WHERE DO NEW LANGUAGES COME FROM?

In the desert town of Lajamanu, Australia, at the bend of a narrow dirt road, Carmel O’Shannessy worked at a school as a teacher-linguist in the early 2000s. Lajamanu’s Indigenous Warlpiri people, who live in the country’s Northern Territory, were skilled at drawing sustenance from the landscape’s parched red soil, and O’Shannessy soon discovered hidden cultural riches the Warlpiri had stored up.
As she got to know the children in the community, O’Shannessy noticed they had a different way of expressing themselves than their elders. People in Lajamanu generally spoke English, Warlpiri (an established local Aboriginal tongue), and some Kriol (a blend of English and Aboriginal languages). But O’Shannessy, who speaks both English and Warlpiri, grew convinced that the kids joking in the schoolyard were communicating in an unusual way. “When I listened more closely to how the children were speaking, they seemed to be using two languages in every sentence,” remembers O’Shannessy, now a lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra. “I thought, This is really interesting. This is something worth investigating.”

As O’Shannessy recorded conversations and took notes, she realized that the children’s speech was distinct from anything she’d heard before. She created a storybook in pictures about a dog that escapes from a monster, then asked the kids to describe what was happening in the story. That exercise helped her confirm a few key features of their language. The children were using sentence structures from Warlpiri, but the verbs came from Kriol. The nouns, meanwhile, came from English, Warlpiri, and Kriol.

Speakers mixed in some completely new rules as well, like using the suffix “-m” to refer to past and present events but not future ones. That custom was not present in any earlier languages, O’Shannessy says. “That really consolidated that this is a new [language] system all by itself.”

Understanding how languages emerge and survive holds great interest for researchers, since many languages are slipping away in increasing numbers around the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that more than 40 percent of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages are endangered. But each new language debut or discovery represents a bright spot against the global backdrop of widespread language die-offs.

Tongues like Light Warlpiri, Jedek, and Koro Aka fill gaps in our knowledge of how languages arise and endure, revealing some of the factors that can help keep rare languages alive.

Uncommon languages are better equipped to survive, researchers are learning, when young people are actively speaking them, whether in a family setting, in a school system, or in immersion programs. Elders who transmit cultural traditions to young people through a language can help it to thrive as well. But when the number of speakers drops from year to year — sometimes due to outside forces such as globalization that are difficult to control — rare languages may vanish, whether they’ve lingered for centuries or popped up seemingly overnight.