New language develops in remote Australian village

Speakers of Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri in Lajamanu, with Dr. O'Shannessy.

Speakers of Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri in Lajamanu, with Dr. O’Shannessy.

The Science section of the New York Times reports a discovery by University of Michigan linguist Carmel O’Shannessy: a new language in its first generation of speakers. The language is Warlpiri rampaku or Light Warlpiri, natively spoken by about half of the 700 residents of Lajamanu, a remote village in Australia’s vast Northern Territory. You can hear audio of a story told in this new language here.

In a recent article in Language, Dr. O’Shannessy reports that Light Warlpiri is a “mixed language, but, she argues, not a pidgin or creole. The language draws most of its vocabulary and grammar from Warlpiri—a Pama-Nyungan language spoken by around 3,000 Australians, including the older half of Lajamanu’s population—except for the verbal system, which draws heavily on English and its local creolized form, Kriol.

Light Warlpiri is indeed distinctive in being developed by a generation of children who were already exposed to and are fully fluent in another language (Warlpiri) since birth, in a small and (previously) homogeneous language community. Without the typical language contact situation that generates pidgins and eventually creoles in other parts of the world, why did the children of Lajamanu create a new language that the older generation cannot speak? Dr. O’Shannessy discusses a number of possible explanations, including issues of identity (native speakers, who are all younger than 35, call their language “Lajamanu-style Warlpiri”), incomplete grammatical transmission (it is claimed that the children got only infant-directed speech as their input), and occasional language contact with English-speaking settlers and Kriol speakers in other villages. She even hypothesizes that this sort of language innovation has happened several times in the past, but that it is rarely if ever documented at such an early stage.

While normally our focus is on the thousands of languages that are critically endangered and unfortunately expected to disappear by the end of the current century, it’s also important to remember that at the same time, we are set to see the birth of many new languages via dialect divergence, language revitalization, language contact and creolization, and even Lajamanu-style innovation.

Read about Light Warlpiri
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