Carmel O'Shannessy was an invited speaker at the workshop: Language Contact, Continuity and Change in the Emergence of Modern Hebrew, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel July 4-7.

The workshop was part of a project funded by the Research Workshop of the Israel Science Foundation. It brought together researchers in Language Contact and Historical Linguistics from across the world. "The workshop was especially interesting because the speakers each drew on differing perspectives on language contact and change," said Carmel. "The workshop included oral and sign languages, ancient and recently emerged languages, and adult and child language data, each contributing to the central questions of the project."

Carmel's talk was titled "When Does an Age Group Lead Contact-Induced Language Change?"


When does an age-group lead contact-induced language change?

A major question in the development of contact languages and varieties is whether generalizations can be made about which age-groups in a community lead contact-induced change, and which types of change they lead (e.g. phonological, morphosyntactic, paradigmatic, within core verbal structure). The amount and kind of attention given to the role of age groups of speakers in the diffusion of a novel element or construction differs across contexts, and sometimes age is not discussed. Often the sociolinguistic situation at the time of the change in progress cannot be pieced together adequately, as the change took place long ago, and there is little documentation of it. Where we do have a reasonable amount of background data, we have seen that different age groups have each been agentive in promulgating change, in different contexts. Adults have been seen to be responsible for the development of pidgins and creoles (Siegel, 2008), mixed languages (Thomason, 2003), and frequently the transfer of lexicon and structure from one language to another. Adolescents have led development in koines (Kerswill & Williams, 2000), elementary school-aged children have created at least a creole (Kegl, Senghas, & Coppola, 1999) and multiethnolects (Cheshire, Kerswill, Fox, & Torgersen, 2011), and younger children have created a mixed language (O'Shannessy, 2012). In contexts where there is not contact between different systems, but internal variation, teenagers have led change ((Eckert, 1989), and children have pushed changes in progress beyond the level of their parents (Roberts, 1997a, 1997b).

In this paper I discuss the roles of different age groups and sociolinguistic contexts in the emergence and continuing development of Light Warlpiri, a mixed language spoken in Australia. Light Warlpiri combines the nominal structure of Warlpiri (Pama-Nyungan) with the verbal structure of English/Kriol (an English-lexified creole), and shows innovations in the verbal structure. I will show that different age groups have been the leaders of different types of change at varying points in the development of the language. The new language developed through a two-step process. First, bilingual adults who code-switched frequently directed code-switched speech with a consistent pattern to young children, as part of a baby talk register. Next, young children took the leading role as they nativized the input. In doing so they added radical innovations to core syntax in the verbal auxiliary system, by creating temporal and modal structural categories that were not present in either type of source language (O’Shannessy 2012). Since then, the system has been further regularized by the next generation of speakers, who lead change in some areas of the language (phonotactics) (O'Shannessy, 2015) but not others (case allomorphy) (O'Shannessy, 2016).

I then review some studies where the background sociolinguistic information and ages of the change agents are known, and discuss them in the light of why a particular group led change in a specific context, and what type of change was involved. I conclude that the sociolinguistic context pertaining to a specific age group will determine whether or not a novel element or construction produced by a member of that cohort is diffused throughout a community of speakers.


Cheshire, Jenny, Kerswill, Paul, Fox, Sue, & Torgersen, Elvind. (2011). Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 15(2), 151-196. Eckert, Penelope. (1989). Jocks and burnouts: Social categories and identity in the high school. New York: Teachers College Press. Kegl, Judy, Senghas, Ann, & Coppola, Marie. (1999). Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. In Michel DeGraff (Ed.), Language creation and language change: Creolization, diachrony and development (pp. 179-237). Cambridge: MIT Press. Kerswill, Paul, & Williams, Ann. (2000). Creating a new town koine: Children and language change in Milton Keynes. Language in Society, 29, 65-115. O'Shannessy, Carmel. (2012). The role of code-switched input to children in the origin of a new mixed language. Linguistics, 50(2), 305-340. O'Shannessy, Carmel. (2015). Multilingual children increase language differentiation by indexing communities of practice. First Language, 35(4-5), 305-326. O'Shannessy, Carmel. (2016). Entrenchment of Light Warlpiri morphology. In Felicity Meakins & Carmel O'Shannessy (Eds.), Loss and Renewal: Australian Languages Since Colonisation (pp. 217-252). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Roberts, Julie. (1997a). Acquisition of variable rules: A study of (-t,d) deletion in preschool children. Journal of Child Language, 24, 351-372. Roberts, Julie. (1997b). Hitting a moving target: Acquisition of sound change in progress by Philadelphia children. Language variation and change, 9, 249-266. Siegel, Jeff. (2008). The emergence of pidgin and creole languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thomason, Sarah G. (2003). Social factors and linguistic processes in the emergence of stable mixed languages. In Yaron Matras & Peter Bakker (Eds.), The Mixed Language Debate (pp. 21-40). Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Find out more about Carmel and her work here!