Light Warlpiri – New language on earth

warlpiriTermCoord publishied in the past few months several articles on endangered languages which are doomed to disappear. So here is some good news: a new language called Light Warlpiri has been discovered in an isolated aboriginal community in northern Australia.

This new language has been invented by aboriginal youngsters who are used to code-switching between their local Aboriginal language Warlpiri, English and Kriol.

Kriol is an English-based language that borrows much phonology and grammar from traditional aboriginal languages. With an estimated 20,000 speakers, Kriol is believed to be spreading in the future. It is spoken across the North of Australia; from Darwin to Tennant Creek. It is nowadays mainly used in oral communication and plays a rather limited role in other domains.

The Kriol language emerged following a two-step process. The first colonisers and the indigenous inhabitants of the Sydney area first created a form of lingua franca as an auxiliary language. Consequently, this non-native language called Pidgin expanded across the colonial parts of Australia and became the so-called native Kriol language.

Today the Light Warlpiri language is spoken by approximately 350 inhabitants out of the 850 living in a village called Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert. The geographical isolation of this community is believed to be one of the reasons for the emergence of Light Warlpiri. Indeed, Lajamanu is located about 885 km south of Darwin and as not all roads can be used, the village receives supplies carried by a truck only once a week.

The language was discovered by the American linguist Carmel O’Shannessy of the University of Michigan, who started investigating linguistic practices in this region in 2002 spending up to eight weeks per year in Lajamanu. As she speaks and understands both Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri, she noticed that children at school were constantly code-switching between Warlpiri, English and Kriol. Surprisingly the alternation of languages did not occur randomly but seemed to follow a recurring pattern. Only when recording the children´s conversations, did O´Shannessy notice that the language was an independent system with distinct grammatical rules.

The emergence of the newfound language started in the 1970s and 80s with parents using baby talk with their children combining all three languages. Consequently, the children adopted this language as their mother tongue and added new linguistic features in the syntax and grammar. For instance, Light Warlpiri´s verb structure can be derived from the English and Kriol language while the noun structure originates from Warlpiri. Another distinctive feature of this language is that Light Warlpiri implies a word form that refers to both the present and the past – but not the future. This very special characteristic cannot be found in any other existing language.

Despite its novelty, the Light Warlpiri language believed to be endangered due to the dominating English language in Lajamanu.

Has it sparked your interest? A short example of the new language can be heard here.

Article written by Sandra Nunes Teixeira, student intern at TermCoord, Master student in theMulti-learn programme at the University of Luxembourg.

About TermCoord

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