The Discovery of Jedek, An Unknown Language Discovered in Southeast Asia

Per Linguistic Society of America’s latest count, there are about 7,000 distinct human languages on Earth, with more becoming extinct everyday. In an effort to preserve as much cultural knowledge of our world’s linguistic heritage, there are many efforts to document endangered languages, like DoBES‘ Tongues of Semang project. The Tongues of Semang project aims to specifically study Aslian a family of languages in a much large group of Austroasiatic languages of the Malay Peninsula.

In a small Malaysian village, some residents speak a language that linguists had never before identified. It has now been documented, under the name Jedek, by Swedish researchers. Niclas Burenhult/Lund University
In a small Malaysian village, some residents speak a language that linguists had never before identified. It has now been documented, under the name Jedek, by Swedish researchers. Niclas Burenhult/Lund University

While studying the Jahai speakers, Joanne Yager, a linguistic doctoral candidate discovered that a large part of the village used different words, phonemes and grammatical structures that are not used in Jahai. She lead the study in Linguist Typology, which outlines the discovery of this previously unknown language now known as Jedek.

Curiously, From NPR, about 280 people speak the language. Jedek speakers are thought to be part of a community of hunter-gatherers that once lived along the Pergau river but were resettled in northern Malaysia, and some of words they speak have similarity with other Aslian languages spoken far away in other parts of the Malay Peninsula. Here is an example of the language being spoken.

There are many curiosities in this language, some that obviously shape cultural norms. For example, the language was unknown to anthropologists despite the Jahai language being known very well, because there was no formal name for Jedek. It wasn’t until Yager spent more time with Jahai speakers that she realized Jedek speakers were speaking a different language. Furthermore, 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.

This is all very exciting but Jedek isn’t the only language discovered in recent years. In  the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh about 800 speakers of an unknown Tibeto-Burman language called Koro, were found in 2013.  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. This 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. About 80% of the world’s population speak one of the major world languages, while approximately 20% speak one lesser known languages, and half of the world’s languages will be extinct 100 years from now.

3 thoughts on “The Discovery of Jedek, An Unknown Language Discovered in Southeast Asia

  1. Greetings Kambiz Kamrani…….

    My name is Charles Coryn, and I graduated in Anthropology in 1965 from UC Berkeley, California, where I had the pleasure of studying under Dr. Laura Nader and others. Since then I’ve never worked in the field of anthropology, but I try to stay current.

    To my point….. If you could be so kind as to remark upon the following ideas I’ve been carrying around, hopefully it might put my mind, and perhaps some others, to rest.

    Bluntly stated, the ordinary people I know are mostly completely ignorant of anthropology, and about half of them do not acknowledge either the theories nor the facts of evolution. The reason why, I’ve concluded, is because we are all brainwashed from birth by parents, teachers and preachers to believe a current religious doctrine, regardless of it’s veracity. Many cannot accept any alternative explanation for human behavior other than that which their religious indoctrination will permit them…….. from birth…… from mothers and fathers whom they trust completely. Doctrines such as a ‘god’ created the world, etc., etc. Yes, as did the thousands of other gods and goddesses ‘created’ throughout our past……. As Robert G. Ingersoll put it so succinctly, “There is no antidote for religion mixed with mother’s milk.”

    I applaud your efforts to spread the word regarding anthropology. Religion has served it’s purpose throughout the eons, as the glue that holds a culture together, but today we are at a significant point where the truth, reality, can be known using a scientific method that all might agree upon. Can be known, and should be known……..

    Again, thanks for all your work and effort…….

    Charles Coryn, Lancing, Tn.

  2. Genomic structure of the native inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia and North Borneo suggests complex human population history in Southeast Asia
    Chee‑Wei Yew et al.

    Southeast Asia (SEA) is enriched with a complex history of peopling. Malaysia, which is located at the crossroads of SEA, has been recognized as one of the hubs for early human migration. To unravel the genomic complexity of the native inhabitants of Malaysia, we sequenced 12 samples from 3 indigenous populations from Peninsular Malaysia and 4 native populations from North Borneo to a high coverage of 28–37×. We showed that the Negritos from Peninsular Malaysia shared a common ancestor with the East Asians, but exhibited some level of gene flow from South Asia, while the North Borneo populations exhibited closer genetic affinity towards East Asians than the Malays. The analysis of time of divergence suggested that ancestors of Negrito were the earliest settlers in the Malay Peninsula, whom first separated from the Papuans ~ 50–33 thousand years ago (kya), followed by East Asian (~ 40–15 kya), while the divergence time frame between North Borneo and East Asia populations predates the Austronesian expansion period implies a possible pre-Neolithic colonization. Substantial Neanderthal ancestry was confirmed in our genomes, as was observed in other East Asians. However, no significant difference was observed, in terms of the proportion of Denisovan gene flow into these native inhabitants from Malaysia. Judging from the similar amount of introgression in the Southeast Asians and East Asians, our findings suggest that the Denisovan gene flow may have occurred before the divergence of these populations and that the shared similarities are likely an ancestral component.

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