Learning Pitjantjatjara – Week One

*Note: I just lost a wisdom tooth and am quite distracted by the pain in my mouth. Perhaps some of this feels quite vague because of it.

So the intention of writing daily hasn’t worked out (as usual). Life gets in the way.

But damn, I learnt a thousand different things this week, and only a quarter of those were language. Here’s a few bits of particular interest linguistically or culturally:

1. The alphabet has three vowel sounds.

“A” pronounced like a in “ah”

“I” pronounced like i in “sit”

“U” pronounced like u in “pull”

There are only 23 letters in total in Pitjantjatjara. We use the Latin alphabet to write them and some letters are doubled up for pronunciation purposes.

A, AA, I, II, K, L, L, LY, M, N, NG, NY, P, R, R, T, T, TJ, U, UU, W, Y

Many of our English sounds are quite difficult to pronounce because of their non-existence in Pitjantjatjara. Sh and Ch often become TJ. S disappears. B becomes P. D becomes T.

I’m not even going to try and explain how to pronounce some of the sounds. My tongue has been stretched in a variety of peculiar directions. And damn, why do I keep learning languages that need me to trill my Rs?

2. There’s no passive voice in Pitjantjatjara. This has to change the way people communicate. In English, especially in bureaucrat-speak, passive voice is so important for distancing oneself from the topic at hand, but using this kind of language with someone who has never heard of it in their own language must be highly confusing. Constant active voice must also mean that disagreements can be resolved more directly. “You have annoyed me!” rather than “I have been annoyed!” (perhaps not the best example, but hey, I’m writing under local anaesthetic).

Abstract nouns don’t always translate well into Pitjantjatjara. It has its own set of abstract nouns that don’t necessarily translate into English. Ironically, one of the words that is most difficult to translate is “reconciliation” – perhaps one of the most commonly used words in Aboriginal politics. So, it becomes all the more important to choose words carefully when speaking in English with native Pitjantjatjara speakers.

So often we make assumptions about what can be understood easily and do not consider this.

3. I learnt a lot more about family and culture. The below picture is of the family of one of my tutors. It’s taken not from her mother’s generation, but from her grandmother’s generation and it gives some idea of just how close Anangu family ties are.


In the last post, I described my family. I recognised how my direct uncles were considered my fathers but also how some of my younger cousins could be considered my ‘elder’ brother and sister. The photo above though shows how this not only stretches to my first cousins, but also my second cousins. It also demonstrates how a great grandmother becomes a ‘katja’ daughter.

Along the side of the board, you’ll see the words ‘Ngananamiri’ and ‘tjanamiltjanpa’. These relate to ‘skins’ which determine how you relate and behave to members of your family (*and much, much more that I cannot explain). The word ‘moieties’ was thrown around a lot during this discussion and this flew over my head. But we could see how the differences in ‘skins’ changed the relationships between our tutors. Some tutors were able to joke and tease each other freely, while others were not able to speak in the same way to those people.

4. Today, Rev. Dr. Bill Edwards spoke to us about some of the history of early contact, Pukatja and the Ernabella Mission. I’ve been keen to hear Dr. Edwards speak since I read Winifred Hilliard’s The People Inbetween. He described how he came to work at Ernabella in the early 1950s and showed a video he’d recorded circa 1960. I was struck by his eloquence, passion and grace while talking, but most of all his humility. I purchased his essay titled “Mission in the Musgraves” and am really keen to read his other work.

I’ve really enjoyed this week and can’t wait for next week to start. I’m not at a conversational level of Pitjantjatjara yet (that would be a while away) but I feel pretty satisfied with my rate of progress. Plus it’s opened me up to a whole range of aspects of cultural life that effect my classroom.



Filed under Education

45 responses to “Learning Pitjantjatjara – Week One

  1. David Carter

    This is very interesting, Luke. I don’t know Bill Edwards, but you might also think of contacting Bernie Clarke who grew up on a mission (he’s in his mid 70’s at most) and lives in Magill. He is a clan member (honorary) and another UCA minister. a good friend of Allan Shephard, too.

    • L

      I spoke briefly to Bill who knows Papa quite well. He impressively still plays tennis regularly at 83 years old. I definitely should get in touch with Bernie Clarke at some point.

      Where was he raised?

  2. Very cool to read — and I just skimmed over the Wikipedia page for this language. Ergative/absolutive, eh? Good luck. πŸ™‚

    • L

      Yep. Ergative. Grammar’s always fun when you have to learn the meaning of the tense and then try and recall if the subject ends with an -ngku or something else.

  3. No passive voice?!? never come across a language like that before!

    • L

      It’s actually great. It really changes how you think about communicating. And when you live in Remote Australia most of the communication is ‘gov-speak’. Abstract and passive all the time. And we wonder why we take two steps backward to each step forward when engaging with communities.

  4. I found this post really interesting! I’m an undergraduate studying Chinese, and I was very confused about how they differentiate between family members. (Older brother is different than younger brother and a female cousin on your mother’s side is different from one on your father’s side? The cousin example I’m a little more unclear on, but that’s what I understand.) But that all seems like nothing compared to what you’ve mentioned in this and the previous post. Really interesting, I can’t wait to hear more about Pitjantjatjara and your journey learning it! -Kiersten

  5. Very interesting post. I share your love of languages and find the tongue twisting fun. I’m off to look up the IPA version of the sounds in Pitjantjatjara.

    • L

      Is that the International Phonetic Alphabet? I’ve never got my head around that.

      • Woops, yes, I shouldn’t use jargon. It is just a handy tool for figuring out tough sounds – it tells you just where to put your articulators (lips, tongue tip, back of tongue, nasal or not) and what kind of sound to make. Actually pulling it off in a word is another story πŸ™‚

  6. That’s really awesome!! I can speak in bout four languages, but only a little bit. However, I can sing fluently in eight different languages. Hope you get the hang of learning a new language. It’s really tricky at first, but you’ll get it soon after.

  7. globetrottermama

    You’re learning pitja-what-jara?? Sounds fun. πŸ™‚

    • L

      Just try wrapping your tongue around ‘intend to learn’ – ‘nintiringkuntjikitja’. That takes a few gos to get right.

      • globetrottermama

        Oh my! I’ll leave the learning to you…best of luck. Or best of auditory memory, which ever comes first. You’ll need it.
        I’ll keep reading. πŸ˜‰

  8. I really should learn a new language, this would be a good one. It would be fun to tell people i speak Pitjantjatjara. Right now I cant even pernounce the name of the language, lol.

    • L

      Ha! It is a good one, though not the most useful outside of the region where I work. There’s only about 2-3000 speakers of it. The name kind of rolls off the tongue as Pi-Jarn-Ja-Ra – that Jat in the middle just disappears.

  9. Awesome blog. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Fascinating. Lets hear more of this!

  11. Wati Pulka

    Davidanya, ngayulu nyuntu wati wiru mulapa kulini tjaa pitjantjatjara nintiringkunytaku. Ka kunyu nyuntumpa katiti pika pulka munu piti pulka. Ngalytutjara! Tjinguru nyuntu tjuratja lali tjuta pulka ngalkupai? Palulanguru nyuntumpa katiti unaringangu. Nyuntu nyuntumpa katiti paltjilpai. Nyuntu nintiriwa tjaa pitjantjatjara. Palya. Wati Pulka.

    • L

      Ai, Wati Pulka. Clearly I have a long way to go. Yaaltji kutu nyinanyi? Without a dictionary, I can’t translate this yet – sore teeth, big bowl, a bit of pity… I’ll have to get back to you.

  12. Wow – I learn something new every day! I had never even heard of this language – from what you have written in this post and earlier ones, I gather it is one of the Australian Aboriginal languages – which Aboriginal group speak it? How different is one Aboriginal language from another? Please give ignoramuses like me some basic information.
    I am full of admiration for you learning the language, and many congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • L

      Hey, thanks for reading.

      Yep. You’re right. It’s an Australian-Aboriginal language. It’s spoken by the Pitjantjatjara people of North-Western South Australia – that part of Australia just south west of the middle. There’s about 3000 people that speak it. It’s pretty similar to its neighbour to the East, Yankunytjatjara, and West, Nyangatjatjara, and is part of a family of languages called Pama-Nyungan. There’s similar words in other languages all around the Western desert region – but they’re all slightly different from what I understand. It’s quite different though from the languages spoken in Arnhem Land by the Yolngu people and others (I believe).

  13. This is so fascinating! I’d be really interested in learning this language, but regarding the fact that I wouldn’t even have a teacher to talk to, not to mention other speakers, I guess it would be really difficult. But keep it up, it seems awesome!

  14. stefk3

    Great read and premise for your blog! Congrats on getting freshly pressed. I’ve really enjoyed reading your insights on Pitjantjatjara. The photo on this post is awesome – paints a thousand words about family relations. It’s good to hear about your challenges too, I can relate as I just started blogging about my own language learning experience http://www.onetwoafew.wordpress.com

  15. Fascinating. And I very much relate to the rrrrrrrrrrrr issue… various native-Arabic-speaker friends find it cruelly hilarious that I cannot do anything like a proper R (the name of the national poet of Jordan is Arar… murder). Good luck with it!

    • L

      Tell me about it. I spent three years in Spain being laughed at for my r’s sounding like d’s and now I pick a language that has both an English r and a rolled r. Grr..

  16. David Carter

    Luke, this is your mama saying that you have got to write another post sooner than later. The world is listening πŸ™‚ And what about Wati Pulka? – get on with it, son!!!

  17. That is really fascinating, and I hope you stick with learning it! There’s the age old debate on how language and culture influence each other, and I think you’ll continue learning about the culture through the language- because there’s no passive voice, maybe this leads them to solve conflicts differently, and since family is close, that might come out in some of their language trends as well!

    • L

      Thanks for reading. I definitely sit on the side of the argument that would suggest that language and culture cannot be disconnected from each other. The way we connect with the world through language changes the way we perceive the world itself.

  18. Learning a new language is so hard! I tried to learn Mandarin when I lived in Taiwan. Now, if that’s not different from English, I don’t know what is. Cool post! Good luck to you!

  19. learnitalianforfun

    Very interesting! Keep up the good work, congrats πŸ˜‰ All the best xx

  20. Love the picture. How would you spell Battle Ostrich?

  21. Wati Pulka

    Nyuntu palya? Tjintu kuwari kuli pulka nyinanyi. Kana ngurangka waarkaripai computanka. Nyuntu nyaaringanyi? Kunyu munga winkingka kuli pulka kulu nyinaku. Nyuntu kapi ilu alatjitu? Tjinguru nyuntu kapi rawangku tjikiningi? Paul Eckertku tjilpi wiru munu ninti pulka. Ngula nykunytjaku. Palya.

  22. Thanks for sharing this exceptional post of yours. I’ve actually learned something new today. Congratulations for being on Freshly Press!

  23. Prof Alf B.

    If there is only 3000 people speaking it then why not let it die off naturally, until it is replaced with English. There are still far too many languages in the world and this causes mis-understanding which can often lead to bloody conflict. The way to global peace is only having one language for the entire world to speak.
    Chinese is ok for badly dubbed Kung fu films but essentially its just incomprehensable gobbledlygook, so that only leaves English, which is already the most popular language by far. πŸ™‚

    • L

      Hi Prof Alf B.

      Thanks for reading! I’m planning to respond to your comment in a bit more detail when I have more than a moment spare, but I have to admit, I disagree quite vehemently.

      But hey, no pasa nada, eh?

    • musicwork

      Language is rarely the cause of bloody conflict Prof. I can’t think of a single example where war broke as a result of misunderstandings caused by different languages. Think of all the conflicts that have taken place among people speaking the same language (former Yugoslavia comes to mind – the differences between Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are barely more than differences in accent). And what does die off “naturally” mean? If the communities speaking were/had been left to their own devices, unimpeded by what other cultures consider progress, the language would still be going strong and at no risk of dying.

  24. musicwork

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! Great post, and a wonderful challenge you have set yourself. I’ll be following your progress. I’m an avid language-learner, especially when I’m in-country and have lots of people to correct/laugh at me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s