Kaurna language

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RegionSouth Australia
ExtinctExtinct as a first language since 1931, with the death of Ivaritji[1]
RevivalSubsequently revived, with a small number of competent speakers and nascent neo-native speakers as of 2013.[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3zku

Kaurna (/ˈɡɑːnə/ or /ˈɡnə/) is a Pama-Nyungan language historically spoken by the Kaurna peoples of the Adelaide Plains of South Australia. The people of the Adelaide plains are known as the Kaurna people in contemporary times, but the Kaurna nation is made up of various tribal clan groups, each with their own parnkarra district of land, each having had their own dialectal form of language. These dialects were historically spoken in the area of the Adelaide Plains bounded by Crystal Brook and Clare in the north, Cape Jervis in the south, and just over the Mount Lofty ranges. It ceased to be spoken on an everyday basis in the 19th century, but, in a process that began in the 1990s, is being reclaimed and re-introduced.


R. M. W. Dixon classifies Kaurna as a dialect of the Kadli language, along with Nantuwara, Ngadjuri, Narangka, and Nukunu.[5] Luise Hercus (1992) classifies Kaurna, along with Narungga, Nukunu and Ngadjuri, in the Meru subgroup of the larger group of Thura-Yura languages (which includes Yura Ngawarla or Adnyamathanha)

History of the name[edit]

The name "Kaurna" was not widely used until popularised by South Australian Museum Ethnographer Norman B. Tindale in the 1920s.[6] The term 'Kaurna' was first recorded by Missionary Surgeon Dr William Wyatt (1879: 24) for 'Encounter Bay Bob's Tribe'. At the same time he recorded 'Meeyurna' for 'Onkaparinga Jack's Tribe'. Kaurna most likely derives from kornar, the word for 'people' in the neighbouring Ramindjeri/Ngarrindjeri language [Berndt & Berndt (1993: 19) noted that kornarinyeri which became Point McLeay Mission, Rev George Taplin's Narrinyeri thus Narindjeri or Ngarindjeri hence contemporary Ngarrindjeri]. Mullawirraburka (Onkaparinga Jack), also known to the colonists as 'King John', was one of Teichelmann and Schurmann's main sources. Encounter Bay Bob, as his name suggests, came from Encounter Bay (Victor Harbor) and was most likely a fully initiated elder Ramindjeri man. Thus Meyunna is probably an endonym and would linguistically be preferable as the name for this language group as suggested in the mid 1990s. However, they are now universally known as the Kaurna people.

History of the language[edit]

The former range of the language was mapped by Norman Tindale and Dr Robert Amery and is managed by the Kaurna people. Kaurna is currently not spoken as a native language (and thus classified as a dead language), but it is being revived with the aid of a dictionary compiled by two German missionaries in the 1840s.

Language revival[edit]

Efforts to revive the Kaurna language began in 1990 with the writing of several Kaurna songs originally written in the Ngarrindjeri, Narrunga and Kaurna languages. A second songbook, Kaurna Paltinna was published in 1999. Following one-off workshops in 1990 and 1991, a Kaurna language program was introduced into Kaurna Plains School in 1992. Kaurna is now taught at all levels of education, including a Kaurna linguistics course taught at the University of Adelaide (first introduced in 1997). Kaurna is frequently used to give speeches of Welcome to Kaurna Country.

Since efforts to reintroduce Kaurna names, beginning in 1980 with the naming of Warriappendi Alternative School, it has gained a profile within the public domain. Many people, pets, organisations, clubs, sporting teams, programs, places, buildings, and other items have taken (or been given) Kaurna names.[citation needed] Many public artworks, beginning in 1995 with the Yerrakartarta installation outside the Intercontinental Hotel on North Terrace, Adelaide, have incorporated words, phrases and text drawn from the Kaurna language.

Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi[edit]

Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi ("creating Kaurna language") is a group developing and promoting the recovery of the Kaurna language. It was established in 2002 by two Kaurna elders, Dr Lewis Yerloburka O'Brien and Dr Alitya Wallara Rigney, and linguist Dr Robert Amery. The group now includes other Kaurna people, teachers, linguists and language enthusiasts. It was created from a series of workshops funded by a University of Adelaide grant in 2000, and is now hosted by the department of linguistics at the University of Adelaide.[7] KWP run language classes through both the Kaurna Plains School and the University.

KWP has created a uniform dialect of the language, making new words such as mukarntu (mukamuka brain + karntu lightning), meaning "computer", and other words for things such as modern appliances, transportation, cuisine, and other common features of life that have changed for the Kaurna people while the language was dormant.[8] The Kaurna Warra Karrpanthi Aboriginal Corporation (KWK) was registered in 2013 to support the reclamation and promotion of the Language of the Kaurna Nation including training and teaching.[9]

Place names[edit]

Many prominent South Australian place names are drawn from the Kaurna language:

  • Kauandilla (Cowandilla) from kauanda meaning "north" plus locative suffix -illa;[10]
  • Kanggarilla (Kangarilla) from kanggari meaning "shepherding" plus locative suffix -illa;[10]
  • Kondoparinga possibly from kundo meaning "chest" plus parri meaning "river" plus locative suffix -ngga;[10]
  • Maitpangga (Myponga);
  • Ngaltingga (Aldinga) from ngalti (meaning unknown) plus locative suffix -ngga;[10]
  • Ngangkiparringga (Onkaparinga) from nganki meaning "woman" plus parri meaning "river" plus locative suffix -ngga;[10]
  • Nurlongga (Noarlunga) nurlo meaning "corner/curavature" plus locative suffix -ngga, probably in reference to Horseshoe Bend on the Onkaparinga River;
  • Patawalonga from patta, a species of gum tree (possibly the swamp gum), plus wilya meaning "foliage" plus locative suffix -ngga;[10]
  • Waitpingga (Waitpinga) meaning "wind place"
  • Willangga (Willunga)
  • Wilyaru (Willyaroo) meaning a fully initiated adult man.[10]
  • Yatala most likely from yartala meaning "water running by the side of a river; inundation; cascade".[10]
  • Yernkalyilla (Yankalilla) 'place of the fallen bits'
  • Yurridla (Uraidla) meaning "two ears", derived from a dreaming story in which the Mount Lofty Ranges are the body of a giant.[10]

English-Kaurna hybridised placenames include:

  • Glenunga from Scots language glen and Kaurna locative suffix -ngga.[11]
  • Paracombe from para meaning "river/stream" and English language combe meaning "narrow way". Similar to South Australia's 'Picadilly', there exists a direct analogue in England, Parracombe in Devon, which likely contributed to the adoption of the name.[12]

Several place names, have been reinstated or reused:

  • Piltawodli 'brushtail possum home'
  • Tarndanyangga (the official alternate name for Victoria Square, Adelaide since 2003) is the Kaurna name for the area south of the Torrens River.
  • Warriparringga (Warriparinga) 'windy river place'

Some other names, are known from historical sources, but are yet to be fully reinstated (see Amery & Williams, 2002), such as:

  • Patpangga (Rapid Bay) 'in the south' and
  • Pattawilyangga (Patawalonga, Glenelg) 'swamp gum foliage',

Possible Kaurna placenames include:

  • Piccadilly. Although usually assumed to be named after Piccadilly, London, it is likely to be an anglicisation of the Kaurna pikodla meaning "two eyebrows", being a part of the same dreaming story that gave rise to "Uraidla".[10]
  • Yankalilla. Although almost certainly an indigenous word, there are conflicting etymologies. The most likely is that it is derived from the Ramindjeri yangaiake meaning "hill", but with the Kaurna locative suffix -illa, or possibly yernkalyilla meaning "place of the fallen bits".[10]



Kaurna has three different vowels with contrastive long and short lengths (a, i, u, a:, i:, u:), and three diphthongs (ai, au, ui).[13] The three main vowels are represented by ⟨a⟩, ⟨i⟩ and ⟨u⟩ respectively, with long vowels indicated by doubling the vowel. Historically, Kaurna has had ⟨e⟩ and ⟨o⟩ used varyingly in older versions of its orthography, but these are not reflected in the phonology of the language.

Front Back
High i iː u uː
Low a aː


The consonant inventory of Kaurna is similar to that of other Pama-Nyungan languages (compare with Adnyamathanha, in the same Thura-Yura grouping). In the orthography, dental consonants are followed by ⟨h⟩ and palatals by ⟨y⟩, and retroflex consonants are preceded by ⟨r⟩, with the exception of ⟨rd⟩ /ɾ/. Pre-stopped consonants are preceded by ⟨d⟩. Below are the consonants of Kaurna (Amery, R & Simpson, J 2013[14]).

Peripheral Laminal Apical
Labial Velar Dental Palatal Alveolar Retroflex
Stop p k c t ʈ
Nasal m ŋ ɲ n ɳ
Pre-stopped nasal d̪n̪  ɟɲ dn ɖɳ
Lateral ʎ l ɭ
Pre-stopped lateral d̪l̪ ɟʎ dl ɖɭ
Tap ɾ
Trill r
Approximant w j ɻ


  • All words must begin with a peripheral or laminal consonant (see Consonants above), excluding the pre-stopped nasals.
  • All words must end with a vowel.
  • In addition to the pre-stopped consonants, consonant clusters of a nasal followed by a stop are allowed.[15]


Kaurna places primary stress on the first syllable.[13]


Kaurna has relatively free word order.[16]


Noun Cases and Suffixes[edit]

Kaurna uses a range of suffixed case markers to convey information including subjects, objects, spacio-temporal state and other such information. These sometimes have variations in pronunciation and spelling. Below is a table of some of these cases.[17]

Ergatve, Instrumental, Temporal -rlu, -dlu (when following -i-)
Dative -ni
Genitive -ku, -rna (variants)
Purposive -itya
Aversive -tuwayi
Locative -ngka (or ⟨-ngga⟩) for bisyllabic roots, -ila (or ⟨-illa⟩) for trisyllabic roots
Comitative -ityangka, -lityangka
Allative (to places) -ana, -kana
Allative (to people) -itya, -litya
Ablative (from places) -unangku, -anangku, -nangku
Ablative (from people) -ityanungku
Perlative -arra, -tarra
Semblative -rli
Possessed -tidi
Privative -tina


Kaurna has 3 numbers: singular, dual (-rla, -dla) and plural (-rna).[17]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Kaurna at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. ^ Phil Mercer (22 January 2013). "Lost indigenous language revived in Australia". BBC. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kaurna". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Kaurna at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  5. ^ *Dixon, R. M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47378-0, ISBN 978-0-521-47378-1.
  6. ^ Amery, Rob (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna! - reclaiming an Australian Language. The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger. ISBN 90-265-1633-9.
  7. ^ "Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi". Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  8. ^ Amery, Rob; Simpson, Jane (2013). Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. Kaurna Warrarna Pintyanthi, Wakefield Press. p. 171.
  9. ^ "Kaurna Warra Karrpanthi Aboriginal Corporation (KWK)". Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi. 15 February 2015. Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Amery, Rob; Buckskin, Vincent (Jack) Kanya (March 2009), "Chapter 10. Pinning down Kaurna names: Linguistic issues arising in the development of the Kaurna Placenames Database" (PDF), in Hercus, Luise; Hodges, Flavia; Simpson, Jane, The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia, ANU Press, p. 202-203, ISBN 9781921536571
  11. ^ Amery, Rob (March 2009), "Chapter 1. Indigenous Placenames: An Introduction" (PDF), in Hercus, Luise; Hodges, Flavia; Simpson, Jane, The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia, ANU Press, p. 165-180, ISBN 9781921536571
  12. ^ Manning, George (1990), "Place Names of South Australia: Paracombe", Manning Index of South Australian History, State Library of South Australia, retrieved 31 May 2017
  13. ^ a b Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. p. 31.
  14. ^ Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 29–30.
  15. ^ Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 31–32.
  16. ^ Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 114–115.
  17. ^ a b Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 121–123.

General references[edit]

  • Teichelmann, C. G.; C. W. Schürmann (1982) [1840]. Outlines of a grammar, vocabulary and phraseology of the Aboriginal language of South Australia spoken by the natives in and for some distance around Adelaide. Tjintu Books. ISBN 0-9593616-0-X.
  • Amery, Rob (2000) Warrabarna Kaurna! Reclaiming an Australian Language. Swets & Zeitlinger, Lisse, The Netherlands. ISBN 90-265-1633-9
  • Amery, Rob (compiler) (2003) Warra Kaurna. A Resource for Kaurna Language Programs. Kaurna Warra Pintyandi, Adelaide. ISBN 0-9751834-0-0
  • Amery, Rob (2002) 'Weeding out Spurious Etymologies: Toponyms on the Adelaide Plains.' In Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges & Jane Simpson (eds) The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia, 165-180.
  • Amery, Rob & Georgina Yambo Williams (2002) 'Reclaiming Through Renaming: The Reinstatement of Kaurna Toponyms in Adelaide and the Adelaide Plains.' In Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges & Jane Simpson (eds) The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia, 255-276.
  • Wyatt, William (1879) Some Account of the Manners and Superstitions of the Adelaide and Encounter Bay Aboriginal Tribes with a Vocabulary of their Languages.

External links[edit]