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Where Do New Languages Come From?




Listening to traditional Koro song

As part of the Enduring Voices project, Abamu Degio (left) listens to a recording of herself singing a traditional Koro song, with linguist David Harrison (right). (Credit: Jeremy Fahringer, Living Tongues Institute)

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.”

The media hailed O’Shannessy for highlighting a newly discovered language, called Light Warlpiri. And that discovery is not an isolated incident. Within the past decade or so, linguists and anthropologists around the world have described a handful of recently recognized tongues for the first time, including Jedek in Malaysia, Koro Aka in northern India, and Zialo in Guinea.

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.

In some ways, the origin story of any language mirrors the broader story of how language evolved in the first place. Within close-knit groups of humans, whether on the savanna or in bustling towns, two factors have been present since ancient times: the need to communicate clearly and specifically, and the cognitive capacity to develop language systems that satisfy that need.

Relatively young languages, however, such as Light Warlpiri, are distinct in that they typically emerge out of the swirl of other, older languages that surround them. These new languages often arise in settings where there is some degree of cultural blending or displacement — and Light Warlpiri certainly fits that description. After British settlers arrived in northern Australia in the 1800s, Indigenous Australians began to speak English and Kriol.

Jedek Speakers

Jedek-speakers, settled hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, often gather to share stories and work together. (Credit: Niclas Burenhult/Lund University)

In this fluid setting, Indigenous people became very comfortable switching between languages, a practice that helped drive Light Warlpiri’s emergence in the 1970s and ’80s. When adults spoke to children, O’Shannessy says, “they would speak in Warlpiri, but insert verbs and pronouns from English and Kriol. So the children internalized that system as if it was a single system.”

A similar melding prompted the rise of a language known as Jedek on the Malaysian peninsula, where many languages are spoken in a limited geographic area. Linguists from Sweden’s Lund University first stumbled across Jedek in the early 2000s while studying a variety of other languages spoken on the peninsula. Jedek bears some resemblance to Jahai, a language commonly spoken nearby, and is akin to other Malaysian languages heard somewhat farther away. But it is also its own separate entity, with distinct grammatical structures and “r” sounds that Jahai does not possess. In late 2017, the Swedish researchers published their first paper confirming that Jedek is a totally distinct language.

The village where Jedek is spoken places a high value on cooperation and exchange. As such, the language includes many words that describe sharing and few that describe individual ownership.

Creating a full-blown new language often cements a kinship felt among its speakers — whether that kinship is rooted in religion, common social practices, or ancestral ties. Usually, O’Shannessy says, speakers of a fledgling language draw on older word forms and start to incorporate patterns they hear, or they might make small changes to a language pattern that already exists. “And then, because they’re all speaking to each other, that new pattern stays.”

Some newly discovered languages, meanwhile, have very old roots. Linguist David Harrison, of Swarthmore College, and his research team, supported by the National Geographic Society, happened upon Koro Aka about 10 years ago in a remote region of northern India where dozens of Indigenous languages are spoken. Although Harrison is not sure exactly when Koro Aka originated, he thinks it may have existed for centuries.

In the northern Indian region where Koro Aka arose, people share a common identity, living in bamboo homes on stilts, growing rice, and raising livestock. But all of Koro Aka’s speakers — about 1,000 people — already speak another language called Hruso Aka. That has researchers wondering why a community went on to develop a new language, especially since Koro Aka speakers identify culturally with people who only speak Hruso Aka.

“The Koro Aka population is subsumed within a larger population of Hruso speakers,” Harrison says. “That’s the usual scenario where people would switch over to the majority language.” What’s more, Koro Aka does not resemble the languages spoken in closely surrounding villages; it is as different from them, Harrison says, as English is from Japanese. But Harrison thinks Koro Aka may have linguistic predecessors that have not yet been uncovered, so he and his colleagues are tracing ever-expanding circles around the Koro Aka community to gather clues about the language’s true roots.

Parallel quests to understand what nurtures new languages and what sustains existing ones have led social scientists to one key answer: Languages often survive when young people are speaking them on a regular basis. This language transfer can be actively encouraged, as in immersion schools in Native American communities, or it can simply occur naturally.

O’Shannessy is optimistic about Light Warlpiri’s future for this reason. Even though only a few hundred people know the language, nearly all of the youth in the community are absorbing it and speaking it frequently.

warlpiri family

Linguist Carmel O’Shannessy (left) with Grace White Napaljarri (right) and children in her extended family, near their hometown of Lajamanu, in Australia’s Northern Territory. (Credit: Carmel O’Shannessy)

In general, fostering language vitality is one of anthropologist Gwyneira Isaac’s goals as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Recovering Voices program. Though Isaac does not work specifically with emerging languages, she witnessed how cultural practices can help revive language after meeting a Canadian man who spoke the endangered Anishinaabe language. The man found some of his tribe’s maple syrup–making tools in a cabinet at the Smithsonian and was so excited that when he returned home, he produced a series of videos about syrup-making using phrases from his native tongue.

Young people in his community hear the language when they watch the videos, but they also encounter aspects of their cultural heritage. “This small thing of opening a cabinet turned into this journey,” Isaac says, “building the collective knowledge which is really at the base of language.”

When young people no longer speak a language, however, its prospects for survival may dwindle. Traditional societies around the world have suffered repeated traumas related to displacement, as, for example, when the U.S. government pushed Native American people onto reservations and forced their children to attend Western schools between the late 19th and late 20th centuries. Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia received similar treatment. These policies disrupt generational links and may lead to the death of established languages. Dominant languages like English, introduced from outside, can also threaten the survival of less common languages over time.

And sadly, just because the linguistic community has only recently identified a language does not mean it’s invulnerable. Recently identified languages can disappear just as easily as those recognized for decades. Koro Aka, for instance, may already be at risk of slipping away, since there are few Koro Aka speakers under the age of 20. “A process of language shift is underway,” Harrison says. “Younger generations are using it only sporadically. It’s definitely in decline.” Even so, he reports, a small group of young Koro Aka speakers is putting up a valiant fight to save the language. Some even appeared on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., recently to share the Koro Aka language and culture with visitors around the world.

The youthful Koro Aka speakers on the mall may have grasped something many of us do not: the rewards of keeping a rare language alive even if a more common tongue would suffice. Languages supply the very framework on which our thoughts coalesce — a framework that is completely distinct in each language and gives rise to distinctive modes of thinking and expression.

Over time, the structure of each newly discovered language grows to support a community’s history, folklore, and scientific innovations — a world unto itself that may be threatened if the language disappears. “People don’t fully appreciate the vast body of knowledge contained within any language,” Harrison says. “What does Koro Aka have to say that we never knew? These languages have a contribution to make.”


Elizabeth Svoboda is a journalist and author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.


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Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science




YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth




Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0




We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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