Pitjantjatjara dialect

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Native toAustralia
RegionNorthwest South Australia, Pitjantjatjara freehold lands, Yalata; southwest corner, Northern Territory; also in Western Australia
Native speakers
3,125 (2016 census)[1]
80% monolingual (no date)
Language codes
ISO 639-3pjt
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Pitjantjatjara (English: /pɪənəˈɑːrə/;[4] Aboriginal pronunciation: [ˈpɪɟanɟaɟaɾa] or [ˈpɪɟanɟaɾa][5]) is a dialect of the Western Desert language traditionally spoken by the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia. It is mutually intelligible with other varieties of the Western Desert language, and is particularly closely related to the Yankunytjatjara dialect. The names for the two groups are based on their respective words for 'come/go.'[6]

Pitjantjatjara is a relatively healthy Aboriginal language, with children learning it. It is taught in some Aboriginal schools. The literacy rate for first language speakers is 50–70%; and is 10–15% for second-language learners. There is a Pitjantjatjara dictionary and translated portions of the New Testament of the Bible, from 2002.

Phonology and orthography[edit]

There are slightly different standardised spellings used in the Northern Territory and Western Australia compared to South Australia, for example with the first two writing ⟨w⟩ between ⟨a⟩ and ⟨u⟩ combinations and a ⟨y⟩ between ⟨a⟩ and ⟨i⟩, which SA does not use.

Pitjantjatjara has the following consonant inventory, written as shown in bold:[7]

Bilabial Alveolar Retroflex (Alveo-)
Plosive p [p]~[b] t [t]~[d] [ʈ]~[ɖ] tj [c]~[ɟ] k [k]~[ɡ]
Nasal m [m] n [n] [ɳ] ny [ɲ] ng [ŋ]
Lateral l [l] [ɭ] ly [ʎ]
Rhotic r[r]~[ɾ] [8] [ɻ]
Approximant y [j] w [w]

Pitjantjatjara has three vowels:[9]

Front Central Back
Close i [ɪ], ii [ɪː] u [ʊ], uu [ʊː]
Open a [ɐ], aa [ɐː]

Pitjantjatjara vowels have a length contrast, indicated by writing them doubled. A colon ⟨:⟩ used to be sometimes used to indicate long vowels: ⟨a:⟩, ⟨i:⟩, ⟨u:⟩.

Pitjantjatjara orthography includes the following underlined letters, which can be either ordinary letters with underline formatting, or Unicode characters which include a line below:

  • Ḻ: unicode 1E3A
  • ḻ: unicode 1E3B
  • Ṉ: unicode 1E48
  • ṉ: unicode 1E49
  • Ṟ: unicode 1E5E
  • ṟ: unicode 1E5F
  • Ṯ: unicode 1E6E
  • ṯ: unicode 1E6F

The underline represents that the consonant in question is retroflex, rather than alveolar.


Some features distinctive to the Pitjantjatjara dialect, as opposed to other Western Desert Language dialects, include -pa endings to words that simply end in a consonant in other dialects (this is reflective of a general aversion in PItjantjatjara to words ending with a consonant), and a reluctance to have y at the beginning of words.

Nouns and noun phrases[edit]

Pitjantjatjara uses case marking to show the role of nouns within the clause as subject, object, location, etc. Pitjantjatjara is a language with split ergativity, since its nouns and pronouns show different case marking patterns.[10]

Consider the following example, where the subject of a transitive verb is marked with the ergative case and the object with the absolutive case:[11]

Minyma-ngku tjitji nya-ngu.
woman (ergative) child (absolutive) see (past tense)
'The woman saw the child.'

It can be contrasted with the following sentence with an intransitive verb, where the subject takes the absolutive case:

Tjitji a-nu.
child (absolutive) go (past tense)
'The child went.'

In contrast to the ergative-absolutive pattern that applies to nouns, pronouns show a nominative-accusative pattern. Consider the following examples, with pronoun subjects:[12]

Ngayu-lu tjitji nya-ngu.
I (nominative) child (absolutive) see (past)
'I saw the child.'
Ngayu-lu a-nu.
I (nominative) go (past)
'I went.'

Verbs and verb phrases[edit]

Pitjantjatjara verbs inflect for tense. Pitjantjatjara has four different classes of verbs, each of which takes slightly different endings (the classes are named according to their imperative suffixes): ∅-class verbs, la-class verbs, wa-class verbs, and ra-class verbs.

Derivational morphology[edit]

It also has systematic ways of changing words from one part of speech to another: making nouns from verbs, and vice versa. However, words formed may have slightly different meanings that cannot be guessed from the pattern alone.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ ABS. "Census 2016, Language spoken at home by Sex (SA2+)". stat.data.abs.gov.au. Retrieved 2017-10-30.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Pitjantjatjara". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Pitjantjatjara at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. ^ Bauer (2007), p. ?.
  5. ^ Through a process of haplology, the name Pitjantjatjara is usually pronounced (in normal, fast speech) with one of the repeated syllables -tja- deleted, thus: pitjantjara. In slow, careful speech all syllables will be pronounced (Goddard 1985:?).
  6. ^ Goddard (1996), p. ?.
  7. ^ Tabain & Butcher (2014), pp. 190-191.
  8. ^ Note that ⟨ṟ⟩ is written as ⟨r⟩ at the start of words since words may not begin with /r/. In some versions of the orthography, /r/ is written ⟨rr⟩, and /ɻ/ is written ⟨r⟩.
  9. ^ Tabain & Butcher (2014), pp. 194-195.
  10. ^ Bowe (1990), pp. 9–12.
  11. ^ Bowe (1990), pp. 10.
  12. ^ Bowe (1990), p. 11.


  • Bauer, Laurie (2007), The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 0748631607
  • Bowe, Heather (1990), Categories, Constituents, and Constituent Order in Pitjantjatjara, An Aboriginal Language of Australia, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-05694-2
  • Goddard, Cliff (1985), A Grammar of Yankunytjatjara, Institute for Aboriginal Development Press, ISBN 0-949659-32-0
  • Goddard, Cliff (1996), Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary, Alice Springs: IAD Press, ISBN 0-949659-91-6
  • Issacs, Jennifer (1980), Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History, Sydney: Lansdowne Press, ISBN 0-7018-1330-X, OCLC 6578832
  • Rose, David (2001), The Western Desert Code: an Australian cryptogrammar, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, ISBN 085883-437-5
  • Tabain, Marija; Butcher, Andrew, "Pitjantjatjara", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 44 (2): 189–200, doi:10.1017/s0025100314000073

Further reading[edit]

  • Langlois, Annie (2004). Alive and Kicking: Areyonga Teenage Pitjantjatjara, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. ISBN 0-85883-546-0
  • Tabain, Marija; Butcher, Andrew, "Stop Bursts in Pitjantjatjara", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 45 (2): 149–176, doi:10.1017/s0025100315000110