A New Language Is Born: Light Warlpiri

With English seemingly becoming the Language Of All Languages, with TV, games, movies and especially the internet, propelling this language into very nook and cranny of the world, countries and communities that once lived peacefully with their own devices are becoming more aware of the ‘worldly’ use and importance of English. At least, so it would seem…

While other languages die out and become forgotten, people in the village of Lajamanu, Australia, have decided not to follow the trend. Lajamanu is an isolated village in which there are no completely paved roads. Through the threat of overcrowding and drought in Yuendumu, the government forcibly removed 550 people in 1948 and established Lajamanu without any consent from the people involved. It sits 550 miles south of Darwin and 340 miles south of Katherine, which is the nearest commercial center. It has one store to which supplies arrive by truck once a week, and a plane from Katherine brings mail twice a week; the electricity comes from a diesel generator and a solar energy plant.

In this isolated little village, 350 people under the age of 35 speak a new language called ‘Light Warlpiri’ as their native tongue. It is neither a dialect nor a mixture of other languages, making it even more astonishing. The reason for the name ‘Light’ Warlpiri is that in the Northern Territory the most common Aboriginal language is ‘Strong’ Warlpiri, of which about 4,000 people speak.


As you can imagine a new language is not born every day, so under what circumstances did this one come to be? Well, Carmel O’Shannessy believes it’s from the young. Dr. O’Shannessy spends three weeks a year in Lajamanu and can speak both Strong and Light Warlpiri. She began investigating the language in 2002. The older people in the village often speak several languages: Strong Warlpiri, English, and Kriol. The latter is a creole based on English and used for different indigenous language groups to communicate. While switching between these languages the children picked up words from each, derived their own words, and when playing and communicating together even created their own unique grammatical rules, verb structures, and an entirely new language.

So, to the best part, some examples!

  • ‘Nganimpa-ng gen wi-m si-m worm mai aus-ria’ – We also saw worms at my house.
  • ‘Kamta-pawung im pushim nganayi boi-wan swingswing-nga. An jarntu i was de’ – The little girl pushed the boy on the swing. And the dog was there.
  • ‘Kuuku bin kam karnta-pawuk an jarntuk’ – A monster came to get the little girl and the dog.
  • ‘Maja-wan an dauta-wan dem go jeisim kuuku’ – The mother and daughter go and chase the monster.

An interesting choice of sentences, but I’m sure within them you can see certain words coming from the English vocabulary, such as ‘worm’ and ‘swing.’ The big differences come with the endings; ‘-ria’ means “in” or “at,” so “aus-ria” is ‘at the house,’ and the words ending with ‘-m’ indicate an event that is either happening now or has already happened.


The isolated community of Lajamanu

How much this language continues to grow is yet to be seen but it is satisfying to see that new and interesting languages are still coming to life rather than simply fading away. Do you think it’s good that new languages still appear? Or do you think that English is right to be dominant and should be the language of choice in the future?