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.