Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi
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The Kaurna Language Dictionary (forthcoming)

Kaurna Language and Shared Words

Kaurna is part of a language family, and it shares some words with related languages, just as English, a Germanic language, shares words with other Germanic languages. For instance, German has Hand ‘hand’, Knie ‘knee’, Schulter ‘shoulder’ and many other words that share a common origin with English.

There are several reasons why the same word can exist in different languages.

  • It can be because the languages are descended from a common source language, just like cousins might inherit the same features from their common grandparents. English shares some words with Persian and Indian languages for this reason.
  • It can be because people have been interacting for a long time and pick up words they like from each other’s language. English borrowed lots of words from their French neighbours in the past, including: ‘face’, ‘bronze’, ‘fatal’, ‘saint’, and ‘tradition’.
  • It can be because people need a word for a new idea or invention and borrow its name from the language it is associated with. English got the word ‘tsunami’ from Japanese and ‘banana’ from a language in West Africa.

For Australian Aboriginal languages there is an extra reason why languages might share the same words. In many Aboriginal cultures it is customary to avoid using the name of a person who has recently died and other words that sound similar to it. That means people often had to find alternative words to use. Since most Aboriginal people could speak several other languages besides their own, they could use a word from another language during the mourning period.

For example, in the 1830’s there was a boy living at Pirltawardli called ‘Kadli’ which means dog). If he had died, then Kaurna people could have started using either the word ‘putyita’ or ‘wirka’ which also mean ‘dog’. Because Aboriginal cultures and languages are so much older than European languages, it is impossible for us to tell which language these words originally came from using Linguistics.

Apart from the new words that Kaurna people have created in recent years, all the words in this dictionary were recorded in the first few years of colonisation of South Australia. Some people have expressed concern about local language programs taking words from other languages. The words in this dictionary were written down very early on, when Kaurna people were still living in their own homelands and practicing their own culture. You can therefore be confident that all these words were authentic parts of the Kaurna language spoken at that time. Of course, some of these words are also part of other languages, and it is interesting to see what these connections show us about the relationships between Aboriginal groups that existed before Europeans arrived.