Von Deutschland to Adelaide: Reclamation of the Kaurna Language

It’s good to see that Australian indigenous languages are getting some recognition overseas, too. Here’s an article in Germany’s der Spiegel newspaper which translates as “Linguists Resuscitate Died-out Aboriginal Language” about the reclamation of the Kaurna language in Adelaide, which I thought might be interesting for some overseas perspective on Australia’s indigenous languages.

The link Germany has with Kaurna is that many of the surviving records of the language were taken by a couple of German missionaries, Christian Teichelmann and Clamor Shurmann, which we touched on at the beginning of the course. The article is in German, but for a basic summary it discusses the story of the two missionaries and how they came to live in the Kaurna community and became fluent in the language. The language was last spoken by an elder called Ivaritji, who died eighty years ago.

The article says a couple of interesting things about the language itself and the difficulties it presents to learners. Kaurna has three ‘R’ and four different ‘L’ sounds, which had at first caused a Korean learner, who had never had to make the distinction between ‘L’ and ‘R’ before in Korea, a few difficulties. It also notes how 170 years on, Germans are still playing an important role in understanding the language. Because many of the records were written in German, German speakers can provide a better insight into how the words would have sounded to Teichelmann and Schurrman when wrote them down. It also describes some of the difficulties in deciding on words for the present world. A couple of researchers argue as to whether the word for ‘soap’ should be either the Kaurna equivalent for ‘hard oil’ or ‘foaming stone’.

For the last twenty years, Adelaide University lecturer, Robert Amery has studied the language and teaches the language. The number of speakers doubled between 2006 and 2011. The learners have a range of motivations; some are descendants of the Kaurna people, whilst others learn it out of pure curiosity. Excitingly at the end, the story explains how Amery speaks only Kaurna with his two-year-old daughter, with the aim that she becomes the first native speaker of Kaurna in eighty years.


If you click on ‘fotos’ in the article I’ve provided a translation of the captions below:

  1. Aboriginals at a festival performance in Sydney: Many indigenous people lost their languages in the colonial times
  2. German missionaries: Christian Teichelmann (left) and Clamor Schurmann (right) have, through their meticulous records, made it possible for linguistics to resuscitate the long-lost language.
  3. A copy of the dictionary from Teichelmann and Shurmann: In such documents was the language of Kaurna preserved
  4. Grave-site of the Schurmann family at the Lutheran cemetery in Hamilton, Western Australia: The missionary arrived in Adelaide in 1838 by sail ship
  5. Letters from Kaurna children in the archive of the Frankeschen Foundation in Halle: Also transcripts from everyday life help with the resuscitation of the dead language
  6. Australian recognition of efforts: In recognition of their important work a memorial was erected in Adelaide in the year 2000

Nick Hedemann

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