A University of Michigan linguist has discovered an entirely new language in a northern Australian aboriginal village, which she says evolved from children’s speech. In a recent study, Carmel O’Shannessy explains how Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, developed over the past 35 years in the remote village of Lajamanu.
In an interview with the New York Times, O’Shannessy said that the mixed language, which is differentiated from a dialect or creole because it employs its own distinct grammar, is spoken almost exclusively by villagers under the age of 35. O’Shannessy first began studying the language in 2002, and travels to Lajamanu, a village 540 miles south of Darwin with a population of roughly 700 people, every year for three to eight weeks.
The village, which appeared in the news back in 2010 when residents noticed fish dropping out of the sky, was created in 1948 by the Australian government by forcibly relocating people from the crowded village of Yuendumu.
What makes Warlpiri rampaku so novel, experts say, is that it is one of the first languages linguists have been able to study from its infancy. Mary Laughren, a linguistics researcher at the University of Queensland, said that O’Shannessy’s work is especially valuable because,“she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”
“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” Laughren added.
According to O’Shannessy, Warlpiri rampaku evolved in two stages. Its foundation came from parents who spoke in baby talk to their children using a combination of English, the English-based creole language Kriol, and “strong” Walpiri, the more established aboriginal language spoken by approximately 4,000 northern Australians.
O’Shannessy says that local children used the mixture of those three languages and then invented their own syntax. Of the recent introduction of English into the local dialects, O’Shannessy said, “These people were hunters and gatherers, roaming over a territory. But then along came white people, cattle stations, mines, and so on. People were kind of forced to stop hunting and gathering.”
Although Warlpiri rampaku started from humble beginnings, O’Shannessy suggested that its close affiliation with youth might actually help it to become more prominent than the more customary Warlpiri, spoken by the older portion of the population.
“I think that identity plays a role. After children created the new system, it has since become a marker of their identity as being young Warlpiri from the Lajamanu Community,” she said. “The elders would like to preserve Warlpiri, but I’m not sure it will be. Light Warlpiri seems quite robust.”
“How long the kids will keep multilingualism, I don’t know,” Dr. O’Shannessy said. “The elders would like to preserve Warlpiri, but I’m not sure it will be. Light Warlpiri seems quite robust.”