Light Warlpiri: not a new mixed language

Today the science news outlets are abuzz with the claim that a newly identified mixed language has been identified in Australia, Light Warlpiri, based on a press release from the Linguistic Society of America, which is reporting a new article by Carmel O’Shannessy entitled “The role of multiple sources in the formation of an innovative auxiliary category in Light Warlpiri, a new Australian mixed language”.   The article in the Examiner is the best of a mixed bunch, but you need to overlook the unfortunate header describing it as the ‘newest language on earth’, which isn’t even remotely true.  But as we’ll see, even the more modest claims in the press release and news articles are misleading.

Warlpiri itself is a Pama-Nyungan language spoken in northern Australia by several thousand people, and is one of the better-known and less threatened (though still endangered) languages of Australia.    Light Warlpiri is spoken by about 300 Warlpiri people in one community, Lajamanu; it mixes English, Kriol, and Warlpiri, with an English verb structure and a Warlpiri and Kriol noun structure, and some elements all its own.   Mixed languages are not creoles (take note) – without going into a long digression, creoles emerge in situations where speakers do not have full access to one of the source languages.  Mixed languages are created in highly bilingual situations –  most speakers of Light Warlpiri also speak Warlpiri, Kriol, or English (in some combination).  Mixed languages can arise (which is what seems to have happened here) when code-switching (which happens in nearly every bilingual speech community) becomes formalized as a set of linguistic patterns.

However, beware!  Light Warlpiri has had a Wikipedia page since 2008 , and Carmel O’Shannessy first identified it in an article ‘Light Warlpiri: A New Language‘, back in 2005 in the Australian Journal of Linguistics, and identified it as a mixed language. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited 40 times to date.  This is hardly a new discovery.  I get why O’Shannessy is still calling it a ‘new mixed language’ in the article – it’s new-ish, in the sense that it’s only been around for roughly 40 years, and its discovery is new-ish, in that it’s only been known to linguists for fewer than 10 years.  I’m trying not to be pedantic here: it’s not like this has been known for decades, so in some sense it is ‘new’.  But reading the press on this, you’d think that no one had ever heard of Light Warlpiri until today, which is totally false.

O’Shannessy’s new article, which is the one that the LSA press release is touting, is a fuller description of the grammar and history and identifies a new class of auxiliary verbs and some other features in Light Warlpiri that differ in structure from any of the source languages.  This is pretty neat, and is certainly a new discovery.  There may be some broader implications for understanding the development of certain features cross-linguistically, as the press release suggests.  But this is not a new language, nor is it newly discovered, nor newly identified as a mixed language: the article is not making these claims.  In this sense, the LSA press release is quite misleading, and the news articles that are based on it are spreading this misinformation.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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