Millennials, in a way, are a firmly bilingual group, thanks in no small part to “textspeak.” With the rise of Web 2.0 at the turn of 21st century, instant messaging slang and the bevy of acronyms that resulted have become a de facto marker of age, if not cool-factor. Down under, in the remote village of Lajamanu located in Australia’s Northern Territory, recent generations of Indigenous Australian Warlpiri people have created a language much less ubiquitous. Light Warlpiri, a mixed language no more than 40 years old, is spoken almost exclusively by people aged 35 and younger.
Light Warlpiri is made up of a triumvirate of languages: Warlpiri, the indigenous one, Standard Australian English, the colonial one, and Kriol, the English-lexified creole. This blend makes its status as a “mixed language” plain. “Most of the verbs and the grammatical patterns that go along with verbs are from Kriol and English,” says linguist Dr. Carmel O’Shannessy. “And most of the grammatical patterns that go along with nouns are from Warlpiri.” O’Shannessy is Light Warlpiri’s definitive researcher, whose work with the language began as part of her PhD research over a decade ago.
“From 1998-2001 I was living and working in Lajamanu community, not doing any research, but supporting the teaching of Warlpiri in the school’s bilingual education program in Warlpiri and English,” she says. “I heard a lot of what I thought was code-switching [alternating between languages according to who they were speaking with] … and thought that it was interesting.” With the community’s permission, O’Shannessy began researching the way young people were talking as part of her PhD. In 2003, she realized they had developed their own language by systematically melding elements from the two languages they grew up with.
“For a mixed language to develop you have to have bilinguals or multilinguals, who code-switch a lot, in a very systematic pattern, and who have some kind of social reason to create their own way of speaking,” says O’Shannessy. “Code-switching doesn’t usually lead to this kind of outcome, it’s fairly rare.”
O’Shannessy is now based at Australian National University in Canberra, and has visited the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu several times since. “The language is split down the middle, with verbs on one side and nouns on the other,” she says. “This is pretty interesting because there are not many ways of speaking in the world that have this split pattern between nouns and verbs.”
Read more: Atlas Obscura