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.

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.