KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 8 — Swedish linguists have discovered a language which is only spoken by some 280 people in a resettlement area in northern Malaysia.
According to a National Public Radio (NPR) report, the language, now dubbed “Jedek”, had not previously been recognised outside of its small group of speakers.
The discovery was made by linguists from Lund University who stumbled upon the new language while studying the Jahai language in the same region.
The university’s Associate Professor of General Linguistics Niclas Burenhult, who was the first researcher to record the language, said: “Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, as you would perhaps imagine, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists
“As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed,” she said in a statement.
Doctoral student Joanne Yager, who spent four years studying the language, said it is possible that the language took so long to be identified because the speakers did not have a specific name for it.
“One possible reason the language went undetected for so long is that the formerly nomadic people who spoke it didn’t have a single consistent name for it,” she told NPR, adding the name Jedek comes from one of several terms the speakers use.
Research by Yager and Burenhult was published in the latest issue of Linguistic Typology and publicly announced by Lund University on Tuesday.
Yager noted that Jedek’s characteristic is interesting because the words have little in common with immediate languages around it but the words are familiar to linguists from languages “spoken farther away, like in other parts of Malaysia and southern Thailand.”
She added, however, Jedek does not seem to be threatened by extinction, unlike other minority languages.
“It’s always been quite a small language ... because the groups have been small and quite mobile.
“Children still learn the language, which is really great for the future prognosis of the language,” she said.
This is not the first time in recent history that a new language has been identified. In 2013, researchers at the University of Hawai’i announced that they had identified an indigenous sign language, dating back to the 1800s, that is separate from American Sign Language.
Yager said it is important to spend time digging into little-known languages and documenting the diversity.
“For many languages, researchers know that they exist and roughly where they’re spoken — but nothing more than that and that’s a real shame.
“There are all these amazing different ways of being ... a human that speaks language, that we’re basically missing right now,” she said.