History In The Headlines

A New Language is Born

By Sarah Pruitt
Lajamanu is an isolated village of some 700 people, located near the remote Tanami Desert in Australia’s Northern Territory. The village lacks fully paved roads, and gets its mail delivered twice a week from the closest commercial center (the town of Katherine, some 340 miles north). Now, however, the village is making news as the birthplace of a new language, created by its younger residents within approximately the last 35 years. Known as Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, the new tongue draws words from Warlpiri, an endangered aboriginal language spoken by about 4,000 people in north-central Australia, as well as English and Kriol (an English-based Australian creole), yet has its own unique set of grammatical rules.

lajamanu australia
Dr. Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist from the University of Michigan, has been studying the speech of young people in Lajamanu for more than a decade, and has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, most recently in last month’s issue of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. O’Shannessy first discovered Light Warlpiri while working in a school in Australia’s Northern Territory. She noticed that the children, who were being taught traditional, or “strong” Warlpiri, tended to switch between several languages in the classroom. Through subsequent study, she concluded that what they speak primarily among themselves is not a dialect or a mixture of languages (known as a creole) but qualifies as a completely new language.

Like all of Lajamanu’s inhabitants, the village’s under-35 population also speaks strong Warlpiri, a language unrelated to English and shared with some 4,000 people across several aboriginal villages. Many of them also use Kriol, an English-based creole developed in the late 19th century and widely spoken among aboriginals of different native languages in northern Australia. Yet for some 350 young people in Lajamanu, Light Warlpiri is their native tongue. As many of the first speakers of Light Warlpiri are still alive, O’Shannessy’s research is particularly valuable because it documents a language in the first stages of its existence.

The Australian government established Lajamanu in 1948 after its native affairs branch became worried about overcrowding in another indigenous community in central Australia, Yuendumu. After the government forcibly removed some 550 people to the village that would become Lajamanu, the transplants returned to Yuendumu on foot at least twice before being retransported to the new village. By the 1970s, Lajamanu’s residents had resigned themselves to their fate, and the village council was set up as the first self-governing community authority in the Northern Territory. Over the next two decades, many village inhabitants found work on nearby cattle ranches, which employed predominantly English-speaking ranch hands. When they returned to the Lajamanu, these workers began switching between Warlpiri and English when speaking among themselves.

O’Shannessy suggests that Light Warlpiri subsequently developed in two steps: First, parents began using this blend of Warlpiri-English (as well as the already-existing Kriol) as “baby talk” with their children. The children then turned that mixture into their native tongue, which takes most of its verbs from English or Kriol, and most of the other grammatical elements in its sentences from Warlpiri. At the same time, Light Warlpiri contains radical syntactic innovations, including verb structures that don’t belong to any of the source languages. The most outstanding example, according to O’Shannessy, is a new “present or past but not future” tense, indicating that an event is either happening now or has already happened; such a tense does not exist in either strong Warlpiri or English.

According to O’Shannessy, mixed languages like Light Warlpiri are extremely rare, and it is even less common to find a tongue that takes the verb structure from one language and the nouns from another. Examples of similar mixed languages include Gurindji Kriol, also spoken in Australia’s Northern Territory, and Michif, a language spoken in communities along the U.S.-Canada border. Michif combines verbal structures from Cree, an Algonquin language, and noun structures from Métis French, a French-Canadian dialect.

Older inhabitants of Lajamanu, who already worry that the traditional Warlpiri language is on the decline, may greet the development of Light Warlpiri with trepidation. According to the 2006 census, nearly half the village’s population was under 20, and the Australian government estimates that by 2026 the number of the country’s indigenous people aged 15 to 64 will increase to 650 from about 440 today. O’Shannessy’s research indicates that Light Warlpiri is now so well established among Lajamanu’s young people that there is some question whether they will remain multilingual for much longer.

Categories: Languages