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.