Indigenous languages are important for social, economic and political development, peaceful coexistence and particularly for reconciliation in our societies. Yet many of them are in danger of disappearing. It is for this reason that the United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages to encourage urgent action to promote, revitalise and preserve endangered languages as part of the world’s cultural diversity.
This year, as part of our Indigenous language series, each month we will present one of the many Indigenous languages of the world.
The Pitjantjatjara language, South Australia
Pitjantjatjara is part of the Western Desert Group of the Pama-Nyungan languages spoken in central Australia, particularly in the northwest of South Australia, in the southwest of the Northern Territory and in neighbouring parts of Western Australia. Speakers of Pitjantjatjara call themselves Anangu (people) and their language is closely related to Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra.
Pitjantjatjara language map
Yankunytjatjara, Antikirinya, Kukatja, Ngaanyatjara and Pintupi are the names of some of the languages that are very similar to Pitjantjatjara, while the group as a whole is known as Western Desert Languages. According to the 2016 census, there are 3,125 speakers of Pitjantjatjara, which is also known as Pitjantjara or Pitjantjatjarra. About 80% of Pitjantjatjara speakers are monolingual.
The Anangu people have lived in this area for at least 30,000 years; for the Anangu people, their culture has always existed here. The Central Australian landscape (of which Uluru and Kata Tjura are an important part) is believed to have been created at the beginning of time by ancestral beings. First contacts with non-Aboriginal people were made in the early 1870s.
Pitjantjatjara has been transcribed using the Latin alphabet since the 1940s and the spelling system was standardised in 1979 and confirmed in 1987 by the publication of a Pitjantjatjara–English dictionary. From 2002 we also have Pitjantjatjara translations of parts of the New Testament. About 50-70% of Pitjantjatjara speakers are literate in their language.
The primary form of the language remains oral, and Pitjantjatjara verbal art includes highly-developed forms of rhetoric, story-telling, songs and sung epics, and styles of kinship-based respect and deference.
Ngayuku ini Raelene-nya, ngayulu wangkapai Pitjantjatjara, ngayulu ngura Areyonga-la. Munu ngayuku nyunytju mama-kulu wangkapai Pitjantjatjara, ka ngayuku tjamu walkapi Ngaatjatjarra, ka ngayuku kami wangkapai Pitjantjatjara.
Ngayuku kulta nyinapai ngura, Katukatjara-la ka palumpa tjiji kutjara, kungka munu nitayira.
Ka ngayuku kangkuru kutjara palumpa pulampa ini Karen-nya munu Janie-nya, palupula nyinapai Mutitjulula.
Hello, my name is Raelene and I speak Pitjantjatjara. I live at Areyonga. My grandmother speaks Pitjantjatjara and my grandfather speaks Ngaatjatjarra. My father speaks Pitjantjatjara and my brother speaks Pitjantjatjara too. He lives at Katukatjara (Docker River) and he has got one little girl and a boy. My cousins live at Mututjulu (Ayers Rock). Their names are Janie and Karen.
With a fairly high number of speakers, the Pitjantjatjara language is relatively healthy. In the 1940s it was introduced in the bilingual programs of several South Australian schools.
With renewed interest in Indigenous languages, Pitjantjatjara programs for Indigenous students were commenced in schools in Port Augusta and Adelaide. From 1994 Alberton Primary School taught Pitjantjatjara to all students and included Kaurna songs in their choir repertoire. In 2000, Aboriginal languages (Pitjantjatjara, Yankuntjatjara, Antakarinja, Wirangu, Arabana, Adnyamathanha, Narangga, Kaurna or Ngarrindjeri) were offered by 63 schools to 2,500 South Australian students, the majority Indigenous.