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').