Aslian languages

The Aslian languages (/ˈæsliən/) are the southernmost branch of Austroasiatic languages spoken on the Malay Peninsula. They are the languages of many of the Orang Asli, the aboriginal inhabitants of the peninsula. The total number of native speakers of Aslian languages is about fifty thousand and all are in danger of extinction. Aslian languages recognized by the Malaysian administration include Kensiu, Kintaq, Jahai, Minriq, Batek, Cheq Wong, Lanoh, Temiar, Semai, Jah Hut, Mah Meri, Semaq Beri, Semelai and Temoq.[1]

Peninsular Malaysia and Southern Thailand
Linguistic classificationAustroasiatic
  • Aslian

History and origin

Aslian languages originally appeared on the western side of the main mountains and eventually spread eastwards into Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.[2] The nearest relatives to the Aslian languages are Monic and Nicobarese.[3] There is a possibility the early Monic and Nicobarese people had contact with the migrants who moved into the Malay Peninsula from further north.

Aslian languages contain a complex palimpsest of loanwords from linguistic communities that no longer exist on the Malay Peninsula. Their former residence can be traced from the etymologies and the archaeological evidence for the succession of cultures in the region. Roger Blench (2006)[4] notes that Aslian languages have many Bornean and Chamic loanwords, pointing to a former presence of Bornean and Chamic speakers on the Malay Peninsula.

Blagden (1906),[5] Evans (1937)[6] and Blench (2006)[4] note that Aslian languages, especially the Northern Aslian (Jahaic) group, contain many words that cannot be traced to any currently known language family. The extinct Kenaboi language of Negeri Sembilan also contains many words of unknown origin in addition to words of Austroasiatic and Austronesian origin.


The extinct Kenaboi language is unclassified, and may or may not be Aslian.

Phillips (2012:194)[7] lists the following consonant sound changes that each Aslian branch had innovated from Proto-Aslian.

  • Northern Aslian: Proto-Aslian *sə– > ha–
  • Southern Aslian: loss of Proto-Aslian *-ʔ (final glottal stop)
  • Proto-Aslian *–N > *–DN in all branches except Jah Hut


The Proto-Aslian language has been reconstructed by Timothy Phillips (2012).[7]


Syllable structure

Aslian words may either be monosyllabic, sesquisyllabic or disyllabic:

Monosyllabic: either simple CV(C) or complex CCV(C).[8]
Sesquisyllabic:[9] consist of a major syllable with fully stressed vowel, preceded by a minor syllable
Temiar ləpud 'caudal fin'
Semai kʔɛːp [kɛʔɛːp] 'centipede'[10]
Disyllabic: more morphologically complex, resulting from various reduplications and infixations. Compounds with unreduced though unstressed vowels also occur:
Temiar diŋ-rəb 'shelter'
Loanwords from Malay are a further source of disyllables:
Jah Hut suraʔ 'sing', from Malay; suara 'voice'
Semai tiba:ʔ 'arrive', from Malay; tiba 'arrive'[11]
Temiar even has phonetic trisyllables in morphological categories such as the middle causative (tərakɔ̄w)[12] and the continuative causative (tərɛwkɔ̄w), or in words with proclitics (barhalab ~ behalab 'go downriver').

Initial consonants

Aslian words generally start with a consonant. Words which start with a vowel will be followed by a glottal stop.[2] In most Aslian languages, aspirated consonants are analyzed as sequences of two phonemes, one of which happens to be h.

Aslian syllable-initial consonant clusters are rich and varied. Stops for example may cluster without restrictions to their place of articulation or voicing:

Jah Hut tkak 'palate', dkaŋ 'bamboo rat', bkul 'gray', bgɔk 'goiter'[13]

Articulation of laryngeal consonants /h, ʔ/ may be superimposed upon the vowel midway in its articulation, giving the impression of two identical vowels interrupted by the laryngeals.

Jah Hut /jʔaŋ/ [jaʔaŋ] 'bone', /ɲhɔːʡ/ [ɲɔˑhɔˑʡ] 'tree'[10]


A typical Aslian vowel system is displayed by Northern Temiar, which has 30 vocalic nuclei.[12]

Close i ʉ uiː ʉː uːĩ ʉ̃ ũĩː ʉ̃ː ũː
Mid e ə oeː əː oːN/AN/A
Open ɛ a ɔɛː aː ɔːɛ̃ ã ɔ̃ɛ̃ː ãː ɔ̃ː

The functional load of the nasal/oral contrast is not very high in Aslian languages (not many minimal pairs can be cited). Diffloth[14] states that this phenomenon is unpredictable and irregular in Semai dialects, especially on vowels preceded by h- or ʔ-.

Phonemic vowel length has been retained in Senoic languages such as Semai, Temiar and Sabum. Contrastive length has been lost in the Northern and Southern Aslian branches. The loss of vowel length must have led to complex reorganizations in the vocalic systems of the affected languages, by developing new contrasts elsewhere.

Diphthongization is not as obvious in Aslian languages as compared to the other branches of Mon–Khmer. Proto-Semai is reconstructed with 10-11 long monophthongal vowels, but with only one diphthong, /iə/.[8]

Senoic infixes are sensitive to the number of initial consonants in a root. Rising diphthongs like [i̯ə] or [u̯ə] are ambiguous, since the glide may be interpreted as either a feature of the initial or of the vowel.

Final consonants

Aslian languages are well endowed with final consonants,[8] with most of the languages placing a lot of stress on them.[2]

  • -r, -l, -s, -h and are represented and well-preserved in Aslian.[15] There is also a tendency to shorten long vowels before these finals.[16]

It has been reported that Temiar -h has bilabial friction after -u-, e.g. /tuh/ 'speak' pronounced as [tuɸ].[12]

Throughout the Aslian family, final nasals are pre-stopped. In Northern Aslian this has gone further, with final nasals merging with the plosive series.


All Aslian languages that have been thoroughly studied have constructive usage of various morphophonemic devices – prefixation, infixation and reduplication. Also, most Aslian languages preserve fossilized traces of other morphological patterns that are no longer productive.[8]

It was also noted that the use of the suffix in Aslian languages was a product of recent use of Malay loan words. For example, the use of the infix 'n' is prominent in various Aslian language and it encompasses a myriad of definition.[2]

Simple prefixation

  • C(C)VC → (P)(P)–C(C)VC

Example: Jah Hut causatives[8]

p-cyɛk 'sleep'pcyɛk 'put to sleep'
pr-bhec 'be afraid'prbhec 'frighten'
pn-tlas 'escape'pntlas 'release'
tr-hus 'get loose (clothes)'trhus 'undress'
kr-lʉy 'be inside'krlʉy 'put inside'

Simple infixation[8]

  • C (C) V C → C-I-(C) V C

Aslian languages insert infixes between two consonants. Simple infixation is when the infix is inserted into the root. The most important liquid infix is the causative -r-, which is productive in Semai and Temiar.

  • Semai (root has 2 initial consonants, infix comes between them): kʔā:c 'be wet', krʔā:c 'moisten something'.[17]

Nasal infixes are also found in Aslian, especially used as nominalizers of verbal roots.

  • Jah Hut (the agentive nominalizing prefix is mʔ-): lyɛp 'plait palm leaves' → mlayɛp 'one who plaits'; cyɛk 'sleep' → mʔcyɛk 'one who sleeps a lot'

Reduplicative infixation: incopyfixation[8]

A reduplication of the final consonant of the root is being infixed to the root. This process[10] occurs in all 3 branches of Aslian.

  1. Incopyfix of final alone (roots complex by nature):[8]
    • Kensiw: plɔɲ 'sing' → pɲlɔɲ 'singing'
    • Che' Wong: hwæc 'whistle' → hcwæc 'whistling'
  2. Root-external infix plus incopyfix.[8] In Semai, count nouns are derived from mass nouns by using a root-external nasal infix and an incopyfix of the final. When the root-initial is simple, the incopyfix precedes the infix:
    • teːw 'river' (mass) →twneːw [tuniːw] 'id.' (count).
      When the root-initial is complex, the infix precedes the incopyfix:
    • slaːy 'swidden' (mass) → snylaːy [snilaːj] 'id.' (count)
  3. Root-external prefix plus incopyfix.[8] Simple-initialled verbs are formed by inserting the prefix n- and incopyfixing the final between prefix and the root-initial:
    • Batek: jɯk 'breathe' → nkjɯk 'the act of breathing'
  4. Reduplication of the initial and a root-external infix.[8] This is present in Semai and Temiar, which have a verbal infix -a-. In Semai, it forms resultative verbs, while in Temiar, it marks the 'simulfactive aspect'.[18] In both languages, if the root has two consonants, the suffix-a- is inserted between them:
    • Semai: slɔːr 'lay flat objects into round container' → salɔːr 'be in layers (in round container)'
    • Temiar: slɔg 'lie down, sleep, marry' → salɔg 'go straight off to sleep'
      If the consonant initial of the root is simple, it is reduplicated so that the -a- can be inserted between the original and its copy.
    • Semai: cɛ̃ːs 'tear off' → cacɛ̃ːs 'be torn off'
    • Temiar: gəl 'sit' → gagəl 'sit down suddenly'
  5. Reduplication of the initial and incopyfixation of the final.[8] A simple initial is reduplicated for the incopyfixation of the final. In Aslian, this is used to derive the progressive verbs.[19]
    • Batek (N.Aslian): kɯc 'grate' → kckɯc 'is grating'
    • Semelai (S.Aslian): tʰəm 'pound' → tmtʰəm 'is pounding'
    • Semai (Senoic): laal 'stick out one's tongue' → lllaal 'is sticking out one's tongue'


Aslian syntax is presumably conservative with respect to Austroasiatic as a whole, though Malay influence is apparent in some details of the grammar (e.g. use of numeral classifiers).[8]

    Basic and permuted word order

    • Senoic sentences are prepositional and seem to fall into two basic types – process (active) and stative. In stative sentences, the predicate comes first:





    NP (Subject)


    Mənūʔ ʔəh

    VP {NP (Subject)}

    big it

    It's big.

    • In process sentences, the subject normally comes first, with the object and all other complements following the verb:


    NP (Subj)


    P (Pfx)



    Cwəʔ yəh- mʔmus

    {NP (Subj)} {P (Pfx)} V

    The dog growls.

    • In Jah Hut, all are complements, but the direct object require a preposition:


    NP (Subj)









    N (Obj)











    ʔihãh naʔ cɔp rap tuy han bulus

    {NP (Subj)} Aux V {N (Obj)} Det Prep Obj

    I INTENT stab boar that with spear

    I'll stab that boar with a spear Unknown glossing abbreviation(s) (help);

    • Relative clauses, similar verbal modifiers, possessives, demonstratives and attributive nouns follow their head-noun:


    NP (Subj)



    N (H)






    P (Pfx) V


    ʔidɔh pləʔ kɔm bɔʔ-caʔ

    {NP (Subj)} {N (H)} Aux {P (Pfx) V}

    this fruit can 1PL-eat

    This is a fruit which we can eat.

    • The negative morpheme precedes the verb, though the personal prefix may intervene before the verb root:








    P (Pfx V



    N (h)



    NP (Obj)





    ʔe-loʔ tɔʔ ha-rɛɲrec sej mɛjmɛj naʔ

    why Neg {P (Pfx V} {N (h)} {NP (Obj)} Det

    why NEG 2-eat meat excellent that

    Why didn't you eat that excellent meat?

    Deixis, directionality and voice

    Senoic languages set much store by deictic precision. This manifests itself in their elaborate pronominal systems, which make inclusive/exclusive and dual/plural distinctions, and take the trouble to reflect the person and number of the subject by a prefixal concordpronoun on the verb.[8]

    Locative deixis pays careful attention to the relative position (both horizontal and vertical) of speaker and hearer, even when it may be quite irrelevant to the message:







    P (Pfx)-Prt-V

    ma hãʔ




    yēʔ doh ʔi-mʔog {ma hãʔ} naʔ

    Pron LOC {P (Pfx)-Prt-V} Prep-pron LOC

    I here will give it to you there. (I'll give it to you)

    Lexicon and semantics

    The Aslian languages have borrowed from each other.[1]

    Austroasiatic languages have a penchant for encoding semantically complex ideas into unanalyzable, monomorphemic lexemes e.g. Semai thãʔ 'to make fun of elders sexually'.[20] Such lexical specificity makes for a proliferation of lexicon.

    Lexicon elaboration is particularly great in areas which reflect the interaction of the Aslians with their natural environment (plant and animal nomenclature, swidden agriculture terminology etc.). The greatest single sweller of the Aslian vocabulary is the class of words called expressive.[21]

    Expressives are words which describe sounds, visual phenomena, bodily sensations, emotions, smells, tastes etc., with minute precision and specificity.[8] They are characterized by special morphophonemic patterns, and make extensive use of sound symbolism. Unlike nouns and verbs, expressives are lexically non-discrete, in that they are subject to a virtually unlimited number of semantic nuancings that are conveyed by small changes in their pronunciation.

    For example, in Semai, various noises and movements of flapping wings, thrashing fish etc. are depicted by an open set of morphophonemically related expressives like parparpar, krkpur, knapurpur, purpurpur etc.[8]

    Influences from other languages

    The Aslian languages have links with numerous languages. This is evident in the numerous borrowings from early Austronesian languages, specifically those from Borneo. There was a possibility that migrants from Borneo settled in the Malay Peninsula 3000–4000 years ago and established cultural dominance over the Aslian speakers. Aslian words also contain words of Chamic, Acehnese and Malayic origin.[3] For example, several Aslian languages made use of Austronesian classifiers, even though classifiers exist in the Aslian language.[22]

    Aslian languages do not succumb to any great deal of phonological change, yet borrowings from Malay are substantial. This is a result of constant interactions between the Orang Asli and Malays around the region. There is a more significant Malay influence among the nomadic Orang Asli population than within the farming Orang Asli population, as the farmers tend to be situated in the more remote areas and lead a subsistence lifestyle, and thus are less affected by interaction with the Malay language.[2]

    Endangerment and extinction

    All Aslian languages are endangered as they are spoken by a small group of people, with contributing factors including speaker deaths and linguistic assimilation with the Malay community. Some efforts are being made to preserve the Aslian languages in Malaysia. Some radio stations in Malaysia broadcast in Aslian languages for nine hours every day. Other media such as newspapers, magazine-type programs and dramas are broadcast in Aslian languages.[2]

    Only a small group of Orang Asli receive formal education in the Aslian languages. Most of the younger Orang Asli use Malay as the medium of instruction in school. There is currently only a total of 5 schools in the state of Pahang and 2 schools in the state of Perak which teach Aslian languages, due to the lack of qualified teachers and teaching aids, which are still in the process of development.[2]

    Some Aslian languages are already extinct, such as Wila' (also called Bila' or Lowland Semang), which was recorded having been spoken on the Province Wellesley coast opposite Penang in the early 19th century. Another extinct language is Ple-Temer, which was previously spoken near Gerik in northern Perak.[2]

    See also


    1. Geoffrey Benjamin (1976) Austroasiatic Subgroupings and Prehistory in the Malay Peninsula Jenner et al Part I, pp. 37–128
    2. Asmah Hji Omar (volume editor), 2004. 'Aslian languages', 'Aslian: characteristics and usage.', The encyclopedia of Malaysia, volume 12: Languages and literatures, Kuala Lumpur. Archipelago Press, pp. 46–49
    3. Blench, R. (2006): Why are Aslian speakers Austronesian in culture Archived February 21, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Paper presented at the Preparatory meeting for ICAL-3, Siem Reap.
    4. Blench, Roger. 2006. Why are Aslian speakers Austronesian in culture? Papers presented at ICAL-3, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
    5. Blagden, C. O. 1906. ‘Language.’ In: W. W. Skeat and C. O. Blagden, Pagan races of the Malay Peninsula, volume 2, London: MacMillan, pp. 379-775.
    6. Evans, I. H. N. 1937. The Negritos of Malaya. London: Frank Cass.
    7. Phillips, Timothy C. 2012. Proto-Aslian: towards an understanding of its historical linguistic systems, principles and processes. Ph.D. thesis, Institut Alam Dan Tamadun Melayu Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi.
    8. Matissoff, J. 2003. Aslian: Mon–Khmer of Malay Peninsula Mon Khmer Studies 33:158
    9. Matisoff, James A, 1973. Tonogenesis in Southeast Asia. In Larry M. Hyman, ed., CTT 71-95
    10. Diffloth, Gerard.1976a. Minor-syllably vocalism in Senoic languages. In Jenner et al., Vol. I, pp 229–2480
    11. Nik Safiah Karim and Ton Dinti Ibrahim. 1979. "Semoq Beri: some preliminary remarks." FMJ (n.s) 24:17–31
    12. Benjamin, Geoffrey. 1976b. "An outline of Temiar grammar". In Jenner et al, eds., Vol I, pp. 129–87 (OTG)
    13. Diffloth, Gerard. 1976c. "Jah Hut, an Austroasiatic language of Malaysia." In Nguyen Dang Liem, ed., SALS II:73-118, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics C-42
    14. Diffloth, Gerard. 1977. "Towards a history of Mon–Khmer: proto-Semai vowels." Tōnan Azia Kenkyū (Kyoto) 14(4):463-495
    15. Benedict, Paul K. 1972. Sino-Tibetan: a Conspectus. Contributing ed., James A. Matisoff. Cambridge University Press.
    16. Shorto, Harry L. 1976. "The vocalism of Proto Mon–Khmer." In Jenner et al., eds., Vol. II, pp. 1041–1067
    17. Diffloth, Gerard. 1972b. Ambiguïtè morphologique en semai. In J. Thomas and L.Bernot, eds. LTNS I:91-93, Paris: Klincksieck
    18. Diffloth, Gerard. 1976a. "Minor-syllable vocalism in Senoic languages." In Jenner et al., Vol. I, pp. 229–248.
    19. Diffloth, Gerard. 1975. "Les langues mon-khmer de Malaisie: classification historique et innovations." ASEMI 6(4):1-19.
    20. Diffloth, Gerard. 1976e. "Relations between the animals and the humans in Semai society." Handout for lecture presented at Southeast Asian Center, Kyoto University, Nov. 25.
    21. Diffloth, Gerard. 1976b. "Expressives in Semai". In Jenner et al., Vol. I, pp. 249–264.
    22. Adams, L, Karen. 1991. "The Influence of Non-Austroasiatic Languages on Numeral Classification in Austroasiatic". Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 111, No. 1 (Jan–Mar 1991), pp. 62–81.

    Further reading

    • Adams, Karen Lee. Systems of Numeral Classification in the Mon–Khmer, Nicobarese and Aslian Subfamilies of Austroasiatic. [S.l: s.n.], 1982.
    • Benjamin, Geoffrey (1976). "Austroasiatic subgroupings and prehistory in the Malay peninsula" (PDF). In Jenner, Philip N.; Thompson, Laurence C.; Starosta, Stanley (eds.). Austroasiatic Studies Part I. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications. Vol. 13. University of Hawai'i Press. pp. 37–128. JSTOR 20019154.
    • Benjamin, Geoffrey. 2011. ‘The Aslian languages of Malaysia and Thailand: an assessment.’ In: Peter K. Austin & Stuart McGill (eds), Language Documentation and Description, Volume 11. London: Endangered Languages Project, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), pp. 136–230. ISSN 1740-6234 [2014:]
    • Benjamin, Geoffrey. 2014. ‘Aesthetic elements in Temiar grammar.’ In: Jeffrey Williams (ed.), The Aesthetics of Grammar: Sound and Meaning in the Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 36–60.[]
    • Burenhult, Niclas. 2005. A Grammar of Jahai. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
    • Burenhult, Niclas. 2006. 'Body part terms in Jahai'. Language Sciences 28: 162–180.
    • Burenhult, Niclas. 2008. 'Spatial coordinate systems in demonstrative meaning'. Linguistic Typology 12: 99–142.
    • Burenhult, Niclas. 2008. 'Streams of words: hydrological lexicon in Jahai'. Language Sciences 30: 182–199.
    • Burenhult, Niclas & Nicole Kruspe. 2016. 'The language of eating and drinking: a window on Orang Asli meaning-making'. In Kirk Endicott (ed.), Malaysia’s ‘Original People’: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli, Singapore, NUS Press, pp. 175–202.
    • Burenhult, Niclas, Nicole Kruspe & Michael Dunn. 2011. 'Language history and culture groups among Austroasiatic-speaking foragers of the Malay Peninsula'. In, N. J. Enfield (ed.), Dynamics of Human Diversity: The Case of Mainland Southeast Asia, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, pp. 257–277.
    • Dunn, Michael, Niclas Burenhult, Nicole Kruspe, Neele Becker & Sylvia Tufvesson. 2011. 'Aslian linguistic prehistory: A case study in computational phylogenetics'. Diachronica 28: 291–323.
    • Dunn, Michael, Nicole Kruspe & Niclas Burenhult. 2013. 'Time and place in the prehistory of the Aslian language family'. Human Biology 85: 383– 399.
    • Jenner, Philip N., Laurence C. Thompson, Stanley Starosta eds. (1976) Austroasiatic Studies Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications No. 13, 2 volumes, Honolulu, University of Hawai'i Press, ISBN 0-8248-0280-2
    • Kruspe, Nicole. 2004. A Grammar of Semelai. Cambridge Grammatical Descriptions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Kruspe, Nicole. 2004. 'Adjectives in Semelai'. In R. M. W. Dixon & A. Y. Aikhenvald (eds.), Adjective classes: A Cross-linguistic Typology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 283–305.
    • Kruspe, Nicole. 2009. 'Loanwords in Ceq Wong, an Austroasiatic language of Peninsular Malaysia'. In Martin Haspelmath & Uri Tadmor (eds.), Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook of Lexical Borrowing, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 659–685.
    • Kruspe, Nicole. 2010. A Dictionary of Mah Meri, As Spoken at Bukit Bangkong. Illustrated by Azman Zainal. Oceanic Linguistics special publication no. 36. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
    • Kruspe, Nicole. 2015. 'Semaq Beri'. In Mathias Jenny & Paul Sidwell (eds), The Handbook of Austroasiatic Languages, Volume 1, Leiden: Brill, pp. 475–518.
    • Kruspe, Nicole, Niclas Burenhult & Ewelina Wnuk. 2015. 'Northern Aslian'. In Mathias Jenny & Paul Sidwell (eds), The Handbook of Austroasiatic Languages, Volume 1, Leiden: Brill pp. 419–474.
    • Wnuk, Ewelina & Niclas Burenhult. 2014. 'Contact and isolation in hunter-gatherer language dynamics: Evidence from Maniq phonology (Aslian, Malay Peninsula)'. Studies in Language 38: 956–981.
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