New language discovered in Australia gives development insights

June 18, 2013 at 3:33 PM
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ANN ARBOR, Mich., June 18 (UPI) -- A new language discovered in a remote indigenous community in northern Australia reveals insights into how languages develop, a U.S. linguist says.

University of Michigan linguist Carmel O'Shannessy has studied a language she has dubbed Light Warlpiri spoken in a small region of Australia's Tanami Desert.

Residents there speak a highly endangered traditional language, Warlpiri, but a small group in one community called Lajamanu readily switch between Warlpiri, English, and a local English-based creole known as Kriol.

In the 1970s and 1980s, O'Shannessy said, children internalized this switching as a separate linguistic system and began to speak it as their primary language, one with verb structure from English and Kriol, and noun structure from Warlpiri.

These children grew up and taught the new language, Light Warlpiri, to their own children and it is now the primary language of children and young adults in the community, she said.

"Mixed languages" typically consist of combinations of elements from two languages, although it is rare to find the structures of the verb system and noun system from different languages as in Light Warlpiri.

This innovative combining may be an unusual but widely available human language phenomenon, O'Shannessy said.

The study has been published in Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America.

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