Kaurna language

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Region South Australia
Extinct Extinct as a first language since 1931, with the death of Ivaritji[1][2]
Revival Subsequently revived, with a small number of competent speakers and nascent neo-native speakers as of 2013.[3]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 zku
Linguist list
Glottolog kaur1267[4]

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. Kaurna Warra Pintyandi (KWP) is one group developing and promoting a linguistically institutionalized version of the language, making new words such as mukarntu (mukamuka brain + karntu lightning[6]), 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. KWP are based at the University of Adelaide, as a committee comprising a small group of Kaurna people as well as teachers, linguists and other researchers.


R. M. W. Dixon classifies Kaurna as a dialect of the Kadli language, along with Nantuwara, Ngadjuri, Narangka, and Nukunu.[7] 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.[8]

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]

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.

Efforts to revive Kaurna 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).

The former range of the language was mapped by Norman Tindale and Dr Robert Amery and is managed by the Kaurna people.

Kaurna place names[edit]

Many prominent placenames are drawn from the Kaurna language. These include Ngangkiparringga (Onkaparinga) 'women's river place', Nurlongga (Noarlunga) 'corner/curvature place', Ngaltingga (Aldinga), Willangga (Willunga), Maitpangga (Myponga), Kanggarilla (Kangarilla) 'shepherding place', Yernkalyilla (Yankalilla) 'place of the fallen bits', Waitpingga (Waitpinga) 'wind place', Kauwandilla (Cowandilla) 'in the north', Yurridla (Uraidla) 'two ears' etc.[9] Tarndanyungga - Victoria Square (2003) tarndanyungga was also used for the area around the Torrens River which was renamed karrawirraparri by KWP. Today all the old frenetic spellings of the old language recorded by settlers and the missionaries from the mouths of the old people have been changed by the small group of KWP. Today tartanyangga is the new spelling and the new spelling has changed the sound and tongue shape and therefore the cultural meaning has also been changed as linguistics is based upon a scientific methodology which does not integrate the sacred meaning of a land birthed language.

Several placenames, such as Warriparringga (Warriparinga) 'windy river place' and Piltawodli 'brushtail possum home' have been reinstated. Some other names, such as Yertabulti (Port Adelaide), Patpangga (Rapid Bay) 'in the south' and Pattawilyangga (Glenelg) 'swamp gum foliage', are known from historical sources, but are yet to be fully reinstated. (See Amery & Williams, 2002)

Since efforts to reintroduce the Kaurna language, 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. The Kaurna language is used frequently to give speeches of Welcome to Kaurna Country. 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. KWP run language classes through the Kaurna Plains School and the University.



Kaurna has three different vowels with contrastive long and short lengths (a, i, u, a:, i:, u:), and three diphthongs (ai, au, ui).[10] 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[11]).

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.[12]


Kaurna places primary stress on the first syllable.[10]


Kaurna has relatively free word order.[13]


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.[14]

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).[14]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Linguist List
  2. ^ Kaurna at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  3. ^ Phil Mercer (22 January 2013). "Lost indigenous language revived in Australia". BBC. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kaurna". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ Kaurna at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  6. ^ Amery, Rob; Simpson, Jane (2013). Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. Kaurna Warrarna Pintyanthi, Wakefield Press. p. 171. 
  7. ^ *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. 
  8. ^ Amery, Rob (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna! - reclaiming an Australian Language. The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger. ISBN 90-265-1633-9. 
  9. ^ Amery, 2002
  10. ^ a b Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. p. 31. 
  11. ^ Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 29–30. 
  12. ^ Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 31–32. 
  13. ^ Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya. pp. 114–115. 
  14. ^ 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]