New language discovered in Australia, only spoken by 350 people
It’s spoken only by a few hundred people living in a tiny desert community, and almost exclusively by those under the age of 35.
But the discovery of a new language in remote Australia is causing a ripple of excitement among linguists around the world.
Lajamanu, with a population of around 850, lies on the northern fringe of the Tanami Desert, 870 kilometres south of Darwin and 560kms southwest of Katherine by road.
It is one of the Northern Territory’s most westerly communities and its original language, Warlpiri, is spoken by about 6000 people in the region.
Carmel O’Shannesssy, a linguist from the University of Michigan, began visiting the town to study local young people’s speech more than a decade ago.
Lajamanu has no entirely paved roads and during the wet season it can be cut off.
A community-managed airline lands a plane on the town’s dirt airstrip twice a week carrying mail, and once a week a truck brings in supplies to stock Lajamanu’s one village store.
All residents speak traditional "strong" Warlpiri and some speak "Kriol", an English-based creole developed in the late 19th century and widely spoken by indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
Around 350 young locals speak the new language documented by Ms O’Shannessy, called "Light Warlpiri".
The language is a complex mix of English, Kriol and Warlpiri, but has a verbal system closer to Kriol and English.
Documented in the journal Language, Light Warlpiri differs from its indigenous origins by mixing in English sentence structure.
"The striking thing about Light Warlpiri is that most of the verbs come from English or Kriol, but most of the other grammatical elements in the sentence come from Warlpiri," Ms O’Shannessy told LiveScience.
In English, the order of words in a sentence generally indicates the grammatical relationship between the subjects and objects of a verb.
In traditional Warlpiri, words can be placed in any order, and grammatical interpretations are based on suffixes that are attached to the nouns.
"In Light Warlpiri, you have one part of the language that mostly comes from English and Kriol, but the other grammatical part, the suffixing, comes from Warlpiri," Ms O’Shannessy said.
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