Whispers among the leaves: the Aslian languages of the Malay Peninsula

by and on June 13, 2016

Bumiputera, or “Sons of the Soil”: a politically charged term that has determined the course of Malaysia’s history and social fabric since its independence from the British in 1957. An ironically Sanskrit term originating from the Indian Subcontinent, it attempts to delineate the special status of the Malays—speakers of the Austronesian Malay language who are considered the native inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula—in relation to the other ethnic groups in Malaysia [1], particularly the Chinese and the Indians. However, there is a group of people who do not fit nicely into this narrative.

The Orang Asli, or “aboriginal people” in Malay, are widely understood to have inhabited the Malay Peninsula for millennia, but are rarely classified under such a hallowed category, owing to their different cultures, languages, and way of life. Their languages, in particular, are unique in that they fall under the Austroasiatic family, which is more commonly spoken on the Indochinese Peninsula further north in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, where it is represented by Khmer and Vietnamese. With a little peek into this fascinating aspect of Malaysian society, we hope to spur more interest in the Aslian languages, which carry within them incredible insight into the worldview of a people who have coexisted with the environment around them for longer than most civilisations have stood.

N.B. In Malaysia, Orang Asli are classified into three anthropological sub-groups: the Senoi, Semang, and the Proto-Malays, based on their cultural and physical characteristics. Orang Asli researchers, however, doubt this classification as scientifically sound divisions have yet to be made out. This article will therefore make reference to Orang Asli as a single discrete group in accordance with more recently established norms.

A journey over millennia: the peopling of the Malay Peninsula

The Orang Asli are thought to be among the first human populations to have come to South East Asia during the late Pleistocene period about 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. At that time, South East Asia was a much larger landmass, bigger in size than the Indian Subcontinent due to an “ice age” that had lowered sea levels significantly. It is thought that the Orang Asli may also have been part of the first groups of humans who left Africa and proceeded onwards to Australasia, owing to similar physical characteristics between them and the Australian aborigines.

South East Asia in the late Pleistocene period

South East Asia in the late Pleistocene period (Source)

Malaysia consists of two parts; West Malaysia which occupies the Malay Peninsula, and East Malaysia, consisting of the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the north coast of the island of Borneo across the South China Sea.

The Orang Asli lived as foragers for the better part of their history, but between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago, their way of life underwent a major change, perhaps brought about by immigration from people who lived further north. Slash-and-burn agriculture took root, and the Orang Asli began speaking an offshoot of the proto-Austroasiatic language that was the precursor to the Aslian languages that they now speak. The languages that the Orang Asli originally spoke are not known, but it is thought that the Orang Asli began adopting the Aslian languages in stages, “first in the centre of the Malay Peninsula, and then spreading north and south” (Endicott, 2016, p. 16). Subsequently however, Austronesian speakers began settling in the southernmost parts of the Peninsula, and by antiquity had become the dominant group in the area. Many southern Orang Asli began switching over to Austronesian languages, primarily Malay, as a result, but the Orang Asli as a whole were nonetheless relegated to the fringes of society and especially economic life.

Languages of a world gone by

The Aslian languages are nowadays mostly spoken in the Central and Northern jungles of the Malay Peninsula, and are broken down into four subfamilies. These are the Northern (spoken mainly in the states of Kedah, Perak and Kelantan, Pahang and Trengganu), Central (Perak, Kelantan and Pahang) and Southern branches (Pahang and Trengganu) of the Aslian languages, with the single Aslian language Jah Hut (Pahang) forming a solitary fourth branch. The Aslian languages’ closest relatives are the languages spoken in the Nicobar Islands north of Sumatra as well as the Mon languages spoken in Thailand and Myanmar. Only Semai and Temiar, both Central Aslian languages, have more than 10,000 speakers. Altogether, the Aslian languages are spoken by a maximum of about 50,000 people, and are therefore in great danger of disappearing—even Semai and Temiar which seem comparatively healthier in terms of speakers. Factors that push the Aslian languages towards extinction include the preference of younger Orang Asli to switch over to Malay to join the wider society, and the stoppage of language transmission from older to younger generations due to the stigma of speaking such “uncivilised” languages, no matter how unjustified such negative perceptions are.

The distribution of Aslian languages on the Malay Peninsula

The distribution of Aslian languages on the Malay Peninsula (from Benjamin (2012, p. 144))

All the Aslian languages encode within them the history of the Orang Asli and their interactions with the environment and the people around them. They provide a fascinating view into how the Orang Asli take in the world. There are, for instance, numerous borrowings from Austronesian languages that are not Malay, which perhaps provide a peek into a past where Malay was not the dominant language of the Peninsula, and also tell us a bit more about the very early history of the Peninsula, about which not much is known. [1] Indeed, as noted by the researcher Roger Blench, many of these borrowings appear to be related to languages currently spoken on Borneo like Dayak, Dusun, and Katingan, as well as languages spoken in the Philippines like Tagalog and Visayan, as seen in the table below.

Aslian wordEnglish equivalentRelated Austronesian words
kebusdeadkabus (Dayak)
bakesoldbakas (Katingan)
lesemrainrasam (Dusun)
laʃam (Visayan)
bulusspearbulos (Tagalog)
bulus (Javanese)

(Blench, 2006, p. 6)

This suggests that a wave of migration may have taken place from Borneo to the Malay Peninsula many hundreds or even thousands of years before the arrival of Malay speakers on the Peninsula, with Blench suggesting a date of around 1,000 to 2,000 BCE (Blench, 2006, p. 6).

Beyond telling us more about history, the Aslian languages have also helped redefine the limits of the human capacity for language. The northern Aslian language Jahai, for example, has revolutionised our understanding of the human ability to talk about different kinds of smell, as Kevin Martens Wong describes in his article on Jahai. Another feature peculiar to Aslian languages is a group of words known as expressives.

The sound of a waterfall: Aslian expressives

One of the distinguishing features of the Aslian languages now recognised by linguists is their wide-ranging use of a class of words known as expressives (sometimes also known as ideophones or phonosemantic words). These are words that, true to their name, express or describe a particular quality of a place, person or thing. However, they are different from adjectives and adverbs: they not only appear in different positions in a sentence from these other word classes, but in their very form and sound are often strongly characteristic of the place, person or thing they are describing.

In Semai, for example, cuwcumrəhaaw [2] expresses the sound of a waterfall (undefined), while in Temiar, rɛɲrəŋaɲ [3] describes a glowing, reddish color associated with a particular species of fish, the mahseer (Benjamin 2012: 197), and in Jahai, prəw-prəw-prəw expresses the sound of an animal running away (Burenhult 2005: 115). Below is an example of how this last expressive can be used in a sentence:

ʔoʔ lↄj prəw-prəw-prəw ba=ʔaniʔ

It ran (sound) over there (Burenhult 2005:115)

English does have a few words that could be considered expressives: boing, boom, and bang immediately come to mind. However, English definitely pales in comparison to the Aslian languages, whose rich lexicons of expressives create “subtle and endless structural variations” (Diffloth, 1997) and add “a rich dimension of subjective and iconic meaning” (Benjamin 2012: 196) to the languages in everyday use, especially during storytelling, and even in song and music.

Expressives are just one fascinating feature shared by the Aslian languages that linguists are still working to understand; others remain yet to be observed or distinguished by researchers. Indeed, research on the Aslian languages continues to be a fascinating and exciting field of new discovery, with Aslian languages like Kensiw and Kintaq still very much under-described and not well understood.

The word for ‘world’ was ‘forest’

Rapid development and industrialisation in Malaysia in the second half of the twentieth century, coupled with relocation and resettlement initiatives for many of the nomadic Orang Asli tribes, have meant that many Aslian languages are now longer spoken in the environments where they first developed. Many younger Orang Asli now also learn Malay alongside their Aslian mother tongue, which could sometimes indicate pressure from the Malay language, and its taking over of domains where Aslian was once spoken. Nonetheless, although some languages like Mendriq are gradually losing speakers, many researchers report that others like Jahai remain robust and spoken by the majority of their respective communities (Burenhult, 2005, p. 7), while the Perak state government has actually introduced Semai into its primary schools, as Geoffrey Benjamin tells us in his Interrogatives interview with us. These attitudes undoubtedly bode well for the continuing vitality of the Aslian languages.

Only time will tell if the Aslian languages will lose any of the rich linguistic characteristics that currently define them as a language family. Nonetheless, one can only hope that they will continue to retain their distinctiveness, and provide us with ever more revealing insights into the human condition and the faculty of language.

There’s more

The field of Aslian languages is still growing, and here at Unravel we encourage interested readers to continue exploring and learning more, and even getting into the field themselves. Beyond our special feature on the Aslian languages, which includes a profile of central Aslian language Jahai and an interview with Aslian language expert Geoffrey Benjamin, readers who wish to find out more about the Aslian languages are encouraged to consult Benjamin’s comprehensive and very accessible description of the current state of both the languages and the field of Aslian language study in Language Documentation and Description here.

For readers more interested in the formal description of some of the Aslian languages, Niclas Burenhult’s grammar of Jahai is also freely available online here from Pacific Linguistics, while Nicole Kruspe’s grammar of southern Aslian language Semelai and dictionary of can be ordered from Cambridge University Press here. Shorter sketch grammars, namely Benjamin’s outline of Temiar and Mary Peterson’s outline of Kensiw, are also available, though harder to find; Benjamin will publish an updated version of Temiar sometime in the near future.

Readers interested in a more global overview of Orang Asli concerns are directed to Kirk Endicott’s Malaysia’s “Original People”: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli, available here from NUS Press, which collects work by a variety of researchers on different aspects of Orang Asli culture and society, in addition to language.

[1] It is thought that Malay began to supplant the other Austronesian languages of the Malay Peninsula following the golden age of the Malacca Sultanate, when classical Malay culture and literature became the prestige standard, denoting civilisation and the peak of progress of South East Asian society.

[2] ə is approximately the vowel sound one makes in the word bird.

[3] ɲ denotes the consonant sound ng as in the word sing.


Benjamin, Geoffrey (2012). The Aslian languages of Malaysia and Thailand: an assessment. In Stuart McGill & Peter K. Austin (eds), Language Documentation and Description, vol 11 (pp. 136-230). London: SOAS.

Blench, Roger (2006). Why are Aslian-speakers Austronesian in culture? Presented at the Preparatory meeting for the 3rd International Conference for Austronesian Languages, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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

Diffloth, Gerard (1997). Austroasiatic languages. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/44541/Austroasiaticlanguages.

Endicott, Kirk (2016). Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli. Singapore: NUS Press.

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