Western Desert Language

Western Desert Language
Western Desert Language
Spoken in Australia
Region Desert areas of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory
Native speakers several thousand  (date missing)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 variously:
ant – Antikirinya
ktd – Kokata
kux – Kukatja
mpj – Martu Wangka
ntj – Ngaanyatjarra
piu – Pintupi-Luritja
pjt – Pitjantjatjara
kdd – Yankunytjatjara

Western Desert Language is the name used to refer to an otherwise un-named Australian Aboriginal language. It is one of the Wati languages of the large Southwest branch of the Pama–Nyungan family.


Location and list of communities

The speakers of the various dialects of the Western Desert Language traditionally lived across much of the desert areas of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Most Western Desert people live in communities on or close to their traditional lands, although some now live in one of the towns fringing the desert area such as Kalgoorlie, Laverton, Alice Springs, Port Augusta, Meekatharra, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.

The following is a partial list of Western Desert communities:

Dialect continuum

The Western Desert Language consists of a network of closely related dialects; the names of some of these have become quite well known (such as Pitjantjatjara) and are often referred to as 'languages'. As the whole group of dialects which constitutes the language does not have its own name it is usually referred to as the Western Desert Language. WDL speakers referring to the overall language use various terms including wangka 'language' or wangka yuti 'clear speech'. For native speakers this language is mutually intelligible across its entire range.


Some of the named varieties of the Western Desert Language, with their approximate locations, are:

  • Antakarinya -- north-east of SA
  • Kartutjarra -- near Jigalong, WA
  • Kukatja -- south of Balgo, WA
  • Kokatha -- central SA
  • Luritja -- Central Australia
  • Manyjilyjarra -- near Jigalong
  • Martu Wangka -- Jigalong communalect
  • Ngaanyatjarra -- near Warburton, WA
  • Ngaatjatjarra -- near Warburton, WA
  • Pintupi -- Kintore (Northern Territory) and further west.
  • Pintupi Luritja -- Papunya and Kintore region, NT
  • Pitjantjatjara -- North-west of SA
  • Putitjarra -- south of Jigalong, WA
  • Titjikala Luritja -- around Maryvale and Finke, NT
  • Wangkatjunga -- south of Christmas Creek, WA
  • Warnman -- near Jigalong
  • Watha -- east of Meekatharra, WA
  • Wawula -- south-east of Meekatharra
  • Wong-gie -- Kalgoorlie to Cosmo Newberry and Wiluna region, W.A
  • Yankunytjatjara -- north-west of SA
  • Yulparirra -- north of Jigalong


Status of the language

The Western Desert Language has thousands of speakers, making it one of the strongest indigenous Australian languages. The language is still being transmitted to children and has substantial amounts of literature, particularly in the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara dialects in South Australia where there was formerly a long-running bilingual program.


In the following tables of the WDL sound system, symbols in boldface give a typical practical orthography used by many WDL communities. Further details of orthographies in use in different areas is given below. Phonetic values in IPA are shown in [square brackets].


Front Central Back
Close i [i], ii [iː] u [u], uu [uː]
Open a [a], aa [aː]

The Western Desert Language has the common (for Australia) three-vowel system with a length distinction creating a total of six possible vowels.


Bilabial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar
Plosive p [p] t [t] rt [ʈ] tj [c] k [k]
Nasal m [m] n [n] rn [ɳ] ny [ɲ] ng [ŋ]
Trill rr [r]
Lateral l [l] rl [ɭ] ly [ʎ]
Approximant w [w] r [ɻ] y [j]

As shown in the chart, the WDL distinguishes five positions of articulation, and has oral and nasal stops at each position. The oral stops have no phonemic voice distinction, but display voiced and unvoiced allophones; stops are usually unvoiced at the beginning of a word, and voiced elsewhere. In both positions they are usually unaspirated. There are no fricative consonants.


While the dialects of the WDL have very similar phonologies there are several different orthographies in use. This results from the preferences of the different early researchers as well as the fact that the WDL region extends into three states (Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory), with each having its own history of language research and educational policy.


The Kardutjara and Yurira Watjalku had a developed sign form of their language.[1]


  1. ^ Kendon, A. (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communicative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Goddard, C. 1985. A Grammar of Yankunytjatjara. Alice Springs: IAD.

External links

  • Ngapartji Online course of Pitjantjatjara language, and related performance event 2006.

Ethnologue does not have an entry for the Western Desert Language, but has a number of entries each of which deals with one of the dialects.

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Look at other dictionaries:

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