More than 50 Aboriginal groups occupied what became known as South Australia in 1836, each having a distinctive language and defined territory. Language groups were further subdivided into clan groups comprising several family groups. These groups were often referred to as tribes by colonists, and given European place names – the Adelaide Tribe, Mount Barker Tribe, Port Lincoln Tribe, Big Murray Tribe etc. During the 1980s and 1990s Aboriginal people resurrected language group names to assert their own identities, even though most languages are no longer spoken on a daily basis.

In the 1996 census more than 2000 South Australians claimed to speak an Aboriginal language at home. However, some communities in the north west did not participate in the census, which may add another 1000 speakers. The majority of native title claims in South Australia have been lodged under a language group name, occasionally under two jointly. In 1999 for the Journey of Healing, 46 languages were identified on sticks, now located at Yaitya Warra Wodli (South Australia’s Aboriginal Language Centre in suburban Prospect).

In some parts of South Australia smaller groups come together to identify as a nation. Ngarrindjeri people, for instance, also identify as Yaralde, Tangane, Thangal or Ngarrindjeri, among others. Indigenous South Australians also identify as Anangu, Nharla, Yura or Nunga, the Indigenous words for ‘Aboriginal person’ in the north-west, western Lake Eyre Basin, Flinders Ranges and southern settled areas of the state respectively. The word Nunga, now used by Aboriginal people throughout Adelaide and surrounding towns, comes from Wirangu, spoken around Ceduna, and is effectively the South Australian counterpart of Koori, used in New South Wales and Victoria.

All Aboriginal languages in South Australia are related. They can be divided into subgroups with a major linguistic cleavage along the Mount Lofty Ranges. Kaurna, on the Adelaide Plains, is more closely related to Nyungar in Perth than it is to the nearby Ngarrindjeri to the east. Despite this, strong cultural ties existed. Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri shared trading links, frequent intermarriage, Dreamings and ceremonies. In the 1830s a strong alliance was evident between the Kaurna and the Ngarrindjeri at Encounter Bay, despite the linguistic differences.

Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara, spoken across all age groups for most purposes in their home communities, are amongst Australia’s strongest Indigenous languages. Several people can still speak Arabana and Adnyamathanha. Ngarrindjeri intersperse numerous words with English to communicate in a form inaccessible to outsiders. Dieri, Parnkalla and Kaurna were well documented by missionaries, but little is known about a number of others, such as Peramangk from the Adelaide Hills. The loss of South Australia’s linguistic heritage can be attributed to population loss and colonial and assimilationist policies.

With the renewed interest in Indigenous languages Pitjantjatjara programs for Indigenous students commenced in schools in Port Augusta and Adelaide. From 1994 Alberton Primary School taught Pitjantjatjara to all students, and included Kaurna songs in the choir repertoire. In 2000 Aboriginal languages (Pitjantjatjara, Yankuntjatjara, Antakarinja, Wirangu, Arabana, Adnyamathanha, Narangga, Kaurna or Ngarrindjeri) were offered by 63 schools to 2500 South Australian students, the majority Indigenous.

Community language projects have been mounted in a dozen languages. While many revival efforts draw primarily on knowledge remaining within the community, Kaurna language reclamation is, by necessity, based almost entirely on historical materials compiled by the German missionaries Christian Teichelmann and Clamor Schürmann. Some Kaurna people are now re-learning their language to use in speeches of welcome, songs, signage, public art, cultural tourism and naming, and making efforts to speak Kaurna between themselves.

By Rob Amery

Senior Lecturer, Linguistics Discipline, School of Humanities, University of Adelaide

This entry was first published in The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited by Bernard O’Neil, uploaded 30 June 2015

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