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Review of  Malaysian English

Reviewer: Steffen Schaub
Book Title: Malaysian English
Book Author: Siew Imm Tan
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.4634

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


‘Malaysian English: Language Contact and Change’ by Siew Imm Tan is Volume 98 in the ‘Duisburg Papers on Research in Language and Culture’, a series of monographs and edited volumes dedicated to providing a platform for interdisciplinary research on the connection between language and culture. The volume’s main objective is to uncover changes to the lexical and structural inventory of Malaysian English (ME) induced by contact with other languages spoken in Malaysia. It argues that the dynamic multilingual situation found in Malaysia triggers complex processes of contact-induced changes to the linguistic system of ME. The book includes six chapters and four appendices, as well as two indices. The first two chapters set the scene for the corpus study and provide historical background. Chapters 3 to 5 describe the methodology and results of the study. Chapter 6 goes beyond the corpus and presents a theoretical model of contact-induced change in ME (with the intent to be more generally applicable to other postcolonial Englishes).

Chapter 1, ‘English in Malaysia’, sets the scene for the corpus study presented in chapters 3 to 5. In the first part of chapter 1, the current role of English in Malaysia is assessed in light of national-language movements and political debates. The author argues that although English has been removed as the official language, a consequence of the 1967 National Language Act, “[it] remains a vital element of the linguistic landscape of Malaysia” (3). This is in part due to the role of English in Malaysia’s educational policy, which, however, is subject to ongoing change. The second part of the chapter is a critical discussion of previous research on ME, in which Tan points out potential benefits of a contact-linguistic approach to the study of postcolonial Englishes.

Chapter 2, ‘The Historical Background of Malaysian English’, is a concise summary of the linguistic and cultural history of Malaysia. It draws the picture of a linguistically diverse region, in which intensive contact between Malay, Chinese, Tamil and other languages had been commonplace long before the arrival of the English language. It is this “hybridity of the languages” which has fostered the emergence of, and continues to shape, “a localized variety of English that reflects the influences of the diverse cultures and languages of its speakers” (38).

Chapter 3, ‘The Malaysian English Newspaper Corpus’, describes the compilation of the database (henceforth: MEN corpus). The author chose to analyze newspaper language because the bulk of information on ME is based on the basilectal variety and because little is known about codified Malaysian English. She argues that newspapers are “a rich source of institutionalized lexical and morphosyntactic adaptations [...] [which] have become entrenched in the linguistic system of ME as a result of widespread use” (39). Two newspapers, the New Straits Times and The Star, were selected due to their daily publication rhythm and wide coverage in terms of topics. As further criteria, the articles selected for the MEN corpus had to be written by Malaysians, and had to be predominantly in prose. In order to widen the range of topics, articles were never taken from both newspaper editions of the same day. With this procedure, the final corpus size of approximately 5 million words (2.5 for each newspaper) is reached using a six-month period of publication.

Chapter 4, 'Lexical Borrowing and Lexical Creation', presents the results of a lexical analysis of the MEN corpus. It is a survey of loans and creations from Malay and Chinese, in Tan’s opinion the two main influences on ME. At the outset of the chapter, we find a brief discussion of the concepts of lexical borrowing and lexical creation, in which two criteria found in earlier definitions are called into question: One, borrowing does not only take place in strictly monolingual communities that are in contact with a single external language, and two, those individuals borrowing the terms need not be native speakers of the external language. The resulting (broad) working definition defines the different types of lexical borrowing and creation based on Haugen (1950) with some adaptations by Winford (2003). Tan argues that there is little phonemic alternation of the imported loanwords, as most speakers are bilingual and thus proficient in both languages. Also, loanwords often change their semantic range during the importation process: “Malay words do not always retain their original meanings in the process of being imported into ME” (75). The examples discussed throughout the chapter showcase the complexity of lexical borrowing in Malaysian English and make it obvious that the exact origin of a borrowed lexical item is not always easily ascertained. The contact-intensive multilingual situation which has been in place in Malaysia for centuries has led to borrowings being transferred across several languages. For instance, the word ‘ikan bilis stock’ (‘stock made by boiling dried anchovies in water’) is “a lexical item that is modelled on an existing Chinese term but whose form is a hybrid comprising a Malay loanword and an English word” (87). With regard to creations, Tan finds that the majority of neologisms “appear to be motivated by the need to express a local object or concept using English words” (93). Among the examples presented as evidence we find words such as ‘paddler’ (‘table-tennis player’) and ‘steamboat’ (‘a pot of simmering broth with small pieces of seafood’). An important conclusion of the lexical survey is that borrowings and creations differ with regard to their attitudinal meanings: While borrowings, especially loanwords, signal group identity and solidarity with the local cultures, lexical creations, especially those consisting of only English morphemes, enhance communicative efficiency with an international audience. Both borrowing and creation are considered the linguistic outcomes of language maintenance of English by a multilingual community.

In chapter 5, ‘Group second language acquisition’, the focus is directed towards syntactic and lexical features of ME that are frequently interpreted by language purists as results of imperfect learning of English. In an attempt to bridge the paradigm gap between second language acquisition (SLA) theory and World Englishes research, Tan chooses to make use of the group SLA framework developed by Winford (2003), which considers innovative features as socioculturally motivated choices made by a bi- and multilingual community, rather than errors, “a sign of incomplete mastery” (102), made by an individual speaker. In this framework, SLA features are manifested through “the continuing use of the second language in a sociolinguistic milieu” resulting in “a common set of localized norms that sets the contact variety apart from native-speaker varieties” (104). The discussion focuses on two syntactic types of variation, noun reclassification and multi-verb constructions, and one lexical type of variation, namely cases of semantic modification. Her analysis involves a two-fold strategy: One, identifying instances of variation and mapping them to analogous constructions in the local languages, and two, investigating the sociocultural factors that underlie the variation.

In chapter 6, ‘A Theoretical Model of Contact-Induced Change in Malaysian English’, Tan argues that SLA theory fails to account for a large number of features found in New Englishes in general, and in ME in particular. She proposes a model that unites the two processes discussed in the preceding chapters, “the communal acquisition of the former colonial language, and the maintenance of the language by a multiethnic, multilingual community” (134). Both processes, while related, differ fundamentally with regard to their linguistic outcomes, intent and motivations, agentivity, and historical and social settings. For instance, the linguistic outcomes differ with regard to the explicitness of their origin: While outcomes of language maintenance, such as the introduction of lexical borrowings and lexical creations into a continuously maintained language (like English), are overt influences of the substrate languages, the outcomes of group SLA, such as syntactic changes, are less obviously the result of language contact. Another difference lies in the agentivity of the features: In language maintenance, the agents are usually English-dominant individuals, whereas they are typically speakers of local languages in group SLA. The chapter closes with an outlook on future research possibilities, such as the application of the model to other postcolonial Englishes, and investigating the influence of other local languages (such as Tamil).


This book is a compelling study of contact-induced changes in Malaysian English which contributes to our understanding of the relationship between language and culture in contact-intensive multilingual communities. Tan identifies various types of lexical and structural changes to the linguistic system of Malaysian English induced by contact to Malay and Chinese. One of the fundamental contributions of the book lies in the detailed discussions of individual examples taken from the MEN corpus, which demonstrate the complexity underlying the contact process.

Especially the appendices are a considerable enrichment to the text proper, as they include two lists of lexical items borrowed in ME, one for each of the two major influential languages (Malay, and Chinese). Furthermore, they include two more lists of neologisms, one based entirely on English morphemes, the other including hybrid creations. Each lexical entry comes with its etymological origin (i.e. the lexical item in the source language), a description of its meaning in ME, and at least one example sentence from the MEN corpus. All in all, the appendices contain about 270 lexical entries.

A further contribution offered by the book is the model of contact-induced change presented in chapter 6, which, although based on ME, has great potential for application to other postcolonial Englishes. The integration of contact-linguistic theory in the study of New Englishes is desirable, and the framework provided here facilitates the study of Englishes in contact-intensive multilingual situations.

Although the core of the book is a corpus study, the text contains only indirect information on how frequent the features are in the overall corpus. With regard to lexical items, for instance, we are provided with the type list, i.e. the ca. 270 borrowings and creations identified in the corpus. However, the token frequencies of these lexical items are not indicated, and so it is difficult to ascertain whether a certain lexical item is used commonly, or very rarely, in the news texts. The same can be said about noun reclassification, one of the two types of syntactic variation discussed in the book. In a comparative study, Hall et al. (2013) find that the phenomenon of noun reclassification, despite its prominence in the World Englishes literature, is highly infrequent overall, and “there is little evidence [...] that countable usage is emerging as a new norm across or within [Outer Circle] or [Expanding Circle] varieties” (18). Nevertheless, although their importance in everyday use may be debatable, both phenomena - lexical innovations and noun reclassification - serve as examples of the kinds of contact-induced change which the author set out to find. Apart from the issue of frequency, there is also little indication of the pervasiveness of the features under investigation. Although it is indicated that the lexical and structural adaptations found in ME are “unevenly distributed across the various domains of language use” (53), this point is not taken up again in the in-depth discussion. It would have been desirable to show how the features distribute across the various text types encountered in the newspaper corpus.

Overall, the study is an important addition to Malaysian English studies, and exemplifies how contact-induced changes can be accounted for in postcolonial Englishes. The book will be of interest to scholars of varieties of English, particularly those focusing on Southeast Asia. More generally, the book is of relevance to contact linguistics as well as scholars working at the intersection of language and culture.


Hall, Christopher J. Daniel Schmidtke and Jamie Vickers. 2013. Countability in World Englishes. World Englishes 32(1). 1–22.

Haugen, Einar. 1950. The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing. Language 26(2). 210-231.

Winford, Donald. 2003. An introduction to contact linguistics (Language in Society 33). Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Pub.
Steffen Schaub is a Research Assistant in the Department of English Linguistics at Philipps University of Marburg, Germany. He holds a degree in English Linguistics, Linguistic Engineering and American Studies, and is currently working on his PhD thesis on noun phrase variation in New Englishes. His research interests include variation in World Englishes, English as a global language, corpus linguistics and language typology.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783631637005
Pages: 241
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