This Language Has Many Words to Describe Sharing and Cooperation (And None for Stealing)

The native speakers of Jedek may think about the world differently, since they lack words for some concepts, and have more words for ideas that we don't. (Photo: Screenshot from video below./Lund University)

Linguists from Lund University in Sweden have discovered a previously undocumented language — a perfect example of why field research is so important in the social sciences. Only spoken by about 280 people in northern Peninsular Malaysia, this language includes a "rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing," according to researchers Niclas Burenhult and Joanne Yager, who published their findings in the journal Linguistic Typology.

Burenhult and Yager discovered the language while surveying for a subproject of the DOBES (Documentation of Endangered Languages) initiative. Under the Tongues of the Samang project, they were looking for language data from various speakers of the Asilan language.

They named the new language Jedek. "Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, as you would perhaps imagine, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists. As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed," Burenhult, an associate professor of general linguistics, said in a university release.

Language is a window to culture

The people who speak Jedek are settled hunter-gatherers, and their language may influence — or reflect — other aspects of their culture. (You can hear the language in the video above.) As detailed by the linguists, "There are no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing."

The community in which Jedek is spoken is different in other ways than just sharing versus owning. It's more gender-equal than Western societies, according to the linguists. They also report that there are no professions; everyone knows how to do everything. "There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law. There is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts."

It's an interesting thought experiment. If a word doesn't exist for an idea, would that idea even be part of how we think about the world?

Currently, there are about 6,000 languages spoken in the world — 80 percent of us speak a major language, and only 20 percent speak one of the 3,600 smaller languages. There are quite a few languages that linguists expect to go extinct within the next hundred years. As languages go extinct over time, what is humanity losing? As this example proves, it's not just words, but perhaps also a different way of thinking.