Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2014

Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya! A Kaurna Learner’s Guide (2013), by Rob Amery and Jane Simpson

Kulurdu Marni NgathaityaNaa marni?

That’s a Kaurna translation of a contemporary greeting now used in Pitjantjatjara and other Aboriginal languages, and it’s my introduction to learning the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains in South Australia.

It’s long been a concern of mine that although I can fudge my way around in Europe with a smattering of languages, I don’t even know how to say thank you in any of the indigenous languages of my own country.  There is no better way to understand another’s culture than to learn a bit of their language, and that is why I am so delighted that Wakefield Press has sent me this book.

It is a beautiful, enticing, brightly-coloured book on glossy paper with lots of illustrations to complement the lessons, but it begins in a way that no other ‘teach yourself a language’ text does.  In the preface there are 23 profiles of the people who contributed to this book, making the salient point that like nearly all Aboriginal languages the Kaurna language has been put at risk by a combination of factors arising from the colonisation of the continent by the British.   In different ways and coming from different starting points, these profiles confirm what I already knew from talking to award-winning indigenous author Kim Scott, that the resurrection of these languages is difficult when so many indigenous Australians – whose birthright these languages are – were severed from their families, their culture and their language under Stolen Generation policies.  That is why a book like this is so important.

Languages have all kinds of embedded cultural codes: Kaurna is a bit like Indonesian in that in some contexts what is said changes according to how many people are being spoken to, and how.  For example, in Indonesian,  unlike in English, the word ‘we’ can be inclusive of the people being addressed (kita), and exclusive of them (kami).  In Kaurna the traditional ‘where are you going?’ greeting varies according to whether you are speaking to one person, two, or more than two.   This distinction bothered me in choosing the contemporary greeting Naa marni? because I am not sure of the etiquette for addressing the readers of blogs! I assume that most people are reading this as individuals, but I expect that it will be read in toto by many, certainly more than two.  In the end I went with more than two, but I am not confident that I am correct.  It’s always, always better to learn a language from a native speaker who can help out with thorny issues like this …

My next stumble came with the word ‘thank you’.   The text explains that Aboriginal languages didn’t have words for thanking people because in pre-colonial times people did things for others either because they were obliged to under kinship rules or because they wanted to.  Indigenous Australians don’t expect to be thanked; what is more likely is an expression of affection such as Ngaityo yungandalya (My brother!) or Ngaityu yakanantalya (My sister!)   Ngaityalya (My dear!) can be used for anyone regardless of age, gender or relationship to the speaker.  This last form is an example of the way indigenous languages have adapted to contemporary needs. The suffix -alya on the end, is explained in a little grammar box on the side of the text: it expresses endearment.  How nice to have a language grammar which expresses endearment!  The only equivalent I can think of in English is adding -kin/s to the end of a word, as in lambkin, or using it to add to the name of my grandniece, as in Poppykins.   I have a feeling that my use of this suffix -kin betrays either my age or my origins!

Look how much I’ve learned simply by exploring how to say ‘hello‘ and ‘thank you’!  Even if I never ever get a chance to use this language, this book is invaluable.  But I’m going to have a go with these chapters to guide me:

  • Tirntu-irntu Warrarna / useful Introductory Utterances
  • Nari Taakanthi / Names and Naming
  • Warrarna Tirkanthi: Kaurna Warra Tirkanthi / Learning Languages: Learning Kaurna (this section includes pronunciation)

I’m intrigued by the two long sections about Talking about Space and Time, because I already know from teaching indigenous children that their concepts about this are entirely different to ours, and I’m also keen to explore the differences between Talking with Children, and Talking with Elders.

The book is designed for people who are teaching Kaurna and assumes no knowledge of the language or even the culture: apart from the easy-to-understand lessons which are based on a communicative approach there are  posters at the back (which can also be ordered from the creators).

The blurb at the back of the book sums it up better than I ever could:

Awakening a sleeping beauty tongue is a remarkable achievement of ethical, aesthetic and utilitarian significance.  This textbook is an exquisite contribution to Revivalistics, a new field emerging in the wake of greater concern about intangible heritage, intellectual sovereignty, human wellbeing and social justice.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckerman, chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages, University of Adelaide.

Marni padni! (Go well!)

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.

Authors: Rob Amery and Jane Simpson
Title: Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya! A Kaurna Learner’s Guide
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781743052341


Fishpond: Kulurdu Marni Ngathaitya!: A Kaurna Learner’s Guide
Or direct from Wakefield Press.


  1. […] Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers […]


  2. Wonderful. Wonderful for you to be doing that and wonderful that such a book exists. If people from different cultures are ever to learn to live together and appreciate each other, this is what we need to be doing. Especially around the different view of things like time and space.


    • Hi Marilyn, one of my favourite lessons at school, was when I was teaching the children the topic of explorers (world circumnavigators, and the exploration of Australia, maritime and inland. I began the unit by teaching them about Aboriginal songlines (see and then we went out into the schoolyard and created our own songline while at the same time I asked a small group of children to draw a map of where we’d been. When we went back inside the mappers were not happy with their efforts, but the class said it didn’t matter because we knew our songline off by heart by then and we didn’t need a map at all. It was an unexpectedly powerful way of learning a different way of looking at the world AND it reinforced the idea of Aboriginal culture as both ancient and ongoing because the children knew that underneath our songline, there was another one that had been there for thousands of years.


  3. What a great project with the children! Good for you! Do you teach many Indigenous children? Are they well integrated into the whole nation’s schools? That has been such an issue here. The legal end of segregation didn’t really end its informal existence.


    • Oh Marilyn, that is such a big question to ask, and the answers are so different in various parts of Australia!
      What I can tell you is that, teaching in south-eastern metropolitan Melbourne, I have taught in two schools where we had 4-5 indigenous children, and that they have been well-integrated both educationally and socially while still adhering to their own ways. My aim, however, is to make non-indigenous children aware of, and proud of Australia’s indigenous heritage, and as Director of Curriculum I have had the opportunity to help staff develop different ways of doing that. (For example, when we are teaching ‘safety in the home’ to Preps, we also teach that traditional indigenous families have for thousands of years taught their children about safety in the bush through dance, story and song). And in the library, I introduce students to indigenous stories from all over Australia, make them aware that these stories are more than just stories and also that they ‘belong to’ to the people of the ‘country’ from which they come. Each time we read a story we identify the name and language of the people, and we find where they are on the Aboriginal map of Australia. I am acutely aware that I don’t know enough about the diversity of Australia’s First Peoples and so I am always on the lookout for ways to learn more.


  4. What a great sentiment Lisa! I had never thought about this, but you are right. If we know a smattering of other languages it is very sad we do not know a smattering of an indigenous language of the place where we live. Related to this is the issue of strident mono-lingualism. My children and I rue the fact that our family has lost its bilingualism when I suspect that three of my grandparents were fluent in another language. Native English speakers need to be far more tolerant of people speaking other languages. Making a reasonable attempt to learn how to pronounce people’s names (a pet peeve!) would be a good start.


    • Hi Yvonne, you’ve touched on a common phenomenon there: it’s not so much that English speakers are intolerant (though that will vary from place to place) but that children in their desire to belong tend to grow out of using their parents’ language. People here in Melbourne are used to other languages flowing around them and (apart from a yobbo minority) don’t care. Multilingualism is part of Melbourne’s multicultural identity and we like it. That’s not the same as wanting to learn another language; most people can’t be bothered, but that’s more a matter of benign indifference than anything else, IMO.

      But when I ask children about the languages they speak (there are 25+ at my school) they tell me that they speak English at home amongst themselves e.g. with their siblings, and they only speak their mother tongue with their parents, often only with the mother because she doesn’t speak English at all. There’s no pressure on these kids to drop their language, it’s just that in the playground English is the one language that unites them so they use it and they become fluent in it. (And no doubt they also use it to put one over their parents when they can get away with it!)

      In Indonesia, where they introduced Indonesian as a way of uniting the country but wanted to retain regional languages, it used to be that children spoke their mother tongue (Javanese, Balinese etc.) at home, learned Indonesian (the language of commerce, government, education and the mass media) in primary school and then learned a third utilitarian language in secondary school: English, French, German etc. But, increasingly, young people now speak Indonesian at home as well as when they’re out and about, and their children will grow up not knowing the original mother tongue. 15 years ago with I was studying this issue at university, I learned that something similar is happening in China, with their weaker regional languages being displaced by Mandarin.

      So if we want to protect and nurture fragile Aboriginal languages there have to be sustainable supports in place, because left to chance or choice, they will be supplanted by Aboriginal English and die out just as surely as Aboriginal languages were lost when they were actively suppressed. I believe that bilingual education programs are probably the best way of achieving this but there are immense difficulties, not the least being that the strongest languages are those best placed to achieve it because they have a bigger more fluent pool of speakers to draw on to teach it, to develop materials, and to support the everyday use of the language. But it’s the weakest, most vulnerable languages that need these programs most.


      • True! I’ve lived in areas in Australia where people are offended by hearing a different language and make that clear to those who speak another language. I miss those parts of Melbourne where it is ok!

        You quite rightly talking about the pull factors that lead people to adopt English as their language of preference. This would definitely been a factor in at least one grandparent dropping her other language as well as the desire not to appear ‘weird’ back in another era.

        How to preserve those Aboriginal languages not spoken by many is a difficult question. It is also important to show speakers of relatively widely-spoken Aboriginal languages that the language and therefore the culture is valuable. Even if widely-spoken Aboriginal languages were used in schools in the language area that would be something. I vaguely remember hearing about such bilingual school in the Northern Territory but I am not sure if the programs are still going.


        • Unfortunately it’s also true that governments as general rule have a utilitarian view of language learning: they’ll fund programs that teach a language with an economic benefit e.g. increasing the pool of Chinese speaking Australians will improve trade. This is why Latin has declined because it’s not seen to be ‘useful’. There is (as can be seen from the publication of this book) some support for people in Aboriginal communities to retain or rescue a vulnerable language but I don’t know of any programs that promote the local Aboriginal language to non-indigenous people as an intrinsic good.
          Still, you never know, this book and others like it might stimulate people just to have a go, for the sake of it? It would be nice to think so.


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