Activists demand better protection for tribespeople who speak a previously-undiscovered indigenous language in Malaysia.

Penan tribespeople man a blockade with banners and spears to challenge vehicles of timber and plantation companies in Long Nen in Malaysia's Sarawak State, August 20, 2009.
Penan tribespeople man a blockade with banners and spears to challenge vehicles of timber and plantation companies in Long Nen in Malaysia's Sarawak State, August 20, 2009. (AFP Archive)

A previously-undiscovered indigenous language in Malaysia reflects a way of life where the sexes enjoy great equality and there is little violence, researchers have found, prompting activists Wednesday to demand better protection for tribespeople.

Linguists discovered Jedek, which is spoken by only 280 people, during a project which saw them visit remote villages to collect data from different groups in the northern state of Kelantan.

The team from Sweden's Lund University were studying the previously-known language of Jahai in a remote village surrounded by forest - where people live in wooden houses on stilts - when they realised a large number of people were speaking something different.

Niclas Burenhult, one of the researchers, said that anthropologists had studied the same hunter-gatherer community in the past but the linguists asked different questions, leading them to discover the language.

Jedek reflects a way of life where there was greater equality between men and women than in Western societies, almost no violence and children are encouraged not to compete, according to Lund University.

"There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law, and no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell," the university said in a statement.

But it added there was a "rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing".

Colin Nicholas, from the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, which defends the rights of Malaysia's indigenous peoples, said he hoped the discovery would persuade authorities to do more to protect tribespeople's ancient ways of life.

"We have a lot to learn from the discovery of this new language. It teaches us about the importance of gender equality, sharing and to maintain harmonious human relations," he said.

Jedek is among a kaleidescope of indigenous languages spoken in Malaysia.

They have been disappearing as indigenous communities - a tiny proportion of the country's 32 million inhabitants - are assimilated into wider society, and driven from their land due to expansion of agricultural plantations and logging.

Source: AFP