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Birth of a Language (Discover)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The indigenous village of Lajamanu, population 600, sits on the southern edge of the subtropics of northern Australia. It’s the kind of place where a truck rumbles in once a week to deliver staples to the local store, and where electricity comes from diesel and solar generators. It’s so remote that the oldest members of the community still remember the first time they saw a white person in the 1930s.

Carmel O’Shannessy landed on Lajamanu’s dirt airstrip in 1998 as a government employee sent to support local teachers of English and Warlpiri, a language spoken in several places in the Northern Territory. By 2001, she realized that the children had been busy inventing an entirely new mixed language, borrowing words and grammar from both mother tongues. O’Shannessy, now a linguist at the University of Michigan, describes how she got the chance to witness a language — which she later dubbed Light Warlpiri — in the making.

Read the Q&A at Discover