Visiting scholar at the Department of Linguistics
University of Michigan

Currently at the Australian National University
Go to ANU Home Page
Carmel O'Shannessy
research methodologies publications teaching acknowledgments

Documentation of Light Warlpiri, a newly emerged mixed language spoken in the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu, in the Tanami Desert, northern Australia.
Light Warlpiri draws most nouns and nominal structure from Warlpiri, and most verbs and verbal structure from varieties of English and Kriol (an English-lexified Kriol, spoken in the north of Australia), along with radical innovations in the verbal auxiliary system.
Listen to stories in Light Warlpiri told by an adult, here and by children here and here.

Listen to a child telling "The Monster Story" in Warlpiri.

Watch a report about how children speak Warlpiri in Lajamanu / Nyirrpi / Willowra / Yuendumu.

Watch a talk about how languages get new structure, given at the symposium, How Language Evolves, CARTA, UCSD, February 2015

Watch a talk about Light Warlpiri given at AIATSIS, Canberra, May 2013
Go to 2013 "Special Seminars held at AIATSIS during Semester 1"

The New York Times
The Huffington Post
Australian Geographic
SBS World News Australia
NPR: All Things Considered
ABC Radio National, Australia: Late Night Live
1290 WLBY: The Lucy Ann Lance Show
The most striking thing about Light Warlpiri is an innovative auxiliary system, which draws on Warlpiri, and varieties of English or Kriol. The auxiliary word shapes are derived from English and Kriol. The meanings and structure have changed, so that the structure of the auxiliary paradigm is not the same as that in any of the source languages. Light Warlpiri has formal modal categories of realis - irrealis, influenced by Warlpiri modal semantics. Some verbs also show innovations, by combining Warlpiri stems with Aboringinal English or Kriol transitive affixes.

In the examples, words in this color are from Warlpiri, and those in this color are from English or Kriol. This color is for the innovative auxiliary system and verbal structure.
Examples of Light Warlpiri:
De-m run back rarralykaji-kirra jarntu an yapa-wat ngapa-kujaku.
'The dog and the people run back to the car to get out of the rain.'

Kala nyarrpara-rla nyuntu-ju yu-m bugi? (C02_7_2)
'But where did you swim?'

Yu-m winjirn-im hap one kuja-ng. (C03_17)
'You spilled half of it, like that.'

Tu karnta-ng dei cheis-ing it dat kuuku jarntu-kurl. (Erg_LA26)
'Two women are chasing the monster, who has the dog.'
The role of children in nativizing and developing Light Warlpiri, and children's acquisition of both Light Warlpiri, and Warlpiri, are particularly interesting.

Young adults and children in Lajamanu are multilingual, as they speak Warlpiri, Light Warlpiri and varieties of English and Kriol.
  • documentation of Light Warlpiri and Warlpiri
  • studies of language contact, including
    • the genesis, development and structure of mixed languages
    • language acquisition in multilingual communities
    • language change, and
    • language variation.


Broad theoretical questions:
  • Which kinds of contact situation produce which kinds of results?
    • Do the same language contact processes occur in different sociolinguistic contexts?
    • Can a particular process, e.g. code-switching, lead to multiple results?
    • What is the role of children and adults in contact-induced change?
    • Which local and nonlocal social and political forces influence language maintenance in one community and language shift in another?
  • To what extent are types of contact language, e.g. pidgins, creoles and mixed languages, discrete types?
Case study questions:
  • What kinds of changes are taking place in the speech community?
  • What are the motivations for those changes?
  • How are they produced by each generation of speakers?
  • To what extent is each generation regularizing emergent patterns?


Although many children in the world learn more than one language from birth or from a very young age, few studies have examined children's language learning in contexts in which the children receive language input in several codes or languages from the same interlocutors or in the same settings. The ways children deal with varied input sheds light on children's processing strategies. Viewed from another perspective, it can provide information about language maintenance, shift or attrition, especially in contexts in which the languages or codes differ in their status in the local and wider communities.
Children's language learning in contexts in which several codes or languages are spoken to and around children, and generational changes in linguistic patterns, can inform theories of language acquisition and change.
  • When are children innovators?
  • What motivates innovation by children?
  • Which of the several codes present in the speech community do children produce and at what point in their language development?
  • Who are the children's main speech models?
  • To what extent is each generation regularizing emergent patterns?

  • Documentation of Warlpiri, including traditional songs.
Traditional love songs, called Yilpinji in Warlpiri, are archived at The Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR).
Address from July 2017:
Australian National University, 110 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT, 0200 Australia Ph: +61 2 6125 4886
Email: carmel.o'shannessy at