LISTEN: 'Light Warlpiri,' The New Language In Australia

Jul 16, 2013
Originally published on July 16, 2013 8:00 pm

We've all read stories about languages that are dying.

Here's a completely different tale: University of Michigan linguistics professor Carmel O'Shannessy says she's found a language that was born just a few decades ago.

It's "Light Warlpiri," which as our colleagues at Michigan Radio report was discovered by O'Shannessy "in a remote aboriginal community of Lajamanu in the Northern Territory of Australia."

Tuesday on All Thing Considered, O'Shannessy told host Audie Cornish that the people of Lajamanu have been "code switching" between English and creole for many years. But on visits there, she noted that the younger people had gone further to create a new "Light Warlpiri" with a structure of its own.

She theorizes that the language grew in the 1970s and '80s when many of the adults "were speaking to young children [and] using a lot of English and creole verbs." The children, who spent a lot of time with each other, "conventionalized a system" that became their own language. And now, "those children have grown up and they're young adults" who are teaching Light Warlpiri to their offspring.

You can hear what the language sounds like on this video that O'Shannessy created. It's a young girl telling a story in Light Warlpiri.

We'll add the as-broadcast version of the All Things Considered conversation to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR members station that broadcasts or streams the show.

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In a remote village of Australia, a new language has been born. It's not a dialect, a version of an existing language. It's not a Creole, a mix of two distinct languages. And even though the majority of its speakers are under the age of 35, no, it's not slang.

Carmel O'Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, discovered this language. And, Carmel O'Shannessy, just what is it called?


CORNISH: Light Warlpiri. So who uses it and how did you come across it?

O'SHANNESSY: It's spoken, as you said, by people under around the age of 35 in one Warlpiri community in north central Australia. And I came across it because I first went to the community in 1998 to work in a bilingual education program, to teach both Warlpiri and English to the kids in the school.

And I was there for about four years and I noticed that there was a lot of code switching, which is switching between languages in a single conversation, or even a single sentence. And I thought that this was very linguistically interesting. And so, after that, I would record people talking, write down what they said and then look through the transcriptions for patterns in how they were speaking to see if there was some kind of system to the way that they were speaking.

CORNISH: So what was your a-ha moment when you realized Light Warlpiri, like this is a separate language?

O'SHANNESSY: The really a-ha moment was when I saw that they have a new grammatical structure that's not the same as what's in Warlpiri or varieties of English or Creole, although it comes from them and it's easily traceable from them. But it changes a little bit and it ends up being a new structure. And that was when it sort of became clear that this was a system all of its own.

CORNISH: Now we grabbed an audio sample from your website, which is the sound of a seven-year-old telling a story. She's looking at a picture book and I guess you ask her to explain what's going on in the book. And here's what she says.


CORNISH: What did we just hear in Light Warlpiri?

O'SHANNESSY: Okay. So what we heard that child say there was that a little girl is there with her dog and a monster came to get the little girl and the dog. Some of the words they could probably recognize. They sound like English words like (unintelligible). And so that's the component that's not from Warlpiri. But other words didn't sound like English, so they were the Warlpiri words. And they had word endings on them.

So for example, she said (unintelligible) which is the sound at the end of English sing. That has a grammatical function in this language which is very different from anything that English has. It means that it's the little girl that's doing the action of holding the dog. And that's one of the interesting things about this new system is that it keeps those grammatical elements from Warlpiri and it combines them with other elements like (unintelligible) from varieties of English and Creole.

CORNISH: Is there any sense about why this developed among young people specifically?

O'SHANNESSY: I have a hypothesis, which is that in the 1970s and 1980s, people were code switching a lot, so switching between languages. And that when they were speaking to young children they used a lot of English and Creole verbs in the same kind of pattern that developed into Light Warlpiri. And the children spent a lot of time playing with each other. And so they heard this again from each other. And then in doing that, they added in the new structures. And when you put all that together, it becomes a completely independent system.

Carmel O'Shannessy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CORNISH: Thank you, Audie. It's my pleasure.

Carmel O'Shannessy. She's a linguist at the University of Michigan researching in the remote villages of northern Australia. She discovered a new language called Light Warlpiri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.