‘Semang’ is an ethnographic label which refers generically to a cluster of foraging populations in the Malay Peninsula. Like several other minority groups in the peninsula, the Semang speak Aslian languages, a branch of the Mon-Khmer language family. The Semang can be divided into several ethnolinguistic groups, including Kensiw, Kintaq, Jahai, Menriq, and Batek (which all speak closely related languages/dialects of the Northern subbranch of Aslian), as well as Lanoh (associated with a group of dialects belonging to the Central subbranch of Aslian). The total number of Semang is estimated at around 2,500-3,000 individuals. The number of speakers of each language ranges between around 150 (Menriq) and 1,000 (Jahai). Some dialect varieties (especially of Lanoh) are close to extinction.
The Aslian languages are typologically noteworthy in a number of ways. For example, their phonemic inventories are typically rich (especially vowels, some languages displaying 30 or more distinct vowel nuclei). Also, they display complex and productive processes and paradigms of derivational morphology (with intricate patterns of reduplication and infixation). Furthermore, they often have unusually rich deictic classes, e.g. multi-term demonstrative systems and elaborate pronominal paradigms. Another interesting feature is the presence of so-called expressives. Moreover, Aslian lexicons are rich, fine-grained semantic distinctions being encoded in monolexemic forms. Yet Aslian languages systematically engage in extensive lexical borrowing from Malay, the neighbouring Austronesian majority language.
Only one comprehensive account is available of an Aslian language spoken by the Semang, Burenhult’s (2005) grammar of Jahai. The other major work of reference on an Aslian language is Kruspe’s (2004) grammar of Semelai (Southern Aslian).
Burenhult, Niclas. 2005. A grammar of Jahai. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
Kruspe, Nicole. 2004. A grammar of Semelai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.