18 Jun 2013

New Language Discovery: Light Warlpiri

Light Warlpiri, a newly emerged mixed language that is spoken in a remote Indigenous community in northern Australia, has been discovered. It is a result of a unique combination of elements from typologically dissimilar languages: Standard Australian English, Warlpiri, a Pama-Nyungan language with approximately 4,000 speakers, Kriol, an English lexified creole and/or Australian Aboriginal English. The Warlpiri community lives in the Tanami Desert and Light Warlpiri is spoken by adults under the age of 35 and their children.

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Most mixed languages consist of combinations of elements from two languages. For instance they take the grammar from one language and the lexis from another. However, Light Warlpiri takes the nominal and verbal systems from different source languages, which is very rare. Nouns are mostly from Warlpiri or Standard Australian English and the nominal morphology is taken from Warlpiri. Verbs and verbal inflections are mostly borrowed from Kriol. Nevertheless, the most interesting fact is that within the verbal auxiliary system, English and/or Kriol modal forms are reanalysed and result in new structures and forms.

It is assumed that Light Warlpiri has originated in the 1980s due to an expansion of the English-Warlpiri codeswitching patterns. Linguists typically use the term ‘codeswitching’ to mean the instant and frequent switching between two distinct languages. Light Warlpiri was first documented by the linguist Carmel O’Shannessy of the University of Michigan in 2005. O’Shannessy explains that ‘First, adult directed codeswitched speech to young children as part of a baby talk register. Next, the children analysed the codeswitched speech as a single system and added innovations’.

Light Warlpiri is an index of the local community identity, especially for the younger people. Nevertheless, it might also be endangered due to the intense pressure to shift to English.

Watch a video of a child telling ‘The Monster Story’ in Light Warlpiri:


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