Previously unknown language discovered in Malaysia

(Disponível em Português)


Its discoverers propose to call it Jedek. Only 280 people from a tiny village in the Malayan jungle speak it.

According to the latest figures of the Ethnologue, one of the reference catalogs of languages, 7,097 tongues are spoken today by people around the world. Of those, just about 6% have more than a million speakers, and 94% of the world’s population speaks one of those.

From time to time, languages previously unknown to the world at large pop up. This has now been the case with Jedek. Jedek was discovered by two linguists from the University of Lund, Sweden, and is spoken by a community of 280 people in a village in northern Peninsular Malaysia. Their first analysis of its specificities, which took several years, was announced by their university this February, having been published in the journal Linguistic Typology a few months earlier.

For years, Niclas Burenhult has been studying another language – Jahai – spoken by the jahai people, around a thousand individuals, who live in the mountainous regions of the tropical jungle, in the province of Kelantan, at the border between Malaysia and Thailand.

Furthering the study of Jahai, Burenhult and his doctoral student Joanne Yager were carrying out a linguistic survey of several villages in that area. And as they visited the settlement of Sungai Rual, they noticed that part of the villagers there, who are hunters-gatherers, used a language different from Jahai.

“We realised that a large part of the village spoke a different language”, says Yager in the university’s statement. “They used words, phonemes and grammatical structures that are not used in Jahai”.

This was surprising, since the village was already known to other scientists. “Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists”, says Burenhult. “As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed.”

The villagers referred to this different language as “Jdɛk”, the authors explain in their paper (the symbol ɛ stands for “e” pronounced as in “head”). The name is of unknown origin – but, they add, it might be derived from the name of an extinct group “that had once lived on the Jedok river, a tributary of the Thailand-Malaysia border river Golok”. Whatever the case, Burenhult and Yager propose the term Jdɛk, romanized as Jedek, “as the scientific label for the object of our linguistic inquiry”.

Jedek, as all languages, reflects the way of life of those who speak it: for example, it has no words to denote ownership (like buy or sell), but possesses a rich vocabulary of words for exchanging and sharing.

“There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human”, says Burenhult. “We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.”



Ana Gerschenfeld works as a Science Writer at the Science Communication Office at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme


Loading Likes...