Back to listing

Prof Carmel O'Shannessy discusses "Social practice and language differentiation", 20 March

Evolution, Shape

Date: 20 March 2015

On 20 March 2015, Prof Carmel O'Shannessy, a vistor to CoEDL from the University of Michigan, spoke on the topic of "Social practice and language differentiation" with particular reference to Light Warlpiri.

A major question of interest to the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) is whether “social factors drive language diversification differentially” (Ellison and Evans 2015). The question is addressed by examining choices made by multilingual children and adults in one Warlpiri community in northern Australia. A community of practice approach (cf. Bucholtz, 1999; Eckert, 2000; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2007) is applied to capture the interaction of social and cognitive motivations for increasing language differentiation, investigated here through choices of grammatical and lexical items.
In the community in focus, children and young adults speak both Warlpiri (Pama- Nyungan) and Light Warlpiri, a mixed language that combines nominal morphology from Warlpiri with the verbal system from varieties of English and/or Kriol (an English-based creole) with some innovations (O'Shannessy, 2013). Older adults speak Warlpiri and code-switch into varieties of English and/or Kriol. Light Warlpiri is a relatively new language – the oldest speakers are about 35 years old – and is in the process of stabilising as it unfolds. By documenting this process in real time, we are able to observe speaker choices in the production of each language, and draw inferences about their motivations. As Light Warlpiri unfolds both grammatical and lexical forms show increased differentiation between the two languages.


Speaker selections are interpreted by viewing Light Warlpiri speakers as a community of practice, with a fluid relationship to a larger community of practice of Warlpiri speakers, of which they are also members. Through specific linguistic choices they construct and highlight their identities as members of these communities. Understandings that particular items index one or more communities of practice are developed as individual choices are reiterated. Over time choices that index communities of practice may lead to greater differentiation between linguistic systems. In this context three strands of interest to CoEDL are brought into play – evolution, shape and learning.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University