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About Semai
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
  4. Publications
  5. Photos


Semai is a member of the Aslian languages, a genetically and geographically distinct branch of the Austro-Asiatic stock and the Mon-Khmer language family. Aslian languages are spoken in areas of Peninsular Malaysia and southern most part of Thailand.

Semai has approximately 30,000 speakers, representing several distinct dialects. The dialect under investigation is that of Kampar Semai. It is not a written language and most Semai speakers have knowledge of Malay, the Austronesian majority language of Malaysia.

Linguistic work on Semai is largely of a sporadic nature. A handful of word lists date from late 1800s through the 1900s (e.g., Wilkinson (1915) and Means and Means (1986)). Since the 1960s, Diffloth has published a number of papers on various linguistic aspects of Semai, including historical phonology, morphology and expressives (Diffloth 1968, 1972, 1976, 1977). (See general references.)

The Ethnologue language code for Semai is: sea.

Some linguistic features of Kampar Semai:

  • Rich phonemic inventory; 33 vowels (oral/nasal & long/short distinctions), 19 consonants
  • Rich derivational morphology; affixation & cliticsation
  • SVO as unmarked constituent order
  • Split intransitive syntax
  • Word class of expressives/ideophones
  • Intrinsic spatial system
  • Pronoun paradigms including DUAL-distinction and in-law pronouns



The Semai reside inland in the states of Perak and Pahang on Peninsular Malaysia. A smaller group of speakers also live in the state of Selangor. Semai environments are characterised by pristine montane rainforest with numerous river-systems; surroundings with exceptionally rich biodiversity. Smaller groups inhabit the forested lowland areas of southern Perak.

The dialect of focus is Kampar Semai (Perak), located where the mountainous areas meet the lowlands.


People and Culture

The Semai are members of the Orang Asli population, the indigenous population of Peninsular Malaysia. Together with the 17 or so other Orang Asli groups, they are considered to be possible descendants of the first aboriginal population of Southeast Asia. They often refer to themselves as maj serak 'the people of the forest' or sengoy 'people/humans'.

The Semai reside in areas ranging from hill jungle to urban fringes. Most Semai live off hunting/fishing, slash-and-burn farming, gathering and trading of forest products (mostly fruits and rattan), or as day labourers in nearby towns. A smaller number live in larger towns and are more integrated into a Malay life-style.



Linguistic material:

  • Benjamin, G. (1999). The Aslian languages: An assessment. In H. Steinhauer and J. Collins (eds.). Endangered languages and literatures of Southeast Asia, pp.1-43. Ed. Leiden: KITLV Press. Royal Institute of Ethnography and Linguistics.
  • Diffloth, G. (1968). Proto-Semai Phonology. In Federation Museums Journal 13: 65-74.
  • Diffloth, G. (1972). Ambiguïté morphologique en Semai. In Langues et techniques, Paris: Nature et Société.
  • Diffloth, G. (1976). Expressives in Semai. In P.C Jenner, L. C Thompson and S. Starosta (eds.). Austroasiatic Studies, Part 1, pp.249-264 [Oceanic Linguistics, Special Publication 13]. Honolulu: University press of Hawaii
  • Diffloth, G. (1977). Towards a history of Mon-Khmer: Proto Semai Vowels. In Southeast Asian studies, Vol. XIV(4), pp. 463-483. Kyoto: The Centre for Southeast Asian Studies
  • Means, N., and P. Means (1986). Sengoi-English, English-Sengoi dictionary. University of Toronto and York University: The Joint Centre on Modern East Asia.
  • Wilkinson, R. J. (1915). A Vocabulary of Central Sakai. In Papers on Malay Subjects, Second series No. 3. Kuala Lumpur: Government Press.


Ethnographic material:

  • Benjamin, G. (1985). In the long term: Three themes in Malayan cultural ecology. In Cultural values and human ecology in Southeast Asia, ed. Karl L. A. Hutterer, Terry Rambo and George Lovelace, 219–278. University of Michigan: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies.
  • Benjamin, G. & Chou, C. (2002). Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
  • Bulbeck, F. David (2004). An integrated perspective on Orang Asli ethnogenesis. In Southeast Asian archaeology: Wilhelm G. Solheim II Festschrift, ed. Victor Paz, 366–399. Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press.
  • Dentan, R. (1968). The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaysia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Dentan, R., Endicott, K., Gomes, A.G. & Hooker, M.B. (1997). Malaysia and the “Original People”: A Case Study of the impact of Development on indigenous Peoples. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Gerco, K. (2002). Cultural contact and Semai cultural Identity. In Benjamin, G. and C. Chou. (eds.) Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore



Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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Sylvia Tufvesson

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands