01 June 2018


I love this cartoon:

At UBD, we have no teaching between mid-May and the start of August; and that is the time I can get most done.

I think I will show this cartoon to all students who are thinking of doing research, and I will ask them: do you look forward to the vacation as a time when you can get more research done? If not, you should not embark on research.

I also wonder how many students at UBD use the vacation as a time to prepare for their modules next semester. My guess is: not many. I almost never have undergraduates come and see me to ask what they should read over the vacation to prepare for next semester. In which case they should not be aspiring to continue with research.

31 May 2018


The Wikipedia page on Kedayan (here) claims it is "the de facto national language of Brunei", which is rather startling, as most people in Brunei consider themselves to be speakers of Brunei Malay.

In addition, the Wikipedia page claims that there are 530,000 people living in Brunei, which seems a bit excessive. A more reliable estimate of the population (here) is about 433,000 at the end of May 2018.

I guess Wikipedia is not always accurate!

23 May 2018

More than 5 hours

Here's a paragraph from page 1 of the Media Permata of 23 May, 2018:

Najib, yang juga Anggota Parlimen Pekan, mengesahkan perkara itu selepas hadir memberi keterangan lebih lima jam di ibu pejabat SPRM di sini, hari ini. Beliau berkata proces merekod keterangan hari ini mangambil masa antara 10 pagi hingga 2:15 petang.

which migh be tranlated as:

Najib, who is also the Member of Parliament for Pekan, confirmed this issue after being present to give evidence for more than five hours at the head office of SPRM here today. He said the process of recording the evidence today lasted from 10 in the morning till 2:15 in the afternoon.

Are all journalists innumerate? You don't need a higher degree in mathematics to see that 10:00 am to 2:15 pm is not more than 5 hours. So why do they print that?

06 May 2018

Blending in English and Malay

I have always claimed that blends in English tend to combine the first half of one word with the second half of another: 'smog' = smoke + fog; 'motel' = motor + hotel; 'infotainment' = information + entertainment. In contrast, those in Malay tend to combine the first half of successive words: cerpen ('short story') = cerita + pendek; tadika ('kindergarten') = taman + didik + kanak.

However, I recently came across some English blends that combine the first half of two words:

  • pixel = picture + element
  • biopic = biography + picture
  • sysop = system operator

So, maybe English is not so different from Malay after all.

05 May 2018

The Wording of a Titah

I was just listening to a Titah (speech) by HM Sultan of Brunei to celebrate Brunei's 34th National Day. What is splendid about this titah is that the full speech is available on Youtube (here) and also in written form from the Prime Minister's Office (here). This means I can listen to it and then check anything I don't understand from the written version.

It is also interesting to see where they deviate. At location 2 min 2 sec into the recording, HM says:

Oleh itu dalam apa pun keadaan, kita mestilah berusaha ...
(Because of this, in whatever situation, we must make an effort ...)

but the official text has:

Oleh itu dalam apa jua keadaan, kita mestilah berusaha ...

I wonder what this difference between pun and jua signifies.


The Malay promoted in Brunei is based on that of Malaysia; but being close to Indonesia, it may be influenced by Bahasa Indonesia to a certain extent. It is therefore interesting to note differences between Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia.

I was recently listening to the on-line edition of Berita Satu (an Indonesian Channel), and I was momentarily caught out by investasi ('investment'). This is partly lexical, as Bahasa Malaysia would use the indigenous word pelaburan; but it is also phonological, as the 'v' was actually pronounced as [f] (so I initially heard it as 'infestation').

Although words with word-final /v/ in English usually have [f] in Bahasa Malaysia (e.g. negatif, naif, ...), word-initial and word-medial 'v' from English is more often retained (e.g. visa). Compare aktif (in which word-final /v/ becomes [f]) with aktiviti (in which medial /v/ is retained). However, it seems that /v/ is always pronounced as [f] in Indonesian.

23 April 2018

page 41 of 40

I was recently asked to review a paper for a journal, and the final page of the PDF document has the header 'Page 41 of 40', which is a bit bewildering!

Further investigation shows that the front page is numbered 0, so I guess that explains it. But still, I find 'Page 41 of 40' rather strange!

18 April 2018


Originally, Malay had no /f/, so /f/ only occurs in borrowed words such as faham ('understand') and fikir ('think') from Arabic and filem ('film') and fesyen ('fashion') from English. However, there seems to be some over-generalisation in borrowed words, so I have regularly heard platform spoken with an initial /f/, even though my dictionary shows it as a Malay word with the same spelling as in English, so one would expect an initial /p/.

Yesterday, on the Nasional FM radio station, I heard [terafi], and it took me a while to work out that it was 'therapy'; and my PhD student, Nur Raihan Mohamad, says that she has seen it spelled as 'theraphy' on social media. I wonder if /f/ might become established as standard pronunciation for words such as this with a /p/ in English.

17 February 2018


'Schadenfreude' is one of my favourite words of English. It means: pleasure gained from the misery of others. Like that feeling you get when you set an impossibly difficult exam and watch the faces of your students when they read it.

It comes from German, literally meaning 'harm-joy'. But it has been used in English for at least a hundred years now.

The equivalent in Chinese is 幸灾乐祸. But what about Malay? Does Malay not have a word for this? Do Malays really never experience this kind of joy?

13 February 2018

Hot Food

I went out with my daughter for a meal, and I asked, "Is your food hot?", to which she replied, "Oh, I love spicy food."

Then I said, "No, I meant temperature hot, not spicy hot."

The word 'hot' in English has two distinct meanings: temperature hot, and spicy hot; and while we can easily specify the second one ("is your food spicy?"), we have no easy way to state the first. Saying, "Is your food temperature hot?" is not English, but I can't think of anything better.

I find it bizarre when languages have gaps like this, and there are concepts that we simply cannot express.

04 November 2017


Autoantonyms are words with two directly opposite meanings. For example, 'sanction' is an autoantonym, because it can mean "to support" or "to condemn".

Another word in this category is 'left': it can mean "departed" ('The man left') or it can mean "stayed" ('There's only one man left'). In fact, this can give rise to potentially ambiguous utterances with two directly contradictory meanings. For example:

There's only one man who's left.

which could mean one man departed or one man stayed behind. This is because 's' could be the weak form of 'has' or of 'is'.

Interestingly, this confusion is unlikely to occur in somewhere like Brunei, in which the weak worm of 'has' almost never occurs. Sometimes avoiding weak forms can help in maintaining intelligibility and avoiding misunderstandings.

08 October 2017

preceding / following

Something I find very difficult to understand is why Bruneians so often confuse 'preceding' and 'following'. For example:

  • in the phrase 'one hot afternoon', a student said she uttered [f] in 'hot' because of the 'f' in the preceding word; but the 'f' is in the following word, not the preceding word;
  • in the phrase 'my same mother', a student claimed that 'same mother' was followed by 'my'

I can't find any reason to explain this confusion.

07 October 2017

majority, would

I am currently reading written assignments by my students, and I regularly come across features of their writing such as the following:

  • 'majority' with no preceding article: 'Majority of the participants are Malays.' (In my language, I would include 'a' or 'the' before 'majority'.)
  • 'would' to indicate generalised future: 'The description would be based on acoustic analysis.' (For me, 'would' indicates something hypothetical, so no acoustic analysis was actually done. I would have to use 'will' in this sentence.)

Given that these features of writing seem to be normal in Brunei English, should I leave them? Or should I correct them?

I tend to correct them, on the basis that my students need to develop standard usage for their future careers. But I acknowledge that this is inconsistent with a World Englishes perspective, in which we accept regional variation.

My own approach is that I tolerate, even celebrate, variation in pronunciation, but written English should conform to international standards. But I am not sure that this viewpoint is really tenable. I suspect that use of 'would' as a variant of 'will' is becoming the norm throughout the world, and it is only a few traditionalists like me who insist that 'would' indicates something hypothetical.

16 August 2017

Word length in Malay and English

Words tend to be longer in Malay than in English. This is partly because English has lots of short words, like 'a', 'of', 'to', and 'by', while Malay has fewer. The only common two-letter words in Malay are ke ('to') and di ('at'). At the same time, Malay has more prefixes and suffixes than English, so Malay words can be quite long.

The claim that Malay has longer words than English can easily be checked by comparing two similar texts. Here, I compare the words in the North Wind and the Sun text with its Malay equivalent, Angin Utahar dan Matahari (see here). The average word length in the Malay text is 6.64 letters, while the average word length in the English text is 4.22 letters, and this difference is highly significant (t=7.48, df=189, p<0.0001). A chart showing the distribution of the word lengths is shown here:

From this, we can see that while two- and three-letter words are common in English, they are rare in Malay. In contrast, there are lots of Malay words with 6, 7 and 8 letters, but few in English.

31 July 2017


In English, blends are usually formed from the first half of one word and the second half of another. For example:

  • smog : smoke + fog
  • motel : motor + hotel
  • edutainment : education + entertainment

In contrast, in Malay blends tend to be the first half of two words, or sometimes three. For example:

  • cerpen ('short story') : cerita + pendek
  • tadika ('kindergarten') : taman + didik + kanak

However, I just learned one that seems to follow the English pattern, not the usual Malay pattern, though maybe it only exists in Indonesia:

  • tongsis ('selfie stick') : tongkat + narsis (lit. 'a narcisist stick')

I wonder if this use of the second part of 'narsis' is influenced by the fact that this word comes from English? Or maybe Indonesian word formation works differently from that of Malay.

09 July 2017


In Malay, nearly all roots are bisyllabic. There are a few exceptions; but monosyllabic roots tend to add an extra syllable when there is a prefix, empasising the bisyllabic expectation for roots. For example:

  • cap ('stamp') becomes mengecap ('to stamp'), not *mencap
  • cat ('paint') becomes pengecat ('painter'), not *pencat
  • sah ('valid') becomes mengesahkan ('to confirm'), not *menyahkan

Note that baik ('good') and laut ('sea') are bisyllabic, so there is no need for this extra syllable:

  • baik ('good') becomes membaiki ('to improve'), not *mengebaiki
  • laut ('sea') becomes pelaut ('sailor'), not *pengelaut

However, I have no explanation why tahu ('to know') becomes mengetahui ('to know') rather than the expected *menahui. Why is the extra syllable added? Perhaps there is a feeling that tahu is monosyllabic, as the /h/ is weak (or sometimes omitted).