An indigenous man holding up a dictionary against an Aboriginal artwork.

How Adelaide’s ‘extinct’ Indigenous language Kaurna was brought back to life

Only a few decades ago the Kaurna language was thought to be extinct.

Adelaide’s Kaurna people say it was only ever “sleeping”.

Rob Amery from the University of Adelaide has dedicated his life to reviving Kaurna.

He’s just published the first-ever English to Kaurna dictionary.

“I’m confident that if I got run over by a bus tomorrow it would still continue on,” he said.

“People know enough of the language, know enough of the grammar of Kaurna language to be able to continue the work on without me.”

The Kaurna people’s traditional lands extend from South Australia’s Mid North, through Adelaide, and as far south as the bottom of the Fleurieu Peninsula.

The closest thing to a dictionary before now was written by German missionaries in the 1830s, who documented about 2,000 Kaurna words.

Speaking the language was once forbidden by white Australians, and Kaurna all but faded from use by the 1860s.

Futureproofing First Nations languages

Dr Amery said a physical document was vital for the preservation and growth of the language through education in the community and schools.

His mission, alongside co-authors Susie Greenwood and Jasmin Morley, was to turn a 160-year-old handwritten list of words into a modern handbook for Kaurna.

“We’ve included words from other sources that those German missionaries didn’t record,” he said.

“We’ve done a lot of detailed comparative work with neighbor languages ​​so that we can best work out the optimum pronunciation of those words.”

The dictionary includes 4,000 new words created in consultation with local elders and Kaurna speakers.

For example, mukarntu (computer) comes from a combination of mukamuka (brain) and karntu (lightning).

Until now, school students have learned from a small pool of Kaurna speakers, but several of these have died in recent years.

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