Native toMalaysia, a few in Thailand
Ethnicity1,800 (2008)[1]
Native speakers
1,000 in Malaysia (2006)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3jhi

Jahai (Jehai) is an aboriginal Mon–Khmer language spoken by the Jahai people living in the montane rainforests of northern Peninsular Malaysia and southernmost Thailand. It is the largest Northern Aslian language. Though spoken by only a little more than 1,000 people, Jahai does not appear to be in immediate danger of extinction due to the prevalence of Jahai parents passing on the language to their children as their mother tongue.[2]

Jahai has a unique vocabulary for describing odors.[3]



Jahai vowels
Front Central Back
Close i ĩ ɨ ɨ̃ u ũ
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɛ̃ ə ə̃ ɔ ɔ̃
Open a ã


Jahai consonants
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t c k ʔ
voiced b d ɟ ɡ
Fricative ɸ s h
Lateral l
Rhotic ɾ~r
Approximant w j

Olfactory categories

Odor terms in Jahai are based on abstract qualities rather than specific sources (which is more common cross-linguistically, particularly in European languages).[4]

Odor terms[3]
Odor terms Approximate translation Examples of sources Notes
cŋəs 'to smell edible, tasty' cooked food, sweets
crŋir 'to smell roasted' roasted food
harɨm 'to be fragrant' various flowers, perfumes, soap Malay loan; original Malay meaning 'fragrant'
ltpɨt 'to be fragrant' various flowers, perfumes, bearcat
haʔɛ̃t 'to stink' feces, rotten meat, prawn paste
pʔus 'to be musty' old dwellings, mushrooms, stale food
cŋɛs 'to have a stinging smell' petrol, smoke, bat droppings
sʔı̃ŋ 'to have a smell of human urine' human urine, village ground
haɲcı̃ŋ 'to have a urine-like smell' urine Malay loan; original Malay meaning 'foul odor, stench'
pʔih, plʔeŋ 'to have a blood/fish/meat-like smell' blood, raw fish, raw meat
plʔɛŋ 'to have a bloody smell which attracts tigers' crushed head lice, squirrel blood

See also


  1. ^ a b Jahai at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Burenhult, Niclas (2005). A Grammar of Jahai (PDF). Pacific Linguistics 566. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, The Australian National University. doi:10.15144/pl-566. hdl:1885/146729. ISBN 0-85883-554-1.
  3. ^ a b Majid, Asifa; Burenhult, Niclas (2014). "Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language". Cognition. 130 (2): 266–270. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.004. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0014-9D63-D. ISSN 0010-0277. PMID 24355816. S2CID 16257849.
  4. ^ Majid, Asifa; Burenhult, Niclas; Stensmyr, Marcus; de Valk, Josje; Hansson, Bill S. (2018). "Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 373 (1752): 20170139. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0139. ISSN 0962-8436. PMC 6015838. PMID 29915007.