Carmel O'Shannessy
Carmel O'Shannessy

PhD, Linguistics, University of Sydney, Australia
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands
ANU Researcher Page
Winner ANU Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Research, 2020
ARC Future Fellow 2020 - 2923

Major Research Interest

My research is in language contact and the acquisition of Australian languages in contact settings. My research combines the documentation of Light Warlpiri, a newly emerged mixed language spoken in the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu, in the Tanami Desert, northern Australia, and children’s acquisition of this and their traditional language, Warlpiri. I have been involved with languages and education in remote Indigenous communities in Australia since 1996, in the areas of bilingual education and my research.

My current project is an ARC Future Fellowship project: ‘Tracking language development of Indigenous children in Central Australia’ or Little Kids Learning Languages. It aims to identify the language development paths of Indigenous children in Central Australia by examining the spoken language, sign and gesture of children’s early interactions. The project involves PhD student Joshua Roberts, and we work collaboratively with First Peoples researchers at the Tangentyere Research Hub and Red Dust Role Models as partners. Interested stakeholders include Children's Ground and Central Australia Aboriginal Congress.

An online word list of children's early words in Eastern & Central Arrernte, Western Arrarnta, Warlpiri and English is in progress.

About Light Warlpiri and Usage

Light Warlpiri is a new way of speaking that the speakers developed from ways that others spoke to them. It developed in a two-step process - in step 1, adults spoke to children in a ways that combined Warlpiri, English and parts of Kriol; and in step 2, the children made the way of speaking very systematic and brought in new patterns.

The speakers are very creative and their new way of speaking has elements that are unique to Light Warlpiri, as well as clear patterns and rules. The speakers also learn and speak Warlpiri and they have clear differences between the two ways of speaking, as well as overlaps. Light Warlpiri has a lot of Warlpiri in it. Part of the structure of Warlpiri is that nouns have word endings, and all of these word endings are in Light Warlpiri.

The most interesting aspect of Light Warlpiri grammar 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 nonfuture - future or realis - irrealis, influenced by Warlpiri modal semantics. Some verbs also show innovations, by combining Warlpiri stems with Aboriginal English or Kriol transitive affixes.

The role of children in internalising 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.

Examples of Light Warlpiri

Dem run back rarralykaji-kirra jarntu an yapa-wat ngapa-kujaku.
‘The people and the dog ran back to the car to get out of the rain.’

Kala nyarrpara-rla nyuntuju yum bugi?
‘But where did you swim?’

Yum winjirnim hap-wan kujang.
‘You spilled some of it, like that.’

English or Kriol = plain font, Warlpiri elements = italics, New structures = bold

Kaja-warnu-jangka ‘From the bush’

Kaja-warnu-jangka ‘From the bush’ is a unique biographical tribute to two senior Warlpiri men, Jerry Patrick Jangala OAM and Henry Cook Jakamarra, who tell their own narratives of their remarkable lives over 85+ years. Dynamically bringing together previously unpublished footage, oral histories and photographs from over many years, it shows historical aspects of the remote desert community and the living endurance of traditional values of kinship and law.

Expounding the themes of courageous resilience and embrace of change, it is the product of a collaboration by PAW Media Warlpiri film-maker, Maxwell Walma Tasman Japanangka and Carmel O'Shannessy. It was inspired by people in the community suggesting the need to document the two senior men’s lives. The film is mostly in Warlpiri, with subtitles in English. Length: 1hr 09 mins.

Examples of Light Warlpiri and Warlpiri

Language Contact and Acquisition

Although many children in the world learn more than one language from birth or from a very young age, less is understood about children's language learning in contexts in which the children receive language input in several codes or languages from the same speakers and in the same settings. The ways children deal with varied input shed light on children's processing strategies. They might find regularities in the input that they then act on creatively and regularise into their own sets of practices. They might find aspects of different ways of speaking that index aspects of their complex identities. Viewing their language environment as one of complex repertoires allows holistic strengths-based approaches that tap into the competence and creativity of the speakers.

Children's language learning in contexts in which several codes or languages are spoken to and around children, and generational changes in linguistic patterns takes place, can inform theories of language acquisition and change.

  • When are children innovators?
  • What motivates innovation by children?
  • Which of the 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 regularising emergent patterns?

Language Contact

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 regularising emergent patterns?
  • Watch a talk about how languages get new structure, given at the symposium, How Language Evolves, CARTA, UCSD, February 2015 below.

Endangered Language Documentation

  • Documentation of Warlpiri, including traditional songs.

Traditional love songs, called Yilpinji in Warlpiri, are archived at The Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR).

Media Attention