Linguists discover previously unidentified language in Malaysia

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Linguists working in the Malay Peninsula have identified a language, now called Jedek, that had not previously been recognized outside of the small group of people who speak it.

The newly documented language is spoken by some 280 people, part of a community that once foraged along the Pergau River. The Jedek speakers now live in resettlement area in northern Malaysia.

Jedek was recognized as a unique language by Swedish linguists from Lund University, who ran across the new language while studying the Jahai language in the same region.

“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,” Niclas Burenhult, associate professor of general linguistics and the first researcher to record the language, said in a statement released by the university. “As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed.”

Doctoral student Joanne Yager spent four years doing intensive fieldwork and studying the language.

“There are so many undocumented, undescribed languages that nobody has worked with,” Yager told NPR. “But the difference here is … we didn’t know that it existed at all. Most languages that are undescribed and undocumented, we know that they exist.”

One possible reason the language went undetected for so long, she says, is that the formerly nomadic people who spoke it didn’t have a single consistent name for it. (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.

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