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The Australian Town That Invented A Language

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In the outback of Aboriginal Australia, there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it desert town named Lajamanu, sandwiched between Darwin and Alice Springs. There are no paved roads in the alcohol-free community, and only one store, which is restocked by a supply truck once a week; mail gets delivered just twice a week. But half of the town (population: 700) is making headlines for pioneering a new native tongue: Light Warlpiri.

What does Light Warlpiri look like? Something like this: “Nganimpa-ng gen wi-m si-m worm mai aus-ria.” In English, that’s “We also saw worms at my house.” Most verbs in the language draw from English, but tacking on suffixes is straight from traditional Warlpiri, a language that relies on suffixes to denote grammatical meaning since words can be put in any order.

The town’s citizens all speak “strong” Warlpiri, a “highly endangered” language exclusive to some 4000 people. Light Warlpiri, on the other hand—a language that’s a cocktail of Warlpiri, English, and Kriol (a local dialect dating back to the 19th century and based on creole)—whittles its number of native speakers to just 350, and no one who speaks it is older than 35.

Though several words of Light Warlpiri are derived from their English and Kriol counterparts, linguists have determined it’s a new language in its own right. Carmel O’Shannessy, a University of Michigan linguist who has studied Lajamanu for about a decade, mapped a two-part development process from which Light Warlpiri sprung.

The language started at birth—literally. Lajamanu parents would speak in baby talk that combined English, Kriol, and Warlpiri, which youngsters borrowed as its own language, adding twists to verb structure and syntax like creating a tense that stands for “present or past, but not future” (‘nonfuture time’)—an alien tense for both English and Warlpiri.

O’Shannessy’s best guess is that the language emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Aboriginals first started hopping from language to language in conversation. But Light Warlpiri is still new enough that it doesn’t exist in written form—there’s simply no need.

The youth language movement makes sense for the upstart community—Lajamanu’s 2006 census showed that half of the town’s population was younger than 20 years old. By Australian federal government estimate, the number of citizens indigenous to Lajamanu will spike to 650 from about 440 by 2026. And according to Australian linguist Mary Laughren, many of Light Warlpiri’s pioneers are still alive, giving linguists a rare chance to chronicle a language still in development.

It’s a long way from the town’s beginnings. In 1948, Australia’s federal government, worried about overcrowding and droughts in Yuendumu, forced 550 unlucky citizens to up and leave to what would become Lajamanu. Lajamanu’s population vacated for Yuendumu at least twice, only to get sent back.

The last time Lajamanu made international headlines was for a rainstorm of biblical proportions in 2010, when hundreds of spangled perch fell from the sky on the desert town, to which local Christine Balmer said, “I’m thankful that it didn’t rain crocodiles.”

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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