An exclusive club—the estimated 6,000 different languages still spoken Earth—has a new member. Researchers from Lund University in Sweden have discovered a previously unknown language spoken by a hunter-gatherer community in northern Malaysia.
A team led by Joanne Yager, a doctoral student in linguistics at Lund University, was documenting Aslian idioms, a group of languages spoken by the indigenous Semang people of the Malay Peninsula. As the researchers were gathering data on Jahai, one of the Aslian languages, they found that they were hearing something different and distinct. “We realized that a large part of the village spoke a different language,” Yager said in a press release. “They used words, phonemes, and grammatical structures that are not used in Jahai. Some of these words suggested a link with other Aslian languages spoken far away, in other parts of the Malay Peninsula.”
The new language has been dubbed Jedek, and it is spoken by just 280 people in a single village. It is particularly interesting that the language was not discovered among an isolated tribe, but rather in a village that had been studied before by anthropologists, according to Niclas Burenhult, a linguist at Lund University. “As linguists,” he said, “we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed.”
The complex ways that society and language shape each other has long been debated among scholars. In this case, Yager and her colleagues believe that Jedek reflects the way of life of its speakers. For example, they live in a communal society, and they lack words for ownership or professional occupations. By contrast, they draw from a “rich vocabulary” to express concepts such as exchanging and sharing. The society is more gender-equal than Western cultures, and children are actively taught to avoid competition.
“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,” Burenhult added. “We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.”