July 15, 2013

New Language Began With Baby-Talk

Here is a fascinating article in The New York Times about a new language, Light Warlpiri, which is spoken by a relatively small group of Australian Aboriginal people. Everyone who speaks it is younger than 35 years old. And it began with baby-talk.

From the Times:

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.

Here is a video, “Monster Story in Light Warlpiri Child39”, from Dr. Carmel O’Shannessy’s YouTube account.

So what’s this about baby-talk? Again, from the Times:

The development of the language, Dr. O’Shannessy says, was a two-step process. It began with parents using baby talk with their children in a combination of the three languages. But then the children took that language as their native tongue by adding radical innovations to the syntax, especially in the use of verb structures, that are not present in any of the source languages.

Interesting, yes? I’m fascinated by languages, particularly newly invented ones. I thought new languages were limited to ConLangs, short for Constructed Languages. Well-known Conlangs include Dothraki from Game of Thrones and of course Klingon, from Star Trek; although if you didn’t know that already, qoH SoH. Just kidding. (Klingon actually evolved more organically via Trek fans, whereas Dothraki, as well as High and Low Valyrian, were created by a man named David Peterson. But we digress.) Of course, Dothraki and Klingon are artificial languages that were constructed for use in TV shows. We may be proud holders of the Geek Gold Card, but even we will acknowledge that when it comes to speaking a second language, Klingon doesn’t count.

Anyway, back to the smart stuff. Here are a few nifty tidbits from the Times article about Light Warlpiri.

– Dr. O’Shannessy tells the paper of record that parental baby-talk evolved into kids creating a new language with it’s own grammatical rules. Think about that for a moment. A new language just… happened. Isn’t that cool?

– The language is called Light Warlpiri because there is a language called “strong” Warlpiri. Both are spoken in the Australian village of Lajamanu.

– University of Queensland linguistics researcher Mary Laughren (not involved in this particular project but interviewed for the article) told the Times that, “Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive.” This means Dr. O’Shannessy is capturing the evolution of a language as it occurs. Again, how cool is that?

– Light Warlpiri is the language of the young people of Lajamanu. It’s not clear if the older villagers speak it, which would make this a reverse of Jewish grandparents speaking Yiddish in order to keep things from their kids.

– Back in 2010, fish fell from the sky in Lajamanu, according to the Daily Mail. The fish were still alive.

– It may be a small village, but Lajamanu has a band called Lajamanu Teenage Band. They do not appear to be teenagers.

– I’m hardly the only person interested in Conlangs, and creating a language isn’t easy. For much more information, check out the Language Creation Society.

– To be clear, I’m not calling Light Warlpiri a Conlang. That being said, the Times story says that “about 350 people speak [Light Warlpiri]  as their native tongue.” I’d be willing to bet there are more people who speak Klingon.

– I’ll leave you with another one of Dr. O’Shannessy’s videos. There are many more on her YouTube page.

Thanks to Mark Blankenship for the link. Follow Mark on Twitter, he’s very cool.

Linguist Finds a Language in Its Infancy – NYTimes.com.