A Scientist’s Language
June 27, 2013 | by Rachel Reed
“I love uncovering patterns in languages,” says Linguistics Professor Carmel O’Shannessy, who sometimes talks about her research like she’s appreciating an art form. “Language speakers are creative, and I enjoy seeing how people exploit language for creativity.”
This creative lens is one of the reasons O’Shannessy was able to uncover a new language in northern Australia, spoken by approximately 300 members of the Indigenous Warlpiri people. She calls this new language Light Warlpiri, which mixes elements from the traditional Warlpiri language with English and a regional Australian language called Kriol.
O’Shannessy first encountered Warlpiri in 1998, as she was working as a teacher-linguist in a small community called Lajamanu, in Australia’s Northern Territory. She was tasked with supporting teachers in a bilingual education program—facilitating English teaching alongside the indigenous language.
At the time, she began to notice children were code-switching between English and Warlpiri, which happens when multilingual speakers switch between the words and grammar of one language to the words and grammar of the other in a single conversation. When she looked closer, however, she realized that the children were using elements of both languages, in addition to Kriol, in every single sentence, and in a somewhat consistent manner. This led her to wonder whether they had created a whole new system; in other words, a new, mixed language.
O’Shannessy got to work documenting and recording and finding patterns in the language. One of her methods, for example, was to record children as they interacted normally, with friends and family, and at play. Another was to ask children to narrate a story from a book containing only pictures. O’Shannessy compared phrasing among the children, hoping to find grammatical patterns that formed the language base.
(To listen to a child speaking the Light Warlpiri language, click here.)
This long-range, in-depth study will allow her to observe the change in language over generations, from parent to child. As children in the community grow older, O’Shannessy is interested to see what kind of language they will pass on to their own offspring. Light Warlpiri is currently only spoken by people under the age of 35. It will probably continue to be spoken by these younger adults and children as they grow older, and speakers of Light Warlpiri also speak Warlpiri and English and/or Kriol. O’Shannessy’s study will track changes in Light Warlpiri as second- and third-generation speakers grow up with it.
But O’Shannessy’s study is about much more than just words. In an increasingly global society, native languages are in danger of being lost, with some experts predicting that more than half the world’s 7,000 languages will be lost by 2100. As part of an effort to document these traditional languages, O’Shannessy recorded and transcribed traditional Warlpiri songs, some used for ceremony or to express feelings of love.
“It’s important to document these languages because they are so different from English, and the way that the people in these language groups organize themselves socially can be very different from ours,” she says. “Languages can teach us things about our social lives that we wouldn’t otherwise know about.”
In addition to telling us about social behaviors, she says, “languages can encode information about local flora and fauna and information about the environment. This can provide a fast-track to finding scientific information that we might otherwise stumble upon, but in a more time-consuming manner.
“If we value diversity in the world, these languages are a part of that,” she continues. “We want to document them for the future.”
Photos: Courtesy of Carmel O'Shannessy