Tag Archives: Pirinpa

Learning Pitjantjatjara – Day One

Isn’t it lovely to be back in sunny Adelaide during the height of summer (41˚C) spending my hard-earned school holidays in a university tutorial room learning language?


I pulled myself out of the comfortable, post-school/Christmas/New Years laze yesterday and drove the 726km from Melbourne to Adelaide to begin my two-week intensive Pitjantjatjara language programme. The intention over the next two weeks is to blog a little about what I’m discovering in Pit (but no promises, hey).

Note: There may be opinions, ideas or understandings that I get backwards. Don’t hold them against me. As one of my students would say “You don’t know. You still learning.” If you do know better, feel free to enlighten me. Please.

Day One of a language course is always interesting. Not much is ever covered but you get a grasp for the style of the teachers, the abilities of your colleagues and some of what may lay ahead. I recall fondly my first Spanish language class in Madrid with my knowledge of Español being ‘Hola, no hablo Español.’

We were a class of 12 or so beginners from all over the world – a couple of Australians, some Germans, Americans, Chinese, Japanese and a handful of other nationalities. We were all beginners and English was our lingua franca. The teacher, who I visualise perfectly but have no idea of the name, entered the room and began:

Hola. Buenos dias, estudiantes. ¿Como estan ustedes? ¿Estamos aqui para aprender Español, no? ¿Si? Bueno, vamos a empezar…

Needless to say, we had not a clue of what was going on. It took at least a week to even get my head around the words.

My experience of language learning in Australia is not quite the same as it was in Spain. There is a total lack of immersion in the language being learnt and we clearly experience discomfort when put into situations where we might be immersed. But today, I was pleasantly surprised at how the leading teacher was trying to challenge us to immerse. There was little discussion of grammar, plenty of listening to Pitjantjatjara spoken by native speakers, lots of repetition and bite-size chunks of language being thrown around. But we were guided through all of this in the safe hands of English.

Quite a lot of the language we learnt today, I’d picked up in 12 months in community. But there were new aspects I uncovered and awakenings to concepts I was previously confused by. Here’s a few tidbits of new knowledge:

    1. Pitjantjatjara – literally means “having the word “pitja”. Other languages that relate to it like Yankunytjatjara similarly translate to “having the word “ya”. “Pitja” would translate to go, move, come or some other similar word (I haven’t checked my dictionary – it’s three feet away).
    2. I’ve been using the wrong form of the imperative. I keep telling just one student to listen, to sit down, to stand up. See, kulila is the imperative for listen. But if you’re talking to more than one person, kulilaya is the correct form. Likewise, nyinakati (sit down) should be nyinakatiya and wangka (speak) should be wangkaya if talking to multiple people.
    3. I’ve struggled to understand the familial relationships in Anangu culture for much of the past year. Little by little, aspects have become clearer, but everyone seemed to be tjamu, akala, or kami. What I learnt today, though, was eyeopening. So here’s my best attempt at explaining it.

      In my family, there’s me and my younger sister. She’s my younger sister so she’s my malanypa (sibling). Then we have my mama (father) and my ngunytju (mother).

      On my father’s side, he has two brothers, both younger than him. They are both my mama (father). My uncle’s wife is my ngunytju (mother) and his daughter is my malanypa (sibling).

      On my mother’s side, she has an older brother, and a younger brother and deceased younger sister. Her sister is my ngunytju (mother) and her husband my mama (father). Her son is my malanypa (sibling). My mother’s older brother, though, is my akala or kamuru kulypalpa (uncle) and his wife my kuntili (aunty). Their two children are not my malanypa. Rather, their daughter is my kangkuru (‘elder’ sister) and their son my kuta (‘elder’ brother), although both are younger than me in age. My mother’s other brother (younger) is also my kamuru kulypalpa  or akala, and his wife my kuntili, but their children are both my malanypa. My grandfathers are both my tjamu and my grandmother is my kami.

      I am kuta to my sister and my cousins from my parents’ younger brothers and sisters. I am also tjamu to my grandfather. As I watched this picture unfold, the circular, hierarchical nature of Anangu families became clearer and made sense. I could see how generational responsibility was evident in a person’s familial position. A tjamu (old) is both responsible for the teaching of his tjamu (young) and vice-versa the caring of the older as he gets older. Hierarchy within a family made more sense and the use of words in English such as ‘little uncle’ became clearer. Not 100% clearer as I am unable to adequately explain it, but more logical to me.

      Note: If you do know better, let me know.

    4. I learnt Freres Jacques in Pitjantjatjara. It goes:
      Mama yaaltji, mama yaaltji?
      Nyangatja! Nyangatja!
      Nyuntu palya nyinanyi?
      Uwa, palya ngayulu.
      Ma-pitja. Ma-pitja.Where is Dad? Where is Dad?
      Here I am. Here I am.
      Are you well? Yes, I’m well.
      Off he goes. Off he goes.
    5. Finally, I learnt a bunch of descriptive language. One of these was Kulpi nyaratja ngaranyi. The cave is over there.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow. It was great to see some of my Anangu colleages and professional colleagues outside of community and the constraints of work.


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