People rarely consider the history behind the languages they speak today. But when a new language began to form right in front of a University linguist’s eyes, she jumped at the opportunity to be one of the few people in history to study the birth of a new language.

Assistant Linguistics Prof. Carmel O’Shannessy had been in the Lajamanu community of northern Australia for four years, where she was helping to coordinate a bilingual education program. When she began to hear children code-switching, or switching languages within the same sentence, she decided to turn her investigations into a PhD project.

Warlpiri Rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is a combination of Warlpiri — a language spoken both in Lajamanu and other surrounding villages — Aboriginal English and Australian English.

In order to determine that Warlpiri Rampaku is distinct from its parent languages, O’Shannessy had speakers tell a story from a picture book, or had two people simply talk to each other while she recorded the conversation. She found unique grammatical patterns forming, which is one of the factors that makes Light Warlpiri a language of its own.

The pattern for Light Warlpiri involves the use of a mostly Warlpiri sentence with an English or Kriol verb. For example, to ask someone “Where did you go?” in Warlpiri, one would say “Nyarrpara-kurra-npa yanu?” But in Light Warlpiri, one would say “Nyarrpara-kurra yu-m go?”

Here, the Light Warlpiri version uses the English word for “go”, and “yu-m” translates to the non-future version of “you”. But in the Warlpiri version of the same sentence, “yanu” is used for the past tense of “go” and the “you” is expressed as “-npa”.

Both the lack of a dictionary and writing system — speakers write in traditional Warlpiri instead — point to the newness of the language.

Determining the difference between a language and a dialect is often difficult, but O’Shannessy said it often has to do with political and social criteria. However, she added that if two systems are not mutually intelligible, they aren’t considered the same language.

O’Shannessy said a person who spoke Warlpiri but not Aboriginal English or Australian English, wouldn’t understand Light Warlpiri. However, all Warlpiri speakers in Lajamanu do actually understand Light Warlpiri because they are all multilingual. Light Warlpiri is not mutually intelligible with Aboriginal English or Australian English, so it’s not considered simply a different dialect.

Linguistics Prof. Sarah Thomason said O’Shannessy’s discovery and ability to study a language from its beginning is particularly remarkable.

“It’s so rare to find something this unusual when you can actually study (its development) in real time,” she said. “There aren’t that many well understood mixed languages.”

Thomason compared Light Warlpiri to Michif, a language spoken in Canada that combines French and Cree and is often characterized by Cree verbs incorporated into French phrases.

“The people who created these things had to know both Cree and French to do it, but if you know French, you wouldn’t understand Michif because you wouldn’t know the verbs,” she said.

Similarly, Thomason said, “You can’t just wing Light Warlpiri,” even if you know the languages it’s derived from, because there are structures that don’t occur in those languages.

“It’s very unusual to have the opportunity to see a language develop like this, but there are still many questions as to how it will develop,” O’Shannessy said.

Given the permission of the Lajamanu community, O’Shannessy plans to continue her research indefinitely. With time she said she hopes to analyze how grammatical structures change, if and how new words are developed and whether Light Warlpiri’s speakers continue to use the language.

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