Jahai: A world of smells

by on June 13, 2016

Take a sniff of the air around you.

Try and take in every fragrance, every smell, all the odours you can—the stale, cold plastic of the computer keys, the dense, heady whiff of your hand sanitiser, perhaps the warm, pungent air of the street or the station platform, redolent with ozone, and gasoline, and a hundred other unknown fragrances.

Now name them.

Name them as you would colours—blue, and green, and red, and yellow. Musty purple, and tangy orange, and sharp, stimulating pink, and airy, fusty gray. Spicy saffron and tepid teal. Is there a way to name the smells, to categorise them, the way we do with colours, tastes, and sounds?

Not in English, no. The best we can do is “pungent”, or “fragrant”, or “smelly”—yet there are undoubtedly many layers of olfactory nuance that these English words just cannot capture. What if I resort to simile and metaphor? Even if I say, “the cat smells like it sat in the rain for four hours and dried off in the hot sun for three more after”, that still doesn’t tell you anything about how the cat actually smells, since we do not share a similar understanding or mental idea of what “smells like it sat in the rain for four hours and dried off in the hot sun for three more after”. Whereas if I tell you “the cat is brown”, you immediately know what brown looks like; barring colour blindness and other such deficiencies, you and I very likely share a common perceptual understanding of what brown means. We in English thus cannot mentally categorise odour the way we can categorise several other things like colour.

But in another language, a language such as Jahai, you can.

What is Jahai and where did it come from?

Jahai is one of the Aslian languages, a group of twenty or so languages spoken on the Malayan Peninsula by the indigenous people, the Orang Asli. It is spoken by an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 people in and around the watershed of the mountain range known as the northern Titiwangsa Mountains in Malaysia, in the states of Perak and Kelantan, and known as the southern Sankalakhiri Mountains in Thailand, in Yala and Narathiwat provinces (Burenhult, 2005, p. 1; Kruspe, Burenhult, & Wnuk, 2014, p. 420).

Jahai, like all Aslian languages, is primarily an oral language—it has never had a standardised script, nor have its speakers ever felt the need to have one or keep written records. Thus, much of what we know about Jahai’s history today is conjectural, based on complex methods like historical linguistic phylogenetic analysis (a comparative study of how languages evolve based on sources like their vocabulary); nonetheless, thanks to this and sources from British and Malaysian documents, we can re-construct the historical development of Jahai and its speakers with at least some certainty, especially in the last two hundred years.

Like all Aslian languages, Jahai is distantly related to Khmer, Vietnamese, and a number of other languages that together constitute the Austroasiatic language family, one of the principal language families of Asia, and indeed one of the oldest. As linguists Michael Dunn, Nicole Kruspe, and Niclas Burenhult have found, after the original proto-Aslian language split around 2000 BCE into its three Northern, Central, and Southern branches, Jahai itself probably split from its closest sister languages Batek Deq, Batek Teq, Batek Teh, and Menriq around 1400 CE (Dunn, Kruspe, & Burenhult, 2013, p. 393). A likely reason for this latter split (and the latter splits that subsequently gave rise to Jahai’s sister languages) is straightforward: like many of their northern Aslian counterparts, the Jahai people were once hunter-gatherers who did not stay in a single place, but rather moved from location to location, foraging for new food and resources (Burenhult, 2005, p. 1). It is thus entirely possible that two groups of proto-Jahai-Menriq speakers simply went their separate ways one day, and with little or no contact between them, their language then developed into separate varieties.

The rise of the Malay kingdoms on the Peninsula meant that there was increasing contact between Jahai (and other Orang Asli) and Malays, despite the former’s nomadic existence and the latter’s more settlement-based way of life. At first, this contact was largely peaceful, with sustained trade between both groups. Unfortunately, Aslian communities became prime targets for slave raids starting from the 18th century, a practice justified by the idea that the Aslian peoples were kaffir, which today in Arabic means someone who is non-Muslim, but at the time also carried the idea that that someone was less than human (Nicholas, 1997). Slaving in Perak officially ended with the coming of the British, who in 1883 ordered the cessation of the practice in the state (Hussin, 2016, p. 140); nonetheless, the practice seems to have continued for some time afterward (Nicholas, 1997), and legal arrangements for the release of existing Jahai slaves only seem to have been codified in 1899 (Baer, 2012, p. 10).

Under the British, the Jahai were no longer slaves; they, like other Orang Asli, were “deemed insignificant, or at times, quaint museum specimens” (Baer, 2012, p. 1), barely perceptible at the level of governance or policy considerations. This probably meant that up till the end of the Second World War, the Jahai and their language were largely left in peace. However, during the subsequent Malayan Emergency, when the British fought to expel communism from the Peninsula, many Aslian communities like the Jahai were moved and resettled into “jungle forts” (Yong, 2008, p. 123), over which the British maintained strict and often harsh control in order to prevent communism from taking control of such populations. Even after Malaysia became an independent country in 1957, such resettlement of Aslian populations like the Jahai has continued, although the new Malaysian government’s motivations for resettlement have now expanded. In addition to “curbing the activities of subversive elements (communist) that influence the Orang Asli people in rural areas” (Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), 2016), for example, resettlement hopes to improve the standards of living and quality of life experienced by Aslian communities by ‘modernising’ them (Nicholas, 2001).

The majority of the Jahai were thus initially resettled under the Pulau Tujuh Resettlement Scheme in the 1970s, before the construction of a dam forced the government to move them again to their present location at Air Banun in the state of Perak, with a second, smaller regrouped village at Sungai Rual in the state of Kelantan. (Burenhult, 2005, p. 1; Nicholas, 2001). Increasingly, therefore, while some Jahai remain hunter-gatherers, especially in Thailand, the majority of Jahai speakers today are now settlers who have traded their previously mobile lifestyle for a more settled and location-permanent existence (Burenhult, 2005, p. 1).

As Burenhult points out, Jahai is in no danger of extinction, even though it has a relatively small population of between 1,000 to 2,000 speakers; this is because it remains the language of choice in many domains and environments in Jahai culture and life, and is still being taught to children (Burenhult, 2005, p. 8). However, at present, one still hopes that the new lifestyle for many Jahai speakers and greater contact with other languages, particularly Malay, will not result in the loss of some of the language’s rich and fascinating traits and linguistic characteristics.

Jahai’s sound system, word structure, and grammar

To begin with, Jahai, like all Aslian languages, has a rich inventory of sounds, some of which will be relatively unfamiliar to speakers of English, but which will be familiar to speakers of other major world languages. Like English’s relatives Spanish and Portuguese, for example, Jahai distinguishes words based on how nasal a particular vowel in the word is: kis, said like an ordinary English ‘kiss’, means “to dig”, but kĩs, said like ‘kiss’ but with air sent through the nose, means “ghost” (Burenhult, 2005, p. 21).

Jahai also has the glottal stop as a separate (and frequent) consonant sound, again unusual in Standard English, but an everyday feature in more local varieties of English like Singapore English, and in languages like the various varieties of modern Arabic. The glottal stop, represented by the symbol ʔ, is the sound one hears in between the two parts of the English utterance uh-oh, where organs in the vocal tract known as vocal folds rapidly close to suddenly shut off the airflow. In English, we rarely encounter the glottal stop as a separate consonant sound, but in Jahai, it is a relatively more common occurrence, appearing in words such as ʔoh, “to cough”, and ʔon, “there” (Burenhult, 2005, p. 24).

Like its other Aslian siblings, words in Jahai are on average considerably shorter than what we are used to in English, with a few Jahai words, like kəlaŋis (pronounced ‘kuh-lang-is’), meaning “heart”, reaching three syllables (Burenhult, 2005, p. 30). Most Jahai words are one, one-and-a-half, or two syllables long.

One and a half syllables, I can hear you already saying; what does one and a half syllables mean? Linguists generally understand that a syllable is centred around a vowel sound, like a, with consonant sounds optionally appearing around it; think of the English words a (one syllable), appear (two syllables), and appearance (three syllables), where you can clearly distinguish the syllables involved: a, a-ppear and a-ppea-rance. However, what about cases like the English word soil? The number of syllables soil has is not immediately clear: is it one (pronounced more like ‘soll’) or two (‘soy-yul’)? Linguists call these types of words sequisyllabic words, or literally one-and-a-half-syllabic words; Jahai has many of these, like sjər, which means “to swim” and can be roughly pronounced ‘sjuh’ (one syllable) or ‘si-juh’ (two syllables) (Burenhult, 2005, p. 31).

Again, much like many of its Aslian cousins, Jahai possesses the unique class of words not found in many other languages known as expressives (see our introduction to the Aslian languages in this issue!). Jahai is also characterised, however, by its system of tense marking, which compared to English adds a number of nuances to meanings of verbs that we don’t usually add in English. Verbs, like English’s go, listen, and swim, are words that express actions. In English, we add additional information about who is doing the action, when the action is occurring and how the action is occurring in the form of either suffixes that attach to the end of the verb, known as tense markers, or additional verbs that go in front of the main verb.

I listen 
I listened(+ed, for I in past tense)
She listened(+ed, for she in past tense)
She listens(+s, for she in present tense)
She will listen(+will, for she in future tense)
She will be listening(+will be, +ing, for she in future progressive tense)

In Jahai, all this information is captured in prefixes that attach to the front of the verb; moreover, Jahai expresses additional distinctions of meaning that we do not usually express in English using suffixes, like whether an action occurs repeatedly.

cip“to go”(infinitive)
wih b-cp-cip“they were going”(progressive)
wih lp-cip“they went repeatedly”(iterative)
wih cip-cip“they kept on going”(continuative)
wih cip-cip“they went here and there”(distributive)
wih ca-cip“they went together”(reciprocal)
wih ja-cip“they will go”(future)

(Burenhult, 2005, pp. 94-104, 129)

Clearly, Jahai allows a speaker a vastly different way to talk about the world xe lives in. Turning now to Jahai’s vocabulary, we see that Jahai even provides rather different words or labels to describe this environment, including the set of labels that it is currently most famous in the scientific community for: smell terms.

Jahai’s vocabulary of smells

Jahai’s vocabulary for odour is, as linguists Burenhult and Asifa Majid describe, “exquisite” (Burenhult & Asifa Majid, 2011, p. 22). As we have already seen, in English, our own ability to distinguish and categorise similar odours is poor—for example, although one might describe the smells of both a rose and a carnation as ‘fragrant’, these still do smell quite different from each other. Additionally, there is no set, underlying understanding of the word ‘fragrant’ between you and me—if you tell me that your house is ‘fragrant’, I have no immediate conceptual idea of what ‘fragrant’ might mean to you, whereas if you tell me that your house is ‘white’, I immediately know what ‘white’ looks like.

In Jahai, therefore, smell terms are what linguists call “basic terms” (Burenhult & Asifa Majid, 2011, p. 24), just like colours are basic terms in English. They are used every day by everyone, not just perfume developers or olfactory specialists, and everyone has a shared, concrete understanding of what each term means, like we do in English of ‘brown’, ‘black’, and ‘blue’. Reproduced below are some of Jahai’s core smell terms, first highlighted by Burenhult and Asifa Majid in their seminal 2011 research paper Olfaction in Aslian Ideology and Language:

VerbApproximate English translationThings giving off this smell
cŋəsto smell edible, tastycooked food, sweets
crŋirto smell roastedroasted food
cŋεsto have a stinging smellpetrol, smoke, some plants and insects
haʔεtto stinkcarcasses, feces, prawn paste
pʔihto have a blood/fish/meat-like smellblood, raw fish, raw meat
plʔeŋto have a smell of blood which attracts tigerscrushed head lice, squirrel blood

Table 1: Some Jahai smell terms (from Burenhult and Asifa Majid (2011, p. 23))

Each of these terms is quite clearly associated with a particular odour emitted by a variety of entities. cŋεs, for example, is used not just with petrol and smoke, but also with “bat droppings and bat caves, some species of millipede, root of wild ginger, leaf of gingerwort, [and] wood of wild mango” (Asifa Majid & Burenhult, 2014, p. 267), as well as crayfish (Burenhult & Asifa Majid, 2011, p. 24). Further research has shown that Jahai speakers are able to quite readily and easily identify these smells: in particular, a 2014 study by Asifa Majid and Burenhult compared 10 English and 10 Jahai speakers’ ability to name colours and odours using colour chips and odour cards, and found that while both groups of speakers named colours with ease, only the Jahai could do the same with odours, while the English speakers floundered.

Why is odour so important in Jahai? One important reason, as observed by Burenhult and Asifa Majid, could be the Jahai’s understanding of their relationship with Karεy, a Jahai divine entity responsible for the environment as the Jahai know it (Burenhult & Asifa Majid, 2011, p. 21). The Jahai do their best to avoid upsetting Karεy, whose attention can be drawn and influenced by not just sounds and visible actions, but by smells—Burenhult and Majid recount the example of a Jahai blood-throwing ceremony, where the Jahai make cuts in their calves, collect the blood, dilute it with water, and hurl it into the air for Karεy to smell. If he finds the odour pleasant he will be satisfied; if not he will ask for more by thundering. (Burenhult & Asifa Majid, 2011, p. 22)

It is important to note that researchers have recently found that Jahai is not the only Aslian language, and indeed, not the only Austroasiatic language, that demonstrates such a keen observation of smell. Austroasiatic languages as far and wide as Jahai’s Aslian sisters Maniq, Semai, Semnam, and Temiar, and the more distantly-related Khmu, spoken in Laos, all show clear evidence of this attention to odour, and their speakers’ ability to distinguish and categorise different scents (Burenhult & Asifa Majid, 2011, p. 25; Wnuk & Asifa Majid, 2014). Indeed, these discoveries have upended much of what we thought we used to know about language and human ability: as recently as 2010, for example, psychologists Yaara Yeshurun and Noam Sobel claimed that “humans are astonishingly bad at odour identification and naming” (Yeshurun & Sobel, 2010, p. 226).

Jahai and the rest of the world

Linguistics is still one of science’s youngest formally-distinguished disciplines. Many languages like Jahai are only just starting to be comprehensively documented, while many more as-of-yet completely undocumented tongues still wait for the reader with a passion for language and a desire to learn more about the limits of human ability to meet them and get to know them better. At Unravel, we do our very best to encourage such passion, because it is languages like Jahai, and our continuing efforts to understand how they function and what they allow their speakers to do, that are so very crucial toward a more holistic appreciation of what we as humans are actually capable of.

Take a sniff of the air around you, and see if you can smell the adventure, and the world that awaits.

For more on the Aslian language family, check out our general introduction to these beautiful and fascinating languages here, and our interview with Aslian language researcher Geoffrey Benjamin here.


Asifa Majid, & Burenhult, N. (2014). Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Cognition, 130, 266-270.

Baer, A. (2012). Contacts and Contrasts: the British vs. the Orang Asli in Colonial Malaya. Unpublished manuscript. Oregon State University. Retrieved from https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/29700/Contactsandcontrasts.pdf?sequence=1

Burenhult, N. (2005). A Grammar of Jahai. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University Press.

—., & Asifa Majid. (2011). Olfaction in Aslian Ideology and Language. The Senses and Society, 6(1), 19-29.

Dunn, M., Kruspe, N., & Burenhult, N. (2013). Time and Place in the Prehistory of the Aslian Languages. Human Biology, 85(1-3), 383-399.

Hussin, I. R. (2016). The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority and the Making of the Muslim State. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA). (2016, April 30). Structured Settlements Development Programme. Retrieved from http://www.jakoa.gov.my/en/orang-asli/pembangunan-orang-asli/program-pembangunan-penempatan-tersusun/

Kruspe, N., Burenhult, N., & Wnuk, E. (2014). Northern Aslian. In M. Jenny & P. Sidwell (Eds.), The Handbook of Austroasiatic Languages (pp. 419-474). Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Nicholas, C. (1997). The Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia. Centre for Orang Asli Concerns. Retrieved from http://www.magickriver.net/oa.htm

—. (2001, January 1). Profiting from Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from http://www.coac.org.my/main.php?section=articles&article_id=29

Wnuk, E., & Asifa Majid. (2014). Revisiting the limits of language: The odor lexicon of Maniq. Cognition, 131, 125-138.

Yeshurun, Y., & Sobel, N. (2010). An Odor is Not Worth a Thousand Words: From Multidimensional Odors to Unidimensional Odor Objects. The Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 219-241. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163639

Yong, C. O. L. (2008). Autonomy Reconstituted: Social and Gender Implications of Resettlement on the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia. In B. P. Resurreccion & R. Elmhirst (Eds.), Gender and Natural Resource Management: Livelihoods, Mobility and Interventions (pp. 109-126). London, United Kingdom: Earthscan.

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