When I first travelled to Riau province in Indonesia, all I knew about the region was what I had read in one place or another. The population was reported to be mostly ethnically Malay: for example, the Routledge atlas paints the entire province in a solid homogeneous yellow, standing for Malay. And the local dialect, together with that of the neighbouring Malaysian province of Johor, was reputed to be that which formed the basis for the standardization of Malay/Indonesian, the so-called "Johor-Riau Malay".
Once in Riau, I had trouble reconciling what I had read with what my own ears and eyes were telling me. To begin, the ethnic Malays appeared to constitute only a relatively small minority of the population; well over half were Minangkabau, and in addition there were Batak, Bugis, Javanese and many other ethnic groups. In addition, what everybody was speaking was not only very different from Standard Indonesian, it was also very different from Riau Malay, to the extent that it was not possible to obtain any explicit descriptions of that particular dialect. After some time, I found some regions which were predominantly Malay, and indeed, what the Malays spoke among themselves was, more or less, some variety of Riau Malay. But everybody else was speaking something quite different. And in fact, even the Malays, quite often, would switch back and forth between their own dialect of Malay and this other language variety. But what WAS this other language variety, that was not Standard Indonesian, nor Riau Malay?
The research activities included:
- grammatical studies of Riau Indonesian
- Identification and description of the Malayic language varieties spoken in Riau province:
- Mainstream varieties of Malay and Minangkabau
- Non-mainstream varieties: Orang Sakai, Orang Asli, Orang Akit, Orang Laut
- Outsider varieties
- Exploration of the prehistory of Sumatra:
- Comparative linguistics
- Genetics (collecting DNA samples)