What younger speakers have to teach us: a case study of Light Warlpiri speakers

O'Shannessy, Carmel
O'Shannessy, Carmel
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By necessity, many language documentation projects focus on the language of older speakers, and information from younger speakers is often about processes of attrition. But in some contexts younger speakers may be the agents of language creation, as new codes are developed. The processes employed in language creation may offer surprising insights into mechanisms of language change and linguistic processing. In this paper I will use a case study of a complex language endangerment situation in a Warlpiri community in northern Australia to show how documentation of the speech of several generations contributes to linguistic understandings in previously unexpected ways. The Warlpiri community in focus is multilingual, with several languages and varieties spoken regularly – Warlpiri (a Pama-Nyungan language, with approximately 4,000 speakers), varieties of English and Kriol (an English-lexified creole), and for speakers under approximately age 35, Light Warlpiri. Light Warlpiri is a newly emerged mixed language, which combines elements of Warlpiri and varieties of Aboriginal English and/or Kriol. It appears to have been formed through a two-part process. First, adults directed codeswitched speech to young children as part of a baby talk register. Next, the children analyzed the codeswitched speech as a single system, and added innovations. The structure of the code developed by the children closely resembles the structure of the codeswitched speech which was directed to them. The speakers of Light Warlpiri also speak Warlpiri, but Light Warlpiri is their primary code. Light Warlpiri represents partial language maintenance in the face of great pressure to shift to English, as well as being an index of the local community identity and of young people within that community. Light Warlpiri might also be endangered, because the pressure to shift to English is very strong. When maintenance of Warlpiri is in focus, Light Warlpiri can be seen as a bridge to learning Warlpiri, as Light Warlpiri retains mostly Warlpiri nominal morphology, and considerable Warlpiri lexicon. When contemporary language use is in focus, Light Warlpiri is one of the varieties of Warlpiri spoken by young people in a complex sociolinguistic environment. The overall structure of Light Warlpiri is a combination of nominal morphology from Warlpiri with some verbal morphology from English and/or Kriol. But within the verbal auxiliary system English and/or Kriol modal forms are reanalyzed, resulting in new forms and a new structure. The temporal elements have structure from English and Warlpiri but create a formal temporal distinction which differs from both Warlpiri and English and/or Kriol – future and nonfuture. This rapid grammaticalization during the transition from code-switching to Light Warlpiri shows processes which are also seen in pidgins and creoles, raising questions about the discreteness of these types of language. Documentation of the speech of several generations in the community was needed to uncover the creativity of Light Warlpiri speakers in this complex language endangerment situation.
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