Tag Archives: culture

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.


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