New “Mixed” Language Discovered in Northern Australia

Sep 22, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in June 2013]


A recent article by Denise Chow reports the discovery of a “new mixed language” in Northern Australia by Carmel O’Shannessy, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. This language, now known as Light Warlpiri, is spoken by about 600 people in a remote desert community of Lajamanu, about 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Katherine, a town located in Australia’s Northern Territory (see map on the left). O’Shannessy’s study of Light Warlpiri has been recently published online in the journal Language; her earlier work on this language appeared in 2005 in Australian Journal of Linguistics. As its name suggests, Light Warlpiri is related to Warlpiri, spoken by about 3,000 people in indigenous communities scattered throughout the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory (it is one of the largest aboriginal languages in Australia in terms of number of speakers). While working at a school in which traditional Warlpiri was taught to the children, O’Shannessy noticed that some of the students appeared to switch between several languages in conversation, often going back and forth in every sentence, or so it seemed. O’Shannessy decided to investigate further and started recording the children. When she examined the recordings closely, she realized that “there were very striking systematic patterns. […] this was a system of its own”.


While (traditional) Warlpiri is a member of the large Pama–Nyungan family, Light Warlpiri is “mixed”, in the sense that it combines elements of (traditional) Warlpiri with English and Kriol, the latter being an English-based Creole language spoken in various parts of Australia. According to O’Shannessy’s description, “most of the verbs [in Light Warlpiri] come from English or Kriol, but most of the other grammatical elements in the sentence come from Warlpiri”. English and traditional Warlpiri are near the extreme ends of the “freedom of word order” scale. In English, the order of words generally indicates their grammatical function; for example, in the sentence Kim kissed Jim, the word order indicates that Kim is the subject and Jim is the object. Warlpiri, in contrast, is known among linguists as a prime example of a so-called non-configurational language, one in which the order of the subject, object, and verb is seemingly completely free. For instance, ‘The child sees me’ can be rendered in any of the following (and some other) ways:

Kurdu-ngku    ka-ju                nya-nyi            ngaju.

child-ERG       “auxiliary”       see                   I


Kurdu-ngku    ka-ju                ngaju               nya-nyi.

child-ERG       “auxiliary”       I                       see


Nya-nyi           ka-ju                kurdu-ngku     ngaju.

see                   “auxiliary”       child-ERG       I


Ngaju              ka-ju                nya-nyi            kurdu-ngku.

I                       “auxiliary”       see                   child-ERG

Instead of using word order to encode grammatical functions (subject, object, etc.), as in English, Warlpiri uses case marking: the subject in the above sentences, kurdu-ngku, contains the “ergative” suffix -ngku (ERG in the gloss), while the object has no suffix (the absence of a case suffix marks the object as “absolutive”). Because of this apparently free word order, Warlpiri presented a significant challenge for the Chomskyan generative framework, which relies heavily on the assumption that the syntactic structure of any language is hierarchical in nature. Warlpiri became the best-studied language of this type, thanks to the pioneering work of Ken Hale and his students and colleagues (particularly, Jane Simpson, David Nash, and Mary Laughren). Owing to such studies, it has since become clear that Warlpiri word order is not as free as was initially thought; for example, a Warlpiri speaker cannot convey the meaning ‘The child sees me’ by the following order, as it is ungrammatical in the language (marked by the asterisk):


*Ngaju            nya-nyi            ka-ju                kurdu-ngku.

I                     see                   “auxiliary”       child-ERG

In Warlpiri, the auxiliary must appear in the second position in the sentence, where the first position may be occupied by one word or by a multi-word phrase, but the object and the verb do not form a phrase in this sense—hence the ungrammaticality of the Object-Verb-Auxiliary-Subject order. Yet despite those obvious contrasts with English, Warlpiri also exhibits some of the same patterns as English. For example, the object of a Warlpiri sentence can be a reflexive, but the subject cannot: the Warlpiri rendition of The two children are striking themselves is as grammatical as the English counterpart, but the counterpart of the ungrammatical English sequence *Heself sees the man (to mean: ‘The man sees himself’) is no more grammatical in Warlpiri than it is in English. Because of this and other similarities between Warlpiri and the more familiar “configurational” languages, prominent linguists have concluded that Warlpiri is subject to the same hierarchical organization as English after all (see, for example, Baker 2001).

Going back to Light Warlpiri, this new tongue seems to represent a mixture of the two structural types. According to O’Shannessy, “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,” says O’Shannessy. More specifically, most nouns in Light Warlpiri derive from traditional Warlpiri or English, taking Warlpiri case-marking, while most verbs and the verbal inflection and auxiliary structure draw on Kriol and English. Though some degree of mixing is found in all human languages, linguists define a “mixed language” as one that combines both the vocabulary and the bound morphemes of two languages, as does Light Warlpiri. It is worth noting that a “mixed language” thus defined is distinct from a creole. The latter type of language draws virtually all of its vocabulary from one language (called the “lexifier” in creolistics) but lacks the bound morphemes of the lexifier, or indeed bound morphemes of any origin; a creole is, thus, typologically a heavily isolating language. But even “mixed languages” in such narrowly defined sense, taking nominal and verbal systems from different source languages, are not altogether uncommon. Another example, Gurindji Kriol, also comes from Australia’s Northern Territory, where it is spoken by Gurindji people in the Victoria River District. Like Light Warlpiri, Gurindji Kriol combines elements of Kriol with those of an indigenous language, traditional Gurindji. Similarly, Media Lengua combines Spanish vocabulary with bound morphemes from Quechua. Yet another “mixed language” in this sense is Mednyj Aleut, a nearly extinct language spoken on Bering Island, which blends Aleut nouns and Russian verbs, each with the full inflectional complexity of the source languages. Perhaps the best-known example of a mixed language is Michif, spoken by small communities in Canada and in North Dakota, that combines nouns and nominal bound morphemes from French with verbs and verbal bound morphemes from Cree, an Algonquin language.

no past languages_map

Yet Light Warlpiri is not simply a mix-and-match of structures found in its “parent” tongues: English, Kriol, and Warlpiri. For example, Light Warlpiri has a so-called “non-future tense”, which is not found in any of its three “parent” languages. This non-future tense refers to both the present and past, but not the future. For example, yu-m means ‘you’ only in the present and past. The existence of such a form means that Light Warlpiri is a separate linguistic system. Yet the existence of the non-future tense is not peculiar to Light Warlpiri. As Östen Dahl and Viveka Velupillai note in their article on the past tense in, “it is only from a Eurocentric point of view that the marking of the distinction between present and past appears to be a necessary part of grammar”. Languages that do not draw the past/non-past distinction are widespread outside of Europe, as can be seen from the WALS-based map posted on the left. Some of these languages rely on aspectual distinctions to distinguish past and non-past, the same way that Russian uses the perfective/imperfective aspectual distinction to express the present and future tenses: My pišem knigu (‘We are writing a/the book’) and My na-pišem knigu (‘We will write a/the book’) differ in the presence of the perfective prefix na– in the second sentence, while the (non-past) tense suffix -em is the same is both cases.

According to O’Shannessy, Light Warlpiri is not only newly discovered but is indeed new, as it likely emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when children went from code-switching between English, Kriol, and Warlpiri to speaking the mixed Light Warlpiri language on a primary basis. O’Shannessy maintains that

“… the people who are about 35 years old are the ones who created the system and brought in the innovation in the verbal auxiliary. They then passed it on to their children, and it will probably get passed on to subsequent generations.”




Baker, Mark C. (2001) The Natures of Nonconfigurationality. In: Mark Baltin and Chris Collins (eds.) The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 407-438.

O’Shannessy, Carmel (2005) Light Warlpiri: a new language. Australian Journal of Linguistics 25.

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