New Language Spawned in Remote Australian Town and Only 350 People Can Speak It
It is not every day that a new and unique language is discovered, but this finding really has anthropologists stumped. In a tiny, remote Aboriginal community in outback Australia, an American linguist discovered that a new language emerged among the young people in the community and is now spoken by around 350 individuals, all under the age of 35. But how was this new language spawned when they were already perfectly able to communicate with each other without it?
New Method of Communication Officially Classified as a Language
The new language is known as Light Warlpiri. It has six vowels and 18 consonants. It refers to the past and present but does not have a future tense. English grammar sets rules that a sequence of words must be put in for the sentences to make sense. However, in Light Warlpiri, there is no order in the placement of words. Taken together, these features make it distinct from other related languages and allows it to be classified as its own language and not just a variation of an existing language.
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The Spawning of a New Language
The discovery of the new language was made by American linguist, Carmel O’Shannessy, back in 2013. She was working at a small school for indigenous children in the tiny, isolated town of Lajamanu in the desert of Australia, and documented her findings in the journal Language. She was particularly interested in how a new language could develop among the younger generation when they were already able to speak to each other in their local Aboriginal tongue Warlpiri, which is spoken by approximately 5,000 to 6,000 individuals across several settlements and towns in central Australia.
The language, now known as Light Warlpir, is used in Lajamanu, a tiny desert community located half-way between Darwin and Alice Springs, on the edge of the Tanami Desert (Google Maps)
“The language is believed to have emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when children went from switching between English, Kriol and Warlpiri to primarily speaking the mixed Light Warlpiri language,” reported The Telegraph. [Kriol is a language that was developed when the British colonized Australia in order for the English, the Chinese and the Aboriginals to communicate in the first years of their settlement in Australia].
The creation of Light Warlpiri is associated with its remoteness. It receives supplies from a truck just once every week and is 350 miles from the nearest city (Katherine).
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Arnhemland and Torrest Strait dance company (CC BY SA 3.0)
"It seems that the people who are about 35 years old are the ones who created the system and brought in the innovation in the verbal auxiliary," Dr O'Shannessy said [via The Telegraph]. "They then passed it on to their children, and it will probably get passed on to subsequent generations… The striking thing about Light Warlpiri is that most of the verbs come from English or Kriol, but most of the other grammatical elements in the sentence come from Warlpiri.”
Linguists continue to be fascinated by the emergence and growth of Light Warlpiri as it is the first time that researchers have been able to document the development of a young, new language.
Top image: Aboriginal children in a remote, desert community (Public domain)