U of M Professor discovers 'radical' new language in Australia

Jul 15, 2013

A new language has been discovered in a remote aboriginal community of Lajamanu in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Dr. Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, first discovered the new language while studying in Lajamanu. The language spoken there is Warlpiri – an aboriginal language unrelated to English.

Over the last decade O’Shannessy has documented the emergence of “Light Warlpiri” or Warlpiri rampaku in the region.

Primarily spoken by people under the age of 35, the language seems to have emerged in the isolated village of Lajamanu in the late 1970s, according to an article by Joanna Egan at the Australian Geographic.

O’Shannessy described the language to Egan:

“During my four years living and working in the community, I realised that when children spoke to each other, every sentence contained both Warlpiri and English/Kriol.”

This might lead one to think that Light Warlpiri is a dialect or a creole language (a language based on two other languages) of Warlpiri and English. But O’Shannessy asserts that this is an entirely new language with a unique and “radical” grammar structure.

On her professional website, O’Shannessy explained the language this way:

Light Warlpiri draws most nouns and nominal structure from Warlpiri, and most verbs and verbal structure from varieties of English and Kriol (an English-lexified Kriol, spoken in the north of Australia).

Nicholas Bakalar with the New York Times reported that in the village of about 700, around 350 people speak Light Warlpiri as their native tongue.

According to Bakalar:

The development of the language, Dr. O’Shannessy says, was a two-step process. It began with parents using baby talk with their children in a combination of the three languages. But then the children took that language as their native tongue by adding radical innovations to the syntax, especially in the use of verb structures, that are not present in any of the source languages.

Want to hear this new language?

The video below is of a child telling a story in Light Warlpiri. 

Here's another video of O’Shannessy explaining the language:

Interestingly, the emergence of Light Warlpiri seems to be a threat to Warlpiri in the Lajamanu community. O’Shannessy told Bakalar at the New York Times:

“How long the kids will keep multilingualism, I don’t know. The elders would like to preserve Warlpiri, but I’m not sure it will be. Light Warlpiri seems quite robust.”

- Julia Field, Michigan Radio Newsroom