Very few Anangu speak English as a first language. We mostly speak Pitjantjatjara (pronounced pigeon-jarrah) and Yankunytjatjara (pronounced young-kun-jarrah), which are dialects of the Western Desert language.
Before Europeans arrived in Australia, there were up to 300 different Aboriginal languages and around 700 different dialects. Many of these languages are no longer used or are under threat of disappearing.
There are now only 20–50 Indigenous languages that are ‘healthy’, meaning they are spoken to and used by children.
In the Western Desert, Anangu (pronounced arn-ung-oo) speak a number of dialects, including:
In Mutitjulu community, most of us speak Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara and teach these languages to our children. Some of us also speak other Aboriginal languages such as Arrernte and Warlpiri.
As in most remote Aboriginal desert communities, a relatively small percentage of Anangu living in Mutitjulu speak English regularly or fluently.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal languages were not written down. Our dialects were first put into writing in the late 1930s, when the bible was translated into Pitjantjatjara at Ernabella in South Australia.
There are several different ways of representing the sounds of Pitjantjatjara on paper. In the park, we use a writing system developed in the 1970s and 1980s by linguists at the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) in Alice Springs.
Why are some letters underlined?
You will notice that many Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara words include the letters t, n, l or r with a line underneath. For example:
- Kata Tjuta
These letters are called retroflex consonants and are pronounced in a slightly different way to the same letter without the line.
A retroflexed consonant is pronounced with the tongue curled slightly back in the mouth, which adds a sound similar to an English ‘r’. For example, ‘walpa’ is pronounced ‘wharlpa’.
A retroflexed ‘ṟ’ is pronounced like the normal English ‘r’ sound, while an ‘r’ with no retroflex is rolled like in some European languages.
Start speaking the language
The easiest way to start speaking Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara is to learn how to say hello.
Our word for hello is ‘palya’. In English it is pronounced to rhyme with ‘cull-ya’.
This is the best way to say hello when you’re in the park, so give it a try when you meet Anangu during your visit. The same word can also be used for ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’ and ‘finish’.
Other useful words:
- Anangu (arn-ung-oo) – the Aboriginal people of the Western Desert
- Tjukurpa (chook-orr-pa) – our creation stories, law, and way of life
- uwa (oo-ah) – yes
- wiya (wee-ya) – no/don’t
- Kata Tjuta (catta-jew-tah) – many heads
- kuniya (koon-i-ya) – woma python
- liru (leer-oo) – king brown snake
- lungkata (loong-car-ta) – blue-tongue lizard
- mai (may) – fruit and vegetable food
- mala (marla) – rufous hare-wallaby
- Tjukuritja (chook-orr-icha) – physical evidence of Tjukurpa
- walpa (wharl-pa) – wind
- wati (wottie) – man
minyma (min-ma) – woman