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A New Language Is Being Born in This Remote Australian Village

A unique language is being born in northern Australia

Warlpiri youth in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo: Rusty Stewart

We hear of languages on the verge of extinction all the time, like Nuumte Oote, a language with just two speakers leftOr native Hawai’ian, with a few thousandOr any of the 2471 languages listed as vulnerable by the United Nations. But in a remote village in Australia’s Northern Territory, a town of around 700, called Lajamanu, linguists are watching live as a new language is being born, says The New York Times.

The language, Warlpiri rampaku, is spoken largely by the town’s youth. Linguist Carmel O’Shannessy thinks that though Warlpiri rampaku borrows heavily on English and the another language, Warlpiri, Warlpiri rampaku is its own independent language. (O’Shannessy calls Warlpiri and Warlpiri rampaku “strong” and “light” Warlpiri, respectively, to help tell them apart.) The New York Times:

The development of the language, Dr. O’Shannessy says, was a two-step process. It began with parents using baby talk with their children in a combination of the three languages . But then the children took that language as their native tongue by adding radical innovations to the syntax, especially in the use of verb structures, that are not present in any of the source languages.

So, the new language, light Warlpiri, borrows some verb structures and nouns from its parent languages, but it puts these pieces together in a new way. This is in much the same was as how many of the Romance languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian, seem to borrow words from each other while being noticeably different languages. The Times:

Dr. O’Shannessy offers this example, spoken by a 4-year-old: Nganimpa-ng gen wi-m si-m worm mai aus-ria. (We also saw worms at my house.)

It is easy enough to see several nouns derived from English. But the -ria ending on “aus” (house) means “in” or “at,” and it comes from Warlpiri. The -m ending on the verb “si” (see) indicates that the event is either happening now or has already happened, a “present or past but not future” tense that does not exist in English or Warlpiri. This is a way of talking so different from either Walpiri or Kriol that it constitutes a new language.

Interestingly, says O’Shannessy to the Times, the use of light Warlpiri among Lajamanu’s youth is so strong that it seems to be threatening the survival of strong Warlpiri.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Do You Say ‘Star Wars’ In Navajo?
How to Save a Dying Language
How to Revive a Lost Language
How to Learn a Language Nobody Speaks

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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