The dynamics of Murrinhpatha across three generations

John Mansfield with two research participants, Wadeye 2015
John Mansfield with two research participants, Wadeye 2015

This project will document variation and change in Murrinhpatha, a polysynthetic language of northern Australia, over the last 80 years. Since settlement began in the 1930s, the Murrinhpatha speech community has undergone both radical social change, and intensive language contact. It is still learnt as L1 by all children in the town of Wadeye, and in fact enjoys growing speaker numbers, and increasing recognition as a contact language in locations as distant as Darwin and Kununurra. The majority of speakers are no longer from the traditional Murrinhpatha clans, but rather from Marri Ngarr, Marri Tjevin, Ngan'gi, Jaminjung and other language groups. Murrinhpatha is also embracing new sociolinguistic functions, as the growth of the town Wadeye foments the emergence of a distinctive local youth subculture.

The project will examine phonological and morphosyntactic variables in Murrinhpatha, based on substantial corpus data compiled to represent three generational slices: pre-settlement (born 1900-1935), Catholic mission era (born 1935-1975), and contemporary (born 1975-present). Such a dataset is unprecedented in the study of Australian Aboriginal languages, and will provide insight into the micro-evolution of a language that is both typologically and socially very different from any language that have previously been studied in this way.

Chief Investigator: Dr John Mansfield, COEDL postdoctoral fellow, 2015-2018