Pitjantjatjara dialect

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Native to Australia
Region Northwest South Australia, Pitjantjatjara freehold lands, Yalata; southwest corner, Northern Territory; also in Western Australia.
Native speakers
2,700 (2006 census)[1]
80% monolingual (no date)[2]
L2 speakers: 500 (1995)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pjt
Glottolog pitj1243[3]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Pitjantjatjara (English /pɪənəˈɑːrə/,[4] Aboriginal pronunciation: [ˈpɪɟanɟaɟaɾa] or [ˈpɪɟanɟaɾa]) 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.

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.[5]



The name used for Pitjantjatjara (and for Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, and others) is based on a single prominent word, the verb for 'come/go', which distinguishes it from its near neighbour, Yankunytjatjara. The latter has yankunytja (present tense yananyi) for this verb, while Pitjantjatjara has pitjantja (in the present tense pitjanyi).[6] The ending -tjara is the comitative suffix and means 'having' or 'with'. Thus Yankunytjatjara means 'to have yankunytja as opposed to Pitjantjatjara which 'has pitjantja.[6]


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.[7]

The longest official place name in Australia is a Pitjantjatjara word, Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill in South Australia, which means "where a devil urinates".[8]


Some features distinctive to Pitjantjatjara include -pa endings on words that would otherwise end with consonants and a reluctance to y at the beginn 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 (Bowe 1990:9–12).

Consider the following example, where the subject of a transitive verb is marked with the ergative case and the object with the absolutive case (Bowe 1990:10):

Minyma-ngku tjitji nya-ngu.
woman-ergative child(absolutive) see-past
'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
'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 (Bowe 1990:11):

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

Segmental 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:

Peripheral Laminal Apical
Bilabial Velar Palatal Alveolar Retroflex
Plosive p [p]~[b] k [k]~[ɡ] tj [c]~[ɟ] t [t]~[d] [ʈ]~[ɖ]
Nasal m [m] ng [ŋ] ny [ɲ] n [n] [ɳ]
Trill/Tap r[9] [r]~[ɾ]
Lateral ly [ʎ] l [l] [ɭ]
Approximant w [w] y [j] [9] [ɻ]~[ɹ]

Pitjantjatjara has three vowels:

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

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:⟩.


Name of sacred site 'Uluru'[edit]

The local Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluṟu (Aboriginal pronunciation: ['uluɻu]). This word has no further particular meaning in the Pitjantjatjara language, although it is used as a local family name by the senior Traditional Owners of Uluru.[10]

On 19 July 1873, the surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named it Ayers Rock in honour of the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.[11] Since then, both names have been used.

In 1993, a dual naming policy was adopted that allowed official names that consist of both the traditional Aboriginal name and the English name. On 15 December 1993, it was renamed "Ayers Rock / Uluru" and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to "Uluru / Ayers Rock" on 6 November 2002 following a request from the Regional Tourism Association in Alice Springs.[12]


Pitjantjatjara requires 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

External links[edit]


  • Bowe, Heather. 1990. Categories, Constituents, and Constituent Order in Pitjantjatjara, An Aboriginal Language of Australia. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-05694-2
  • Goddard, Cliff (1996). Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary. Alice Springs: IAD Press. ISBN 0-949659-91-6. 
  • Goddard, Cliff (1985). A Grammar of Yankunytjatjara. Institute for Aboriginal Develoepment Press. ISBN 0-949659-32-0. 
  • Langlois, Annie (2004). Alive and Kicking: Areyonga Teenage Pitjantjatjara, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. ISBN 0-85883-546-0
  1. ^ a b Pitjantjatjara at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  2. ^ a b Pitjantjatjara at Ethnologue (13th ed., 1996).
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Pitjantjatjara". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  4. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  5. ^ http://www.ethnologue.com/language/pjt
  6. ^ a b Goddard (1996)
  7. ^ Goddard (1985)
  8. ^ "South Australian State Gazeteer". 
  9. ^ a b 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⟩.
  10. ^ Issacs, Jennifer (1980). Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History. Sydney: Lansdowne Press. pp. 40–41. ISBN 0-7018-1330-X. OCLC 6578832. 
  11. ^ "Uluṟu – Kata Tjuṯa National Park – Early European history". Australian Department of the Environment and Water Resources. Retrieved 7 October 2008. 
  12. ^ "Dual Naming of Features". NT.gov.au. Retrieved 7 October 2008.