Please note that this is a hybrid event and will be recorded

Title: Adults, children and how languages diversify – a case study of Light Warlpiri, an Australian mixed language


The emergence of the mixed language, Light Warlpiri, spoken in northern Australia, raises key questions about how languages diversify. Light Warlpiri emerged in one small community about 40 years ago, and is spoken in a situation involving layers of language contact influence – a traditional language, Warlpiri, a contact language, Kriol, and a language of wider influence, English. The new language systematically combines the nominal structure of Warlpiri with the verbal structure of Kriol and English, and also shows structural innovation. It emerged through a two-stage process where, firstly, adults code-switched in a consistent pattern when speaking to young children as part of a baby talk register and, secondly, the young children internalised the mixed input as a single system, and added innovations in the verbal auxiliary system, introducing new structure that differs from the source languages.

The unusual outcome of a mixed language prompts questions of whether the drivers and processes of change in the emergence of this language are qualitatively different from those in other kinds of child language acquisition situations. In this talk I trace the sociolinguistic and cognitive factors in the emergence of Light Warlpiri and some of its less usual features, and the sociolinguistic factors that support the emergence and maintenance of new structures and languages.

About the speaker

Carmel O’Shannessy is Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at the Australian National University. In the 1990s her background as an ESL teacher and Applied Linguist took her to work in remote Indigenous schools in Australia’s Northern Territory, in the areas of Indigenous language maintenance and education. While working in the Warlpiri-English bilingual education program in the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu she noticed what sounded like extensive code-switching by younger speakers, and with the community’s approval was keen to investigate how young people were speaking. She subsequently completed her PhD in Linguistics at the University of Sydney (Australia) and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (The Netherlands) in 2007, with documentation of the genesis and development of Light Warlpiri, a mixed language that had recently emerged in the community. Within the areas of language contact and change and language acquisition, her research continues to document children’s bilingual acquisition and maintenance of Light Warlpiri and Warlpiri. She is especially interested in the roles of children and adults in contact-induced language change. She also documents traditional Warlpiri songs. Carmel has been involved with languages in remote Indigenous communities in Australia since 1996, in the areas of bilingual education and her current research.

This seminar is also part of the 2024 IMMERSIA festival.