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Light Warlpiri: New Study Sheds Light on Origins of Recently Discovered Australian Language


Dr Carmel O’Shannessey and Light Warlpiri speakers (University of Michigan)

Light Warlpiri : New Study Sheds Light on Origins of Recently Discovered Australian Language

Dr Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist with the University of Michigan, has reported new information on the structure and origins of Light Warlpiri, a recently discovered mixed language spoken in a remote Indigenous community in northern Australia, which combines elements of Warlpiri and varieties of English and Kriol.

The people who live in a small community in the Tanami Desert speak a traditional language, Warlpiri. It is spoken by about 4,000 persons and is highly endangered.
In one community called Lajamanu, however, speakers readily switch between languages – from Warlpiri to English and Kriol.
In the 1970-80s, children internalized this switching as a separate linguistic system, and began to speak it as their primary code, one with verb structure from English and Kriol, and noun structure from Warlpiri as well as new structures that can be traced to Warlpiri, English and Kriol, but are no longer the same as in those source languages. As these children grew up they taught the new language to their own children, and it is now the primary code of children and young adults in the community.
First documented by Dr O’Shannessy in 2005, Light Warlpiri is one of a small number of ‘mixed languages,’ ones which typically consist of combinations of elements from two languages, although the combinations can be of different types.
For example, most of the words come from one language and most of the grammar from the other. It is rare to find the structures of the verb system and noun system from different languages, as in Light Warlpiri, as is the fact that more than two languages were involved in the creation.
One striking innovation involves taking word forms from English, for example,I’m ‘I – present tense,’ and creating new forms such yu-m ‘you-nonfuture,’ (that is, the present and past but not the future). There were no structures in Warlpiri, English or Kriol, however, that meant ‘non future time.’
This creation of new meanings from old sources also occurs in pidgin and creole languages, and in languages in the Balkan linguistic area. Perhaps the common factor between these and Light Warlpiri is that each of them arose from combining elements from several languages. The wide separation of these codes suggests that this innovative combining may be an unusual but widely available human language phenomenon.
The findings appear in a paper published in the June 2013 issue of the journal Language .

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