09 December 2021


For me, 'hostel' is pronounced [ˈhɒstəl], with [ə] in the second syllable; but in Australia, I hear it usually pronounced as [ˈhɒstel], with [e] in the second syllable. I don't know if this is common throughout the world, or if it only occurs in Australia. Anyway, it is similar to the pronunciation of words such as 'polygon' (which I discussed ealier) which also nowadays have a full vowel rather than a schwa in the final syllable.

In this case, the pronunciation of 'hostel' is becoming more similar to 'hotel' (apart from the [s]), which of course is a cognate with 'hostel'. I believe this is unusual, as words that are cognate but have distinct meanings, such as 'guardian' and 'warden' and also 'skirt' and 'shirt', tend to develop distinct pronunciations'.

29 November 2021


Recently, we have heard a lot about the omicron strain of Covid. So, how should one pronounce 'omicron'?

Between the ages of 9 and 13, I learned Greek. I didn't learn very much, but one thing I did learn was the Greek alphabet, and 'omicron' was pronounced as [əʊˈmaɪkrɒn], with the stress on the second syllable. However, now I always hear it pronounced as [ˈɒmɪkrɒn], with stress on the first syllable and the first vowel as [ɒ] rather than [əʊ].

I just checked in The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd Edition, J. C. Wells, 2008), where my pronunciation [əʊˈmaɪkrɒn] is listed as the preferred one but [ˈɒmɪkrɒn] is given as an alternative. Furthermore, it seems that stress on the first syllable is the only possibility in American English, and that might explain why it is the pronunciation that is winning out.

I guess I'll have to learn to say [ˈɒmɪkrɒn], just like everyone else. Or I could obstinately retain my original pronunciation, to show my erudite knowledge of Greek. The trouble with that is that most people would probably just hear it as wrong and not pick up on my attempt to demonstrate of a profound knowledge of classical languages.

Leaving Brunei

I haven't posted on ths blog for over a year now, as I retired from UBD in September 2020 and left Brunei in December. Since then I have been living in Melbourne. However, my links with Brunei will continue, as I retain a position as a Visiting Professor at UBD (though how much "visiting" will actually take place is still questionable, with this Covid situation).

In fact, it turns out that retirement is a relative concept, as I still do stuff. I miss the teaching, though I don't miss the grading of exams and student assignments, and I am also grateful not to have to attend meetings. I still write stuff and read lots, so maybe I will continue to post things once in a while, though only some of the topics will be about Brunei.

The thing I miss the most is the forest; so here's a picture taken in Tasek Lama to remind me of that.


13 June 2020

from birth

Yesterday, during our early morning walk, we encountered a Filipina lady, and my wife asked her how come she is always smiling. She replied 'From birth', with [t] at the end of 'birth'. My wife did not understand and asked for clarification, but the Filipina just repeated it the same way. Then my wife changed the subject. She later told me that she had heard 'bird' instead of 'birth', and she was confused about the idea of learning to smile from watching birds.

It has often been claimed that replacement of dental fricatives is not problematic in international Englishes, as so many people replace voiceless TH with [t], [s] or [f] that listeners have become accustomed to it. But this is a counter-example, where use of [t] in place of /θ/ did result in the loss of intelligibility.

20 May 2020


How do you pronounce erat ('close')? Is it [erat] or [ərat]? The pronunciation of most words in Malay is predictable from their spelling; but it is often not possible to determine if 'e' is pronounced as [e] or as [ə].

I have asked lots of people, and nearly everyone says [erat]. However, it appears that the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literature Bureau) stipulates that it should be [ərat]. But then we have an issue: if nearly everyone says [erat], on what basis does the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka insist that it should be [ərat]?

The situation for Malay is similar to that for French, for which the Académie Française stipulates what is right and what is wrong. In contrast, for English, we allow popular choice to determine norms: if most people say a word in a certain way, then that is how it is said. And sometimes there is not a single "correct" way of saying a word.

For example, 'ate' can be pronounced as [et] or as [eɪt], and the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells, 2008, p. 54) reports that 55% of people in Britain prefer the former while 45% prefer the latter. In other words, there is no single standard pronunciation, and either [et] or [eɪt] is acceptable.

But it seems that Malay and French work don't work like this, and instead they look towards an authority to stipulate what is correct.

26 April 2020


I was just watching a documentary made in Singapore by Goh Chiew Tong, a journalist with CNA, talking about food donated to old people.

In it, she says the word 'ration' often, and she always pronounces it as [reɪʃən] instead of the expected [ræʃən]. For example, listen here to her say 'from cooked food to dry rations'.

In the past, it has been suggested that DRESS and TRAP get merged in Singapore English (so 'pen' and 'pan' sound the same). But here it is suggested that FACE and TRAP are merged (so 'pane' and 'pan' would sound the same).

This merging of FACE and TRAP has been suggested for Brunei English, where 'safety' often has an open vowel, so it is pronounced as [sæfti]. But this may be different in Singapore, as TRAP has a close vowel rather than FACE having an open vowel.

One possibility is that 'ration' as [reɪʃən] is an instance of spelling pronunciation. The rules of phonics suggest that 'a' is pronounced as [eɪ] when it occurs before a single consonant in the middle of a word; and note that 'nation', 'station' and 'patience' all have [eɪ] not [æ] in their first syllable. So maybe this pronunciation of 'ration' in Singapore is just following the rules, by analogy with 'nation' and 'station' and thereby eliminating the idiosyncratic pronunciation of 'ration'. We might also note that 'rate' has [eɪ], so 'ration' with [æ] really is unexpected. Maybe one day we'll all be saying 'ration' as [reɪʃən].

20 April 2020

Penjarak(k)an Sosial

A few days ago, I discussed the Malay for 'social distancing'. Apparently, it is penjarakan sosial.

Unfortunately, penjarakan is ambiguous. The root could be jarak ('distant'), in which case penjarakan means 'distance'; or the root could be penjara ('jail'), in which case penjarakan means 'to imprison'. It is really unfortunate that the word for social distancing also means to imprison society!

In Brunei (and maybe elsewhere?), they have resolved this by using the term penjarakkan sosial. Now, you could say this is an error, as you cannot add the suffix -kan to the adjective jarak. But at least it avoids the ambiguity of penjarakan.

15 April 2020

Hat Trick

I have done lots of work on misunderstandings involving World Englishes; but we should remember that people in the UK and USA misunderstand each other as well.

Seth Myers (an American) was talking to John Oliver (from England) about the problems of recording his weekly show from home, and John Oliver says he has managed to record three shows successfully. This is how the conversation proceeds:

SM : well, three out of three is very er impressive
JM : that's right, it's a hat-trick
SM : yeah, you've done a hundred

Even though John Oliver holds up three fingers to illustrate that 'hat-trick' means three successes in a row, Seth Myers hears it as 'hundred'. The reasons for this are that 'hat-trick' is a British idiom, and also because they were talking together at the time.

Here is a link to the YouTube video.

08 April 2020


How do you say 'polygon'? Traditionally it was [ˈpɒlɪgən] in British English. But increasingly, according to Lindsay (2019), it is becoming [ˈpɒlɪgɒn], with a full vowel in the final syllable rather than a schwa. Why is this change taking place?

The first factor affecting its pronunciation is spelling pronunciation: 'o' gets pronounced as [ɒ]. But in this case, there is another factor: American pronunciation. In America, there was always a full vowel in the final syllable, so it was [ˈpɑːlɪgɑːn]. So the change in British pronunciation reflects American influence.

Traditionally, in British English, speakers were averse to having a secondary stress after the primary, so 'secondary' was [ˈsekəndərɪ], with three unstressed final syllables, and similarly 'secretary' was [ˈsekrətərɪ]. In fact, there could even be four unstressed final syllables, as in 'voluntarily' [ˈvɒləntərəlɪ] and 'necessarily' [ˈnesəsərəlɪ].

But American English does not have this constraint, so these words have a secondary stress (or at least a full vowel) in the third syllable: [ˈsekənˌderɪ], [ˈsekrəˌterɪ], etc. And this pattern seems to be becoming more common in British pronunciation as well.

So perhaps the change in the pronunciation of 'polygon' (also 'pentagon' and 'hexagon') reflects the growing influence of American English and is not just spelling pronunciation.

As with 'mosquito', which I discussed in my previous post, I am pretty sure that all my Brunei students have a full vowel in the third syllable of these words, so in this respect Brunei English is more progressive in the ways English is changing than British English.

06 April 2020


How do you say 'mosquito'? According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, the most common pronunciation is [məˈskiːtəʊ]; but an alternative is [mɒˈskiːtəʊ], with a full vowel rather than a schwa in the first syllable.

According to Lindsay (2019), the second variant, with a full vowel in the first syllable, is becoming more common. Indeed, he claims that this is an instance of spelling pronunciation, something that is becoming increasingly widespread in the pronunciation of English.

My guess is that none of my students in Brunei has [ə] in the first syllable of this word, and they all have a full vowel [ɒ]. This is one of the many ways that the pronunciation of English in Brunei is following international trends, or maybe it is at the forefront of developments.

I will discuss some more instances of spelling pronunciation in modern English in my next post.


Lindsay, G. (2019). English after RP. Palgrave Macmillan.

03 April 2020


How do you pronounce 'vaccine'? I have always pronounced it as [ˈvæksiːn], with stress on the first syllable; but today I heard an interview with Bill Gates, and he pronounces it as [vækˈsiːn], with stress on the second syllable.

I thought maybe this was idiosyncratic. But surely this must be a word he hears really often, given the work of his foundation on infectious diseases. So I looked it up in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (LPD), which shows [ˈvæksiːn] as British and [vækˈsiːn] as American. Furthermore, it adds the symbol (*) to show that the difference is "unpredictable and striking" (LPD, p. xxxv). Well, you learn something every day.

In connection with the word 'vaccine', did you know it comes from the Latin for 'cow'? This is because the original vaccine was for smallpox, as the way to prevent people from catching smallpox is to give them cowpox, a much less serious disease that gives you immunity from smallpox.

Social Distancing

What's the Malay for 'social distancing'?

This morning, I was listening to a speech (mostly) in Malay by a government minister during the 7:00 RTB news broadcast, and the Malay for 'social distancing' seems to be – 'social distancing'. (Or Maybe sosyal distansing?).

Maybe this concept is hard to express in Malay? Perhaps the concept of social distancing is alien to Malay culture? Or maybe it's just a new concept that does not yet have a term in Malay.

10 February 2020

whilst / amongst / ought

In my class this morning, I was talking about language change and how some words that once were common are now rarely used; and I suggested that whilst and amongst are now archaic.

I know that many Bruneians use them quite often; but given that they mean the same as while and among, I see no reason to use whilst and amongst if there are perfectly good alternatives which nobody regards as archaic. So I always recommend to my students that they avoid whilst and amongst.

My students then suggested that ought is similarly archaic, and on reflection, I suspect they might be right; I think I use should and almost never use ought, so maybe I should recommend to students that they similarly avoid use of ought.

To investigate this further, we can consult the COCA corpus, and we find the following figures:

  • between 1990 and 1994, there were 7,674 tokens of ought
  • between 2015 and 2019, there were 2,519 tokens of ought
  • between 1990 and 1994, there were 82,752 tokens of should
  • between 2015 and 2019, there were 74,585 tokens of should

This confirms that the incidence of ought has substantially declined in the past 25 years, while the incidence of should has changed very little. In other words, ought is, indeed, becoming less common, though it is still sometimes used, so perhaps calling it archaic is too strong.

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to do similar comparisons for whilst and amongst in recent data.

28 December 2019

bad news

I find it incredibly depressing how the mainstream media always focus on bad news. Take the headline from a Guardian report dated 28 December 2019:

Now, let's look at the first paragraph of this report:

This year saw the highest number of mass killings on record, database records show, with 41 incidents claiming 211 lives in 2019 even as the overall US homicide rated dropped.

So, the overall homicide rate fell, but the number of mass killings rose. Why, then, does the news report focus on the latter and not on the former? Why not analyse some of the reasons for the overall reduction in the homicide rate, considering some of the cities where this is most evident and what policies have achieved this? Why does the report select one negative statistic and discuss that in length and largely ignore the overall positive trend?

Why are we told about an outbreak of Ebola in Eastern Congo but not told about how it is now being resolve? Why do we learn about a famine in Ethiopia but never hear that it is now over? Why are we constantly being told about bush fires in Australia, but none of the news sources will tell us when they have been controlled?

I find the sensationalist, unbalanced reporting of all media outlets really disturbing.

18 December 2019


I have recently been watching the BBC series Civilisation, produced and narrated by Kenneth Clark in 1969; and some of his pronunciation is quite surprising.

He has a raised /æ/ vowel (the TRAP vowel), and he also has a voiceless sound at the start of 'what' and 'which' (so 'which; and 'witch' would be distinguished); but both these are expected for an RP speaker of his generation.

However, some other words are more unexpected, and I wonder if they are idiosyncrasies of his pronunciation. For example, he pronounces 'capitalism' with stress on the second syllable: 'caPITalism', which sounds very strange. (Listen here).

I've just checked in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed., 2008, p. 123), and this variant is listed as one possibility, so maybe Kenneth Clark was not so idiosyncratic after all. But I've never heard it as 'caPITalism' before, and it took me a moment to understand it.

06 December 2019

What did he say?

There is a fascinating example concerning speech perception arising from a speech by Boris Johnson during the current general election in the UK. According to the subtitle provided by Channel 4, he says:

I'm in favour of having people of colour coming to this country

But, did he really say that? In fact, he claims that he said:

I'm in favour of having people of talent coming to this country

Is that correct? You can listen to the extract here.

25 November 2019


I have been doing some work on the pronunciation of Kedayan. (See here for more details.)

One of the most salient features of Kedayan is the absence of any /r/ sound, in contrast with the other indigenous languages of Brunei, all of which have some kind of /r/ sound. As a result, rendah ('low') in Standard Malay is andah in Kedayan, and roti ('bread') is uti. (Like Brunei Malay, Kedayan only has three vowels: /i, a, u/.)

In the recording on which the analysis is based, in the phrase Si Angin Utaa pun ('the North Wind, in contrast'), we find Standard Malay utara ('north') pronounced as [utaa], as expected, with no /r/ sound:

However, in the phrase kuat dai kadia ('stronger than the other'), we unexpectedly find dai ('from', 'than') pronounced as [daɾi], with a medial tapped /r/ sound:

One possibility is that the speaker is influenced by Brunei Malay, which has a salient /r/ sound initially, medially and finally. One then wonders: how extensively spoken nowadays is pure Kedayan, uninfluenced by the other indigenous languages of Brunei?