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).

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.