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Scientists discover new language in Australia

world Updated: Jun 19, 2013 23:58 IST

Scientists have discovered a new language in northern Australia which contains rare grammatical innovations and a unique combination of elements from other languages.

The language, now known as Light Warlpiri, is spoken by approximately 300 people in a remote desert community about 644 kilometres from Katherine, a town located in Australia's Northern Territory, said Carmel O'Shannessy, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Light Warlpiri is known as a "mixed language," because it blends elements from multiple languages: Traditional Warlpiri, which is spoken by about 6,000 people in indigenous communities scattered throughout the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory; Kriol, an English-based Creole language spoken in various regions of Australia; and English.

"The striking thing about Light Warlpiri is that most of the verbs come from English or Kriol, but most of the other grammatical elements in the sentence come from Warlpiri," O'Shannessy told LiveScience.

In English, the order of words in a sentence generally indicates the grammatical relationship between the various entities. For example, in the sentence "Mary saw Jim," it is understood that Mary is the one doing the seeing, because her name precedes the verb.

In the Warlpiri language, however, words can be placed in any order, and grammatical interpretations are based on suffixes that are attached to the nouns, O'Shannessy explained.

"In Light Warlpiri, you have one part of the language that mostly comes from English and Kriol, but the other grammatical part, the suffixing, comes from Warlpiri," O'Shannessy said.

Another distinction of the newfound language is a word form that refers to both the present and past time, but not the future. For example, in English, "I'm" refers to "I" in the present tense, but Light Warlpiri speakers created a new form, such as "yu-m," which means "you" in the present and past time, but not the future.

"That structure doesn't exist in any of the languages that this new code came from, which is one of the reasons we see this as a separate linguistic system, even though it comes from other languages that already exist," she explained.

O'Shannessy discovered Light Warlpiri when she began working in a school in the Northern Territory where traditional Warlpiri was being taught to children. She noticed that some of the students appeared to switch between several languages in conversation.

O'Shannessy thinks Light Warlpiri likely emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

The study was published in the journal Language.