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Jahai is an Aslian language ( Mon-Khmer; Austro-Asiatic) spoken by around 1,000 hunter-gatherers in the mountainous areas of the Malay Peninsula. Jahai speakers form the largest ethnic group of a cluster of peninsular hunter-gatherer populations referred to generically as Semang. Characteristic features of the language include a rich system of vowel phonemes, a complex system of word formation involving processes of derivational affixation and reduplication, and a rich set pronominal and demonstrative distinctions. The basic word order is SVO. Jahai has an elaborate lexicon of smell words which have been described in the paper: “Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language”. Smell also features prominently in Jahai culture too, as described in “Olfaction in Aslian ideology and language”.

Selected Publications

  • Burenhult, N. (2005). A grammar of Jahai. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Burenhult, N., & Majid, A. (2011). Olfaction in Aslian ideology and language. The Senses & Society, 6, 19-29.
  • Majid, A. (2013). Olfactory language and cognition. In M. Knauff, M. Pauen, N. Sebanz, & I. Wachsmuth (Eds.), Proceedings of the 35th annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2013) (pp. 68). Austin,TX: Cognitive Science Society.
  • Majid, A., & Burenhult, N. (2014). Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Cognition, 130, 266–270
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