The Australian Town That Invented A Language

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In the outback of Aboriginal Australia, there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it desert town named Lajamanu, sandwiched between Darwin and Alice Springs. There are no paved roads in the alcohol-free community, and only one store, which is restocked by a supply truck once a week; mail gets delivered just twice a week. But half of the town (population: 700) is making headlines for pioneering a new native tongue: Light Warlpiri.

What does Light Warlpiri look like? Something like this: “Nganimpa-ng gen wi-m si-m worm mai aus-ria.” In English, that’s “We also saw worms at my house.” Most verbs in the language draw from English, but tacking on suffixes is straight from traditional Warlpiri, a language that relies on suffixes to denote grammatical meaning since words can be put in any order.

The town’s citizens all speak “strong” Warlpiri, a “highly endangered” language exclusive to some 4000 people. Light Warlpiri, on the other hand—a language that’s a cocktail of Warlpiri, English, and Kriol (a local dialect dating back to the 19th century and based on creole)—whittles its number of native speakers to just 350, and no one who speaks it is older than 35.

Though several words of Light Warlpiri are derived from their English and Kriol counterparts, linguists have determined it’s a new language in its own right. Carmel O’Shannessy, a University of Michigan linguist who has studied Lajamanu for about a decade, mapped a two-part development process from which Light Warlpiri sprung.

The language started at birth—literally. Lajamanu parents would speak in baby talk that combined English, Kriol, and Warlpiri, which youngsters borrowed as its own language, adding twists to verb structure and syntax like creating a tense that stands for “present or past, but not future” (‘nonfuture time’)—an alien tense for both English and Warlpiri.

O’Shannessy’s best guess is that the language emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Aboriginals first started hopping from language to language in conversation. But Light Warlpiri is still new enough that it doesn’t exist in written form—there’s simply no need.

The youth language movement makes sense for the upstart community—Lajamanu’s 2006 census showed that half of the town’s population was younger than 20 years old. By Australian federal government estimate, the number of citizens indigenous to Lajamanu will spike to 650 from about 440 by 2026. And according to Australian linguist Mary Laughren, many of Light Warlpiri’s pioneers are still alive, giving linguists a rare chance to chronicle a language still in development.

It’s a long way from the town’s beginnings. In 1948, Australia’s federal government, worried about overcrowding and droughts in Yuendumu, forced 550 unlucky citizens to up and leave to what would become Lajamanu. Lajamanu’s population vacated for Yuendumu at least twice, only to get sent back.

The last time Lajamanu made international headlines was for a rainstorm of biblical proportions in 2010, when hundreds of spangled perch fell from the sky on the desert town, to which local Christine Balmer said, “I’m thankful that it didn’t rain crocodiles.”