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).

31 May 2017


I have previously had a debate with John Wells over the pronunciation of the vowel in the first syllable of words such as 'albatross' and 'balcony'. For me, these words have /ʌ/, so the vowel is the same as in 'bulk' or the first syllable of 'vulgar'; but all dictionaries, including the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, show the vowel as /æ/.

I have always claimed that this is a sound change in progress, but that nobody has yet documented it. After all, it is not surprising if the voal becomes more back before a dark /l/ — the same process happened to the vowel in words such as 'walk' and 'calm'.

However, now I am not so sure. Yesterday, I was reading a book to my 9-year-old grandson, Oliver, and the book included the name 'Alfie'. After a while, Oliver said, "Grandpa, it's /ælfi/ not /ʌlfi/."

So, maybe I am wrong. If even my 9-year-old grandson corrects me, perhaps I have just got it wrong!

20 May 2017

Written Brunei English

Brunei Malay is almost never written (though that now may be changing with the widespread use of Brunei Malay in social media — perhaps it now might be emerging as a written language?).

However, sometimes words of Brunei Malay do appear in the newspaper. On page M2 of the Media Permata of 20 May, 2017, in an article about the traditions of Kampong Ayer, I found the following six words that are not listed in my Malay Dictionary, and I had to refer to a Brunei Malay dictionary to find out what they mean:

  • sira ('salt')
  • indung ('mother')
  • berselawat ('read a prayer')
  • gubang ('kind of boat')
  • celapa ('box for betel nut or tobacco')
  • memburis ('build (a boat)')

The first three are actually included in the online Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu (PRPM) site (here), so perhaps they are known in standard Malay.

However, in PRPM sira is glossed as gula ('sugar') rather than garam ('salt'), so maybe it is a different word. Furthermore, I am not sure if there is a difference between sira and garam in Brunei Malay — maybe sira is some special kind of salt used for ceremonial purposes?

The third word is actually shown as bersalawat in my Brunei Malay dictionary and it is glossed as berselawat, so perhaps the absence of berselawat from my Standard Malay dictionary is an oversight of that dictionary.

Actually, celapa is listed as calapa in the Brunei Malay dictionary, and I can't find celapa anywhere. Perhaps [ə] is becoming acceptable in the initial unstressed syllables of Brunei Malay words.

While the status of some of these words as idiosyncratic of Brunei Malay might be questioned, some of them certainly do reflect local usage; and while inclusion of a few words of Brunei Malay in an article on local traditions is not really written Brunei Malay, and certainly there is no hint of adopting Brunei Malay syntax in the article, the use of these words represents an encouraging attempt to preserve traditional language.

18 May 2017


In my two previous posts, I have been discussing my experiences in Pekanbaru, where I was a guest of Universitas Islam Riau last week. After my presentation on the Friday, my hosts very kindly arranged a visit to the scenic town of Siak, about a two hour drive away.

About 20 of us set off in a bus and it was about 12:30 by the time we got there, so of course the men had to go to the mosque. That was fine, and I just sat outside and read a book while eating the packed lunch they had provided. After the end of the service, and after the Imam and all his assistants had come to meet me and have their pictures taken with me, we set off for the Istana (palace). But it turned out that the Mayor wanted to meet us. So first we had to trek off to the Mayor's Office.

Now, I imagined we would just go in, he would shake my hand, say 'welcome to Siak', and then we would be off. But nothing is ever that simple in Indonesia. We were shown into a lecture theatre, and I was informed that I would be expected to give a speech!

Eventually the Mayor turned up, and after the prayers and readings from the Quran, the Dean of Arts gave a speech, I gave a speech, and then the Mayor gave a speech which lasted 20 minutes or more. I didn't understand it all, but I think it was about their efforts to boost tourism to Siak.

Finally, we did set off for the Istana, which turned out to be quite pretty and interesting.

Apparently, it was built in 1889, but the last Sultan (who died in 1949) donated it to the newly emerging Republic of Indonesia in 1945, and it has been a museum since then.

The trip was memorable, and I am grateful for the generosity of my hosts from the university. I enjoyed the Istana, but I haven't quite worked out what the visit to the Mayor's Office achieved. I guess they do things differently in Indonesia.

16 May 2017

ISELLA Conference

On the second day of my visit to Pekanbaru, I was a keynote speaker at the ISELLA 2017 conference (International Seminar on Education, Language, Literature and Art) organised by Universitas Islam Riau. Some of the ways this conference proceeded were quite surprising to me, though I guess people who have attended lots of conferences in Indonesia would not find them unusual.

Inevitably, the conference began with plenty of ceremony: a prayer, a reading from the Quran, a dance, welcoming speeches by the Director and various Deans and so forth. In this photo, the dancer on the left is holding a casket from which she offered something to eat to each of the speakers:

And here is the Director of the university giving his welcome speech:

What really surprised me was that, while the various people were giving their speeches, virtually nobody was even pretending to pay attention:

People were chatting, or reading messages on their mobile phones, maybe even playing games on their phones, and a few were sleeping, but none of it seemed to matter.

So, was anyone listening to me when I gave my presentation? I doubt it.

Maybe that is how people do things in Indonesia. The speaker is like a television screen in the corner of your living room, and family life goes on with people sometimes looking at the screen but mostly chatting, eating, or whatever. Perhaps that is quite healthy: people in Indonesia are very sociable, and they enjoy chatting and eating with friends, so in a conference the speech or presentation taking place at the front is largely irrelevant.

It is bit like traditional street opera I have seen in Taiwan: you go there, chat to your friends, eat melon seeds and chicken feet, sometimes watch a bit of the show, and come and go as you please; but the idea of people keeping quiet and listening in rapt attention to the opera is quite alien.

I found it rather disconcerting to give a presentation that nobody was listening to; but none of the other presenters seemed too worried.


Last week, I was in Kotabaru, the capital city of Riau Province on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. I was invited as a keynote speaker at a conference organised by Universitas Islam Riau.

I don't usually take selfies — I don't understand why people go to a beautiful place and then take a photo of themselves. Why not just take a picture of the beautiful place? But anyway, here is a (sort of) selfie of me.

Actually, in Indonesia, people seem obsessed with taking photos of themselves. At the end of my lecture, every single student from the audience wanted to have a photo taken with me. Fortunately, they did it in groups of 10 or 15, but even so there were quite a few photos!

Goodness knows what happens to all those photos. Anyway, I was a guest there, so if they all want to take photos with me, that's fine.

19 April 2017

Car Registrations

New car registrations in Brunei begin with BA, and then the next letter increases by one every six months. So we had BAP, BAQ, BAR ...

However, they skip a few in the sequence, for various reasons. For example, BAI was skipped. I always assumed that this was because it sounds like 'pig' in Brunei Malay, and nobody would want to buy a car that had 'pig' as its registration; but my colleague tells me it is because the 'I' could be confused with 1. I'll need to check that -- on that basis, presumably BAO was also skipped, because the O could be confused with 0. I'll keep an eye out to see if there are any BAO registrations

Anyway, I always assumed that they would skip BAU, as it means 'smelly' in Malay. But it seems I was wrong:

11 April 2017

Ugama Schools

In my previous two posts, I have been discussing material from a paper on English as a Medium of Instruction that I have recently published, together with my PhD student, Ishamina Athirah. (For the full paper, see here.)

In addition to analysing numbers of students taking English- and Malay-medium degrees at UBD, we presented data on code-switching by Bruneian speakers, particularly instances of code-switching that resulted in misunderstandings occurring. For example, consider the following example, in which a female from the Maldives (FMd) is talking to a female from Brunei (FBr):

FMd: what are what are the subjects ah they study
FBr: in ugama school?
FMd: ah yeah yeah
FBr: erm ah they
FMd: you mean government?
FBr: gov- in the government will be like erm how do you say ah? e:rm (.) i'm not really familiar but what i know is like they're teaching you (.) civics

FBr uses the term 'ugama school' (= religious school), but FMd does not understand it, and she hears 'government school' instead. In fact, FBr then continues to talk about government schools, apparently unaware that a misunderstanding has occurred.

On the whole, Brunei speakers are adept at avoiding switching into Malay when their interlocutor is from elsewhere; but there are a few examples such as this in the data where code-switching causes a misunderstanding.

10 April 2017

Medium of Instructon

In the paper I discussed in my previous post, we investigated the medium of instruction at UBD, which is supposed to be a bilingual university. Using the graduation figures for 2006 and 2014, we analysed how things have changed. And these are the results for the medium of instruction of the major of graduating students in those two years:

These figures show that, while 33.5% of students graduated in a Malay-medium major in 2006, only 17.6% of those in 2014 did, which suggests that English as a medium of instruction is becoming increasingly dominant at UBD.

Although the figures for Malay-medium degrees such as Bahasa Melayu dan Linguistik and Kesusasteraan Melayu offered by FASS have increased from 25 to 70, this increase is more than overshadowed by the loss of students of education in SHBIE taking Malay-medium degrees. Indeed, the number of those taking English-medium degrees in Arts (FASS), Science (FOS) and Business (SBE) show a massive increase.

For the full paper, see here: download paper.