Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi
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Kaurna Language in the City of Adelaide.


[RS = 2010 Revised Kaurna Spelling]

Kaurna is the language Indigenous to Adelaide and the Adelaide Plains. When Adelaide was first established Kaurna was a vibrant language spoken by the original inhabitants of Adelaide – the Kaurna people. The colonists even made use of the language, and for at least a few years, knowledge of Kaurna was keenly sought. Two of the first colonists to arrive in South Australia, William Williams of the Colonial Store and James Cronk, went out of their way to learn Kaurna. Williams published his wordlist in the newspaper in 1840. It was the ‘Protector’ of Aborigines’ duty to familiarise himself with the local cultures, customs and languages and to engage interpreters in their dealings with the Indigenous population. So it was that when George Gawler, South Australia’s third governor, arrived in October 1838, the Protector William Wyatt acted as interpreter when he addressed the local Indigenous population within a few days of his arrival. This speech and Wyatt’s Kaurna translation were also published in the newspaper at the time. Gawler actually encouraged the colonists to listen out for Indigenous names, so that these might be placed on the map.

Clamor Sch�rmannChristian Teichelmann

Two German missionaries, Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann, arrived on the same ship as Gawler and immediately set about learning and describing the Kaurna language. Within 18 months of their arrival, they published a sketch grammar, vocabulary of about 2,000 words and about 200 translated sentences. On 23 December 1839, they opened a school at Piltawodli which they taught in the Kaurna language for five and a half years before it was closed down by Governor Grey. Kaurna children were taught to read and write in Kaurna and several letters written by Kaurna children survive. The missionaries translated the Ten Commandments, six German hymns, a school prayer and some biblical truths into Kaurna.

Despite a promising start, the Kaurna language soon ceased to have value. In fact, Governor Grey actually forbade the German missionaries from preaching in Kaurna as they were accustomed to doing. The colonists insisted on imposing English to the exclusion of all other languages. The Kaurna language was probably last spoken on a daily basis as early as the 1860s. Ivaritji is often said to have been the “last speaker” of the Kaurna language and she died in 1929.

Ivaritji, known as the 'last speaker' of the Kaurna language

Despite Gawler’s efforts to promote the use of Indigenous placenames, exceedingly few were recorded within the Adelaide City precincts and even fewer were officially gazetted. Long-standing Kaurna names appearing on the map include:

Morialta Street (drawing the name from Morialta Falls to the east in the foothills)

Medindie Road (leading to the suburb of Medindie)

and perhaps Pinky Flat (possibly derived from pingku ‘bilby’ in Kaurna)

None of these are high profile streets or localities.

For the South Australian sesquicentenary in 1986 a series of plaques commemorating famous South Australians were placed along the footpath on the north side of North Terrace. One Kaurna name appeared, Witu-witu, a word which refers to the white cockatoo headdress worn by Kaurna men in ceremonies. It is perhaps ironic that this name was not used in reference to a Kaurna person, but rather referred to Charletto-witto Cawthorne, one of William Cawthorne’s sons on whom he bestowed a Kaurna name.

William Cawthorne had close relationships with Kaurna people, particularly Kadlitpinna, and made a record of Kaurna artifacts, some of which were not documented by other observers. Three prominent South Australian Aboriginal peoples’ names appear on plaques. They are Gladys Elphick, Jimmy James and David Unaipon.

1995 saw the first Kaurna language appear in public artwork. The Yerrakartarta [RS Yarakartarta] installation by Darryl Pfitzner and Muriel Van der Byll incorporates a number of Kaurna words and a sentence adapted from one appearing in Teichelmann & Schürmann (1840). In the ensuing decade, many Kaurna words, phrases and text have appeared on plaques and in public art throughout the city and the wider metropolitan area, as people have become aware of the city’s Indigenous heritage.

The Adelaide City Council’s Kaurna placenaming strategy is a significant development in the use of Kaurna language in the city. Kaurna names for parks and squares have been reinstated, allocated or developed and in November 2001 the Torrens River was dual-named with its original name Karrawirra Pari (redgum forest river). During NAIDOC week in 2001, Council convened Tarndanyangga Kaurna Yerta in Tarndanyangga-Victoria Square in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the design of the Aboriginal Flag by Harold Thomas. The name Tarndanyangga (RS Tarntanyangga] was officially recognised by Council in May 2002. On 8 July 2002, Council unanimously endorsed the Flags and Banners Policy resulting in the flying of the Aboriginal flag in Tarndanyangga on a permanent basis. Information about these Kaurna naming initiatives and acknowledgement of the traditional custodianship of the Adelaide Plains area by Kaurna people is posted on Adelaide City Council’s Reconciliation Website.