Some languages die, but some are merely sleeping – and when woken back up, they can thrive.
By the mid-20th century, after being forbidden for decades, no-one could speak Kaurna, the original Indigenous language of a part of the Adelaide Plains, home now to the capital of South Australia.
But now, the language is being taught at all levels of education, used by Kaurna people in conversation, and is featured in a number of online and offline resources.
Tauondi Aboriginal College has recently started offering Certificates II and III in Kaurna.
Zoey Bonney, who teaches the courses, says they’re “really encouraging Aboriginal people to get involved, whether they’re Kaurna or not, and trying to get the language out there”.
Kaurna language agency Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (KWP) has produced a wealth of resources to learn and teach the language.
So, how do you revive a language?
Cosmos sat down with Bonney, as well as other KWP members Jaylon Newchurch, Taylor Power-Smith, and Associate Professor Rob Amery, head of linguistics at the University of Adelaide, to find out.
Amery, who is not a Kaurna person, has spent decades reviving the language with Kaurna elders, and received a UNESCO Certificate of Achievement for his work in linguistics.
It’s this work which has allowed younger Kaurna people, like Bonney, Newchurch and Power-Smith, to learn and teach the language.
“Kaurna language and even Kaurna culture in general is thriving thanks to these elders,” says Newchurch.
“They’ve done a lot of the hard groundwork for us.”
Finding Kaurna words
Amery and his collaborators first started writing songs and short stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
They used a collection of 19th century records of Kaurna words, alongside comparisons to neighbouring languages. The most significant source is a record written by German missionaries Clamor Schürmann and Gottlob Teichelmann, published in 1840.
“Kaurna language and even Kaurna culture in general is thriving thanks to these elders”Jaylon Newchurch
“It’s got a little sketch grammar – 24 pages – and a vocabulary of about 2000 words, and it’s all Kaurna to English. There’s no English to Kaurna,” says Amery.
This made translating things in a pre-digital age very laborious.
“If we were writing a song, and we wanted the word for ear, I’d have to read through the whole lot, because the word for ear, yuri, starts with a Y. It’s on the last page,” says Amery.
Understanding pronunciation and grammar
Teichelmann and Schürmann included a “not terribly good” orthography in their book, says Amery, which provided some idea of how words should be pronounced.
“More important [was] the neighbouring language to the north, Nukunu,” says Amery. Nukunu territory stretches around the northern tip of Spencer Gulf.
“Luise Hercus, who was a well-trained linguist from Canberra, did some work with Nukunu elders back in the 1960s and early 1970s who weren’t able to speak their language fluently, but they remembered enough words for her to record those words.
“Quite a lot of words are shared between Nukunu and Kaurna – not all – and the sound system of Nukunu, there’s no reason to believe that it’s any different to the sound system of Kaurna.”
Amery adds that there are a few small differences between Nukunu and Kaurna pronunciation, but the languages are similar enough to develop a pronunciation system.
“We use the cognates, the words which are shared between Kaurna and Nukunu, as the key to seeing what Teichelmann and Schürmann did with their recordings of Kaurna language,” he says.
While there are probably a few consonants a little out of place, Amery is cautiously confident that someone who spoke Kaurna pre-19th century would understand a modern speaker.
Kaurna has nine vowel sounds compared to 20 for English – which Bonney says makes it simpler to learn the sounds.
“Once you get your head wrapped around it as a learner, as long as you can understand all the placements on sounds, it is a lot easier to learn than English,” says Bonney.
The grammar system was gleaned from the sentences and grammar sketch in Teichelmann and Schürmann, alongside neighbouring languages.
“It’s a real help to know and understand other strong, Pama-Nyungan Aboriginal languages which are related to Kaurna, which work the same kind of way as Kaurna, to be able to make sense of what’s here,” says Amery.
Verifying your methods
Sometimes, Amery and his collaborators needed to use words for which they had no records. Finding an appropriate word to use instead took a lot of deep thought and understanding.
“Years back, we needed a word for ‘year’. And you can look through all the source materials and you won’t find anything – well I didn’t think you would at the time. Certainly not in Teichelmann and Schürmann,” says Amery.
“Having worked in northeast Arnhem Land, I know that Yolŋu use the word waltjaṉ: which is rain, but it’s also wet season. They use that for year, because the wet season is the big season.
“So I used summer, warltati, for ‘year’ down here. And I’d been using that for a couple of years. Then I reread the Wyatt  wordlist, and lo and behold, it was there: warltati, year.
“So it confirmed what I had done, but if I hadn’t have worked in Arnhem Land, or in Central Australia and known the semantic structure of those languages, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go ahead and do that.”
“Once you get your head wrapped around it as a learner, as long as you can understand all the placements on sounds, it is a lot easier to learn than English”Zoey Bonney
Updating the spelling
In 2010, KWP announced a new spelling system for Kaurna words. While older spellings made it easier to check with original sources, the new system followed a more logical pronunciation.
“I’d been teaching Kaurna language with Jack Buckskin, and then he took over the teaching,” says Amery.
“I think he got really tired of having to ring me up in the middle of the class: ‘Rob, what kind of R is this one, or what kind of T is this sound?’ And so he pushed for a spelling reform.”
Amery and Buckskin developed a new, consistent, spelling system, which eventually become the impetus for a published Kaurna dictionary.
“For kids coming fresh into the new spelling system, it was much, much easier because we don’t have that kind of irregularity that was in the old source material,” says Amery.
Some companies and places have kept the older spellings, which Power-Smith says is a “reminder of how far back this work has gone”.
“It’s old spelling, but they signify something much more important than that. For me, they’re good little reminders of the hard work that has been done and will continue to be done.”
What’s next for Kaurna?
As soon as the revival work began, people began writing songs and stories in Kaurna. The songs in particular have helped people to learn the language.
“When that whole revival process was happening out at Kaurna Plains [School], I was actually a student out there at the kindy,” says Power-Smith.
“I remember a lot of the songs that we were taught back then, that we just grew up singing because it was normal. But also, having the rhythm in your head helps you remember, so it’s a good way to learn.”
Now, the aim is to get more people speaking Kaurna – through the tertiary certificates as well as in schools.
“The language has been revived by our elders, its survival is our job now. And we pass that on to our young ones,” says Bonney.