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].