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A new language?

July 15, 2013

The New York Times is reporting that Carmel O’Shannessy has found a language in its formative period of creation in northern Australia.   But I think its lead exaggerates O’Shannessy’s claims:

There are many dying languages in the world. But at least one has recently been born, created by children living in a remote village in northern Australia.   Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.  The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue.

But O’Shannessy seems to claim less novelty in a recent abstract:

Light Warlpiri, a new Australian mixed language combining Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan) with varieties of English and/or Kriol that has emerged within approximately the last thirty-five years, shows radical restructuring of the verbal auxiliary system, including modal categories that differ from those in the source languages. The structure of Light Warlpiri overall is that of a mixed language, in that most verbs and some verbal morphology are drawn from English and/or Kriol, and most nominal morphology is from Warlpiri. Nouns are drawn from both Warlpiri-lexicon and English-lexicon sources. The restructuring of the auxiliary system draws selectively on elements from Warlpiri and several varieties and styles of English and/or Kriol, combined in such a way as to produce novel constructions. It may be that when multiple sources provide input to a rapidly emerging new system, innovative categories are likely to appear.

As I understand her claims, O’Shannessy is asserting that most of Light Warlpiri draws from English, Kriol, and Warlpiri, with some novel constructions in the verbal auxiliary system.  In particular, it is somewhat misleading for a newspaper to claim Light Warlpiri is “neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole” when the researcher involved asserts “the structure of Light Warlpiri overall is that of a mixed language.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 23, 2013 5:21 pm

    Isn’t witnessing the birth of a “new” language somewhat like being present for the creation of a novel species of life? Some of this, I think, people like O’Shannessy create imaginatively just by their own constructs of their own language. This whole question of “ex nihilo” language may be complicated by our human epistemologies.

    The most intriguing “new” language I’ve ever heard of is this one:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/07/2/l_072_04.html

    But then is Esperanto a language? Are “computer” “languages” language? And isn’t my novel use of English any given day something new?

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