We often hear about languages that are dying, or close to extinction. But linguists had reason to celebrate when they discovered the birth of a new language in a remote Australian village.
Researchers have concluded that young people in the village of Lajamanu have started speaking a completely new language, that is not just a dialect or mixture of existing languages. Around 350 people, all aged under 35, speak the new language, known as light Warlpiri, as their native tongue.
Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist from the University of Michigan, has been studying the village of around 700 people in the Northern Territory for more than a decade. Most villagers speak an Aboriginal language, “strong Warlpiri”. They share this language with around 4,000 people in the nearby area.
Many also speak Kriol, a creole based on English, which developed in the 19th century. It’s used as a way for speakers of different indigenous languages to communicate with each other.
The new language includes words derived from strong Warlpiri, Kriol, and English. But Dr O’Shannessy found it’s not simply a combination, as it has its own unique grammatical rules. For example, there are verb endings that indicate a tense that is either past or present, but not future. This tense doesn’t exist in the other languages.
Her study, in the journal Language, is significant as it’s very rare to record a new language in its infancy.
She believes its development happened in two steps. Since adults often “code-switch” between languages, children heard their parents speaking a mixture. Then the children began adding their own innovations, such as new verb structures, that were not present in these tongues. As they spent a lot of time playing with each other, they conventionalised language they heard from their parents, added innovations, and created a new structure and vocabulary.
New languages sometimes develop when people have no common language, but that clearly wasn’t the case here. Dr O’Shannessy suggests that the children wanted to speak the same way as each other, and used the language as a marker of their identity as a new generation of the community. The remoteness of their village probably also played a part.
As they grew up, they passed it on to their own children. The language is now so well-established that older inhabitants are concerned about preserving strong Warlpiri.
If you’re curious to know how it sounds, you can hear a young girl reading a story in light Warlpiri on the NPR blog (with subtitles!) It’ll be interesting to see how the language develops, as the second generation of speakers grows up.
We don’t have any Light Warlpiri translators (yet!) but we do cover more than 600 language combinations. Do find out about more about our translation services, or get in touch.