How the World's Newest 'Mixed' Language Was Invented

Light Warlpiri in Northern Australia blends English with an indigenous tongue.
Warlpiri art near the Alice Springs region of Australia. (Biker Jun/Flickr)

The Warlpiri people, an indigenous group that lives near the remote Tanami Desert of Australia's northern territory, have kept a lot of things the same for centuries, such as living within unique kinship structures and performing traditional tribal dances. But now, they've done something totally new: One Warlpiri community has invented an entirely original language.

The eponymous Warlpiri is an endangered language with only about 4,000 speakers. But now, a researcher has detailed how one community of Warlpiri have blended elements of English, Kriol (a local, English-based dialect), and Warlpiri to create Light Warlpiri, which contains elements of all three, plus some new words and structures.

During the 70s and 80s, Warlpiri from this area worked on nearby cattle ranches, where they encountered predominantly English-speaking ranch hands. When they came back, they would switch between Warlpiri and English when talking among themselves.

Here's how that blending became permanent. The study's author, University of Michigan linguist Carmel O'Shannessy, said that the Warlpiri have a habit of speaking to their babies and children in a sort of babytalk -- except instead of "blankie" and "da-da," they used this Warlpiri-English mix.

"So many people spoke to kids this way so consistently that the kids started to internalize it as a single system," O'Shannessy said. From there, the natural tendency of kids to imitate each other took hold. "Warlpiri children when they're quite young spend a lot of time playing with each other -- people spend most of their time outside. The kids are interacting with each other a lot, and they modeled their language learning on other kids."

Over time, it became systemic -- Light Warlpiri, which has English verbs and Warlpiri nouns, is now the primary way children and young adults in the area communicate with each other.

What's interesting about Light Warlpiri is that it includes entirely new constructions using the best of both tongues -- for example, it uses "yu'm" as a corollary the English "I'm."

O'Shannessy's personal site features examples of how this works. The blue is the original Warlpiri, the red comes from English or Kriol, and the green represents newly invented language:

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 12.09.05 PM.png

Mixed languages like this are extremely rare, and the kind like Light Warlpiri, which have the verb structure from one language and nouns from another are even less common, O'Shannessy said. (Other examples in this category are Gurindji Kriol, another Northern Territory language, and Michif, a language spoken in the United States and Canada that combines the Native American Cree language and French.) Light Warlpiri is the newest -- its oldest speakers are only 35 years old.

O'Shannessy said her research shows that new languages can sprout from unexpected places -- even random ranching jobs.

"It tells us that the situation the people are interacting in shapes the linguistic processing taking place," she said. "It shows that our social lives and our linguistic lives are interrelated."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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