Unknown Language Discovered in Malaysia

About 280 people north of the Malay Peninsula speak the language, which is called Jedek

Jedek speakers
Jedek speakers Niclas Burenhult

Researchers have cataloged close to 7,000 distinct human languages on Earth, per Linguistic Society of America's latest count. That may seem like a pretty exhaustive list, but it hasn't stopped anthropologists and linguists from continuing to encounter new languages, like one recently discovered in a village in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

According to a press release, researchers from Lund University in Sweden discovered the language during a project called Tongues of the Semang. The documentation effort in villages of the ethnic Semang people was intended to collect data on their languages, which belong to an Austoasiatic language family called Aslian. While researchers were studying a language called Jahai in one village, they came to understand that not everyone there was speaking it. “We realized that a large part of the village spoke a different language. They used words, phonemes and grammatical structures that are not used in Jahai,” says Joanne Yager, lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Linguist Typology. “Some of these words suggested a link with other Aslian languages spoken far away in other parts of the Malay Peninsula.”

About 280 people speak the language, which is called Jedek. According to Camila Domonoske at NPR, the cluster of Jedek speakers are part of a community of hunter-gatherers that once lived along the Pergau river but were resettled in northern Malaysia.

Yager explains in an interview with Domonoske that what made this language find so remarkable is that no one knew to look for it. While anthropologists have previously studied the village where Jedek is spoken, they did not notice or record the language. "[W]e didn't know that it existed at all. Most languages that are undescribed and undocumented, we know that they exist,” Yager says. 

One of the reasons it went unnoticed in the past might be because there is not formal name for the new tongue. The researchers decided to dub it Jedek based on commonly used terms in the language.

According to the press release, the new language is reflective of the culture of the society which uses it. There are no words for ownership like stealing, buying or selling but there is a complex vocabulary about sharing and exchanging. That's because there is very little violence in the village, competition between children is discouraged and there are no laws, courts or professions. Instead, all people are expected to have the same skills needed for hunter-gatherers.

Jedek isn’t the only language discovered in recent years. In 2013, researchers found 800 people in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh speaking an unknown Tibeto-Burman language called Koro. Also in 2013, linguists in Australia found that 350 residents in the isolated town of Lajamanu spoke a language they call Light Warlpiri, a mix of English and two local dialects. That language is a recent evolution and most of the speakers are under the age of 40, meaning that it developed in recent decades as workers in the community were exposed to more and more English while working on ranches, bringing new words home to teach to their families.

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