28 October 2009

Brunei Malay Dictionary

I recently managed to buy a Brunei Malay dictionary (shown on the right) from the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in BSB. It is Brunei Malay to Standard Malay, which in many ways is quite helpful as it aims to show the differences between these two varieties of Malay.

There are quite a lot of issues in this dictionary about how to represent Brunei Malay, and I will comment on these in later blogs. For the moment I would just like to say that it is a splendid resource, something I really treasure.

22 October 2009


In English, count nouns refer to things that are countable, such as books and pens, while mass nouns refer to uncountable things, like coffee or sugar. In Standard English, furniture, luggage, advice, and research are all mass nouns.

The purpose of the phrase piece of is to allow us to count a mass noun, so we can say "a piece of furniture", "two pieces of luggage", etc.

However, look at the sign on the right in a Brunei supermarket. Note that piece is being used to refer to apples, even though apple is normally a count noun. In Standard English, we would say "ten apples", not *"ten pieces of apple" (unless we are referring to sliced fruit).

Two changes seem to be happening in New Varieties of English, such as that of Brunei:
  • logically countable things, like furniture and luggage, are being treated as count nouns
  • piece can be used together with a count noun such as apple
Both these changes are extremely common in New Varieties of English, for example in Singapore as well as Brunei. It is not clear if they will become acceptable as part of standard World English in the future, but this seems quite likely, as, in reality, treating furniture and luggage as mass nouns is not very logical when it is perfectly easy to count them. Furthermore, I think everyone can understand the sign shown above perfectly easily, even if it is not (yet) completely grammatical in Standard English.

21 October 2009


In my blog of 29 September, I discussed the neutralisation of /i,e/ and also /u,o/ in closed final syllables in Malay (i.e. syllables with a final consonant), which is why kampung and kampong are alternative spellings for the Malay word for 'village'.

It seems, though, that /r/ does not count as a final consonant for this rule, so telur ('egg') is not the same as telor ('accent').

The distinction between 'u' and 'o' is not always maintained in writing in Brunei, however, as it gets influenced by the three-vowel system of Brunei Malay: /i, a, u/.

On page 2 of the Media Permata of 20 October 2009, I found mention of telor masin ('salty accent' ???). I guess local readers would not be confused by this, as they would immediately read it as telur masin ('salty eggs'). But it is rather confusing for a learner like me.

In fact, there are rather a lot of unexpected words in this newspaper. On the same page, there is mention of Persingan Global, and it took me a while to figure out that Persingan is a typo for Persaingan ('competition'). Trying to learn Malay in Brunei really can be frustrating at times!

08 October 2009


We usually describe morphemes such as dis-, un- and in- as prefixes: they cannot occur on their own as they are only found attached to stems. So we have trust becoming distrust, lock becoming unlock, and complete becoming incomplete. Because they can occur on their own, trust, lock and complete are called free morphemes, while prefixes such as dis-, un- and in- are described as bound morphemes.

However, what about words like disgust, unfurl and inept? They seem to have the same prefixes; but gust, furl and ept don't seem to exist as free morphemes. For example, we don't usually praise someone by saying, "You are ept". This is why gust, furl and ept are sometimes called bound stems.

However, sometimes their status can change; and it seems that nowadays some people can indeed talk about "furling an umbrella". Ludwig Tan has just sent me this photograph promoting a hair salon in Singapore:
Note that kempt is usually regarded as a bound stem, as although unkempt is quite common, we do not generally find the word without its un- prefix.

However, this writer is pushing the boundaries of language (something that marketing people often do). I am pretty sure this is deliberate and not a mistake, and it is indeed an effective way of getting attention. This is the kind of way that language evolves and new words emerge. Of course, it happens all the time in all societies, and this is a fine example of how English in Singapore is contributing to the evolution of the language. In fact, it is possible that new varieties of English, such as those of Singapore and Brunei, are hastening the changes, by developing new modes of expression, introducing new words, and generally extending the boundaries of how we can use the language.