June 18, 2019

The Surprising Survival of Hyperlocal Languages

“As she got to know the children in the community, O’Shannessy noticed that they had a different way of expressing themselves than their elders. People in Lajamanu generally spoke English, Warlpiri (an established local Aboriginal tongue), and some Kriol (a blend of English and Aboriginal languages). But O’Shannessy, who speaks both English and Warlpiri, grew convinced that the kids joking in the schoolyard were communicating in an unusual way. “When I listened more closely to how the children were speaking, they seemed to be using two languages in every sentence,” remembers O’Shannessy, now a lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra. “I thought, This is really interesting. This is something worth investigating.”

As O’Shannessy recorded conversations and took notes, she realized that the children’s speech was distinct from anything she’d heard before. She created a storybook in pictures about a dog that escapes from a monster, then asked the kids to describe what was happening in the story. That exercise helped her confirm a few key features of their language. The children were using sentence structures from Warlpiri, but the verbs came from Kriol. The nouns, meanwhile, came from English, Warlpiri, and Kriol.

Speakers mixed in some completely new rules as well, such as using the suffix -m to refer to past and present events but not future ones. That custom was not present in any earlier languages, O’Shannessy says: “That really consolidated that this is a new [language] system all by itself.””

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