McLellan in Limbang, which he discussed in his recent FASS seminar. (For more details, see here.)

The second line is, of course, in Chinese. But what language is the first line in?

Both the words are English, but the spelling of the first word estet ('estate') is in Malay, and the word order, with the adjective occurring after the noun it modifies, is clearly Malay.

So, what language is it in? There seems to be no easy answer to this question.

18 January 2016

France Soldiers

There has for many years been a contrast between using an adjective premodifier for nationalities ('Spanish troops', 'Chinese territory') and the bare name of the country ('Singapore transport', 'Brunei English'). It seems that, for small countries such as Singapore and Brunei, we prefer the name of the country instead of an adjective ('Singaporean', 'Bruneian'), while for larger countries, we use the adjective ('Spanish' rather than 'Spain').

However, that seems to be undergoing change. Look at this headline from the BBC World page of today:

Note the use of 'France soldiers' rather than 'French soldiers', as I would expect.

I have seen this for football teams in the past ('the France team' rather than 'the French team'); but this usage seems now to be extended to other domains. I have no idea why.

17 January 2016


An authoritative book on English spelling, Upward and Davidson (2011, p. 235) states that 'bamboo' comes from the Malay word bambu. It is a bit ironic, then, that the modern Malay for bamboo is buluh; and my Collins Malay dictionary does not even list bambu.

If Malay already had a perfectly good word for bamboo, why did it adopt a new one? And where did buluh come from?

The WordSense.eu Dictionary suggests that buluh is an indigenous word originating from Proto-Malayic, so I guess there must once have been two terms for bamboo in Malay, though buluh seems to be the most commonly used nowadays.


Upward, C., & Davidson, G. (2011). The History of English Spelling. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

11 January 2016

4th Floor

As is well known, Chinese people have an aversion for number 4, as 'four' in Chinese sounds like 'death'. So what do hotels do about the 4th floor?

The usual solution is just to omit it. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Tainan. It goes from the 3rd floor to the 5th floor, and nobody has to stay on the 4th floor.

However, there is another solution. Here are the buttons in the lift of a hotel in Kaohsiung, where the 4th floor is re-labelled as A Floor.

The trouble with this is that not everyone understands it. I saw one couple enter the lift, look at their key, and then go back to the registration desk to ask what was meant by A floor. But it does mean that nobody has to stay on the 4th floor, even if finding your room might be a bit confusing!

01 January 2016


In my previous post, I suggested that use of 'gravida' to refer to pregnant women in a sign in Taiwan arose out of over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary. Here is another similar example, this one from the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung:

What on earth does 'caponizing' mean?

I have looked it up, and a 'capon' is a castrated rooster, so to 'caponize' is to castrate a rooster. (Apparently this makes the meat tastier.)

In this case (and unlike the 'gravida' example), you might say that the translation is accurate. But how many people know the word 'caponize'? The purpose of translation is to explain a text to people who cannot read the original, and it seems a pity to use obscure words that few people will understand, even if the usage might technically be regarded as accurate.

In this case, 'Rooster Castration Competition' might be better, though in fact it seems from the Chinese that the competition is about comparing castrated roosters, not competing to castrate them, so maybe 'Castrated Rooster Competition' would be more accurate.

Language in Taiwan

I just spent two weeks in the south of Taiwan, where there seems to be a genuine effort to encourage a range of languages. In the subway trains in Kaohsiung, station announcements are generally given in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese (Hokkien), Hakka, and English; and some announcements are also given in Japanese. Very impressive.

The English on signs is mostly intelligible, but it can sometimes be a bit unexpected. This is the sign on priority seats intended for the old and infirm:

Most of it is intelligible (though the grammar isn't too good). But 'gravida'? 孕婦 means 'pregnant woman'. So where does 'gravida' come from?. It is not a term I am familiar with, and it suggests a rather over-enthusiastic use of a dictionary.

In fact, I have just looked it up, and it is a medical term that refers to the number of pregnancies a woman has had; it does not mean 'pregnant woman' at all.

It is a bit surprising that the authorities can spend lots of money providing a translation for signs such as these and then printing them out for all the carriages in all their trains but not get someone to check the English.

Never mind. The attempt to make the subway system user-friendly for visitors is impressive.