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Western Desert Special Speech Styles Project

Cover image for the landing page of the collection "Western Desert Special Speech Styles Project"

Landing page image for the collection “Western Desert Special Speech Styles Project”. Click on image to access collection.

Language Ngaanyatjarra (ISO639-3:ntj), Ngaatjatjarra (ISO639-3:), Pitjantjatjara (ISO639-3:pjt)
Depositor Lizzie Ellis, Inge Kral, Jenny Green
Affiliation Australian National University
Location Australia
Collection ID 0342
Grant ID SG0187
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle




Summary of the collection

This deposit is representative of the oral traditions of Ngaanyatjarra, Ngaatjatjarra and Pitjantjatjara-speaking Indigenous Australians who reside in remote Western Australia. For these Western Desert people, their verbal arts are situated in social practices whose cosmological foundations originate in the Tjukurrpa – the ‘ Dreaming’ or ‘Creation Time’. The Collection consists of a spectrum of oral practices – narratives, sand stories, iPad stories, children’s songs and games, and special speech styles – recorded with male and female narrators spanning three generations.

The collection in this deposit was recorded and documented between 2010 and 2013 by Indigenous linguist Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis, a senior Ngaatjatjarra woman who is a storyteller and practitioner of the verbal arts of her Western Desert society, in collaboration with linguist Jennifer Green and linguistic anthropologist Inge Kral, and Indigenous members of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands communities.

From 2012-2013, with funding from ELDP Small Grant SG0187, recordings were made with more than 20 narrators. We recorded male and female storytellers telling tjuma (oral narratives linked to the Tjukurrpa ‘Dreaming’ and personal narratives). We also filmed traditional mirlpa or tjinytjatjunku (the telling of stories while drawing in the sand) with women and girls. We then loaded up some iPads with a drawing app (Scribblify) and filmed younger women drawing on the iPad while telling stories about everyday life in their desert communities. We also recorded children’s songs and games ‘Tjilkuku – for children’. These multimodal speech arts are a valued aspect of the traditions of Western Desert people, yet they are highly endangered.

This collection provides a record of these oral practices that will enhance our understandings of how multimodal communication systems work across Australian desert communities. It also sheds light on the relationship between traditional multimodal communication forms and multimodal computer-mediated communication.


Group represented

The Ngaanyatjarra Lands fall within the Western Desert region of central Australia and comprise approximately 3% of mainland Australia, fanning out into in south-east Western Australia from the tri-state border with South Australia and the Northern Territory. Approximately 2000 people live in the eleven Ngaanyatjarra Lands communities. The population includes descendants of the last nomadic groups of the Western Desert. Ngaanyatjarra Lands residents are predominantly Ngaanyatjarra speakers, but the speech community also comprises speakers of other mutually intelligible Western Desert languages (including Ngaatjatjarra and Pitjantjatjara). As a group, they have never left their country, nor has their country been annexed or occupied by outsiders, and they now form a relatively homogenous group. The remoteness of this group has meant that they were protected from the early ravaging effects of colonisation as witnessed by Indigenous people in the more settled areas of coastal Australia.


Language information

Of Australia’s original 250 or more Indigenous spoken languages it is estimated that less than twelve will be transmitted to the next generations. The mutually intelligible Western Desert dialects Ngaanyatjarra, Ngaatjatjarra and Pitjantjatjara are still spoken by the 2000 or so people who reside in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Most of these residents speak Ngaanyatjarra as their vernacular or first language, although the speech community includes speakers of other Western Desert dialects. A range of Englishes along a continuum from ‘Aboriginal English’ to Standard Australian English (SAE) can also be heard, spoken by some as their mother tongue.

These dialects belong to the so-called Western Desert family of languages (within the Wati subgroup of the South-West group of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages). The Ngaanyatjarra dialect is spoken around Warburton and east towards the Jameson Range. Ngaatjatjarra is spoken round the Jameson, Blackstone and Rawlinson Ranges. Pitjantjatjara is spoken around the tri-state border region from around Wingellina in Western Australia east to the Mann Ranges in South Australia and into the Northern Territory. Other related dialects include Pintupi (mainly spoken at Kiwirrkura, a little at Tjukurla and at Kintore in the Northern Territory), Yankunytjatjara (spoken further east in South Australia), and Manyjilyjarra, Gugadja, and Wangkatja spoken in Western Australia.

Dialect names in the Western Desert have arisen out of lexical distinctions plus the suffix –tjarra (Ngaa.)/-tjara (Pitj./Yank.) meaning ‘having’. For example, Ngaanyatjarra is the language ‘having’ the word ngaanya for ‘this’; Ngaatjatjarra is the language ‘having’ the word ngaatja for ‘this’ and Pitjantjatjara is the language ‘having’ the word pitjantja for ‘coming’.

The Ngaanyatjarra language has six vowel sounds: 3 short vowels (a, i, u) and 3 long vowels (aa, ii, uu). The consonant sounds can be grouped as follows (with consonant sounds distinguishing three different kinds of l, n and t alveolar, dental and retroflex sounds):






















Ngaanyatjarra has a different grammatical system from English and employs suffixes to mark case relationships and bound or clitic pronouns (free pronouns are used less commonly). Some verbs also take prefixes and there are four verb classes (-la; -0; -rra; -wa). Ngaanyatjarra commonly employs enclitics for number marking on singular, dual and plural pronouns. There are two verb types, transitive or intransitive, with ergative marking on nouns. In Ngaanyatjarra (unlike in the closely related dialect Pitjantjatjara) ‘y’ is placed in front of word-initial vowels, for example uwa – ‘yes’ in Pitjantjatjara becomes yuwa – ‘yes’ in Ngaanyatjarra. Word-final consonants on nominals are unusual in Ngaanyatjarra and are commonly suffixed with -pa.


Special characteristics

Western Desert people practised a range of verbal arts for thousands of years before their encounter with Anglo-Australian settler society altered their everyday social, cultural and linguistic practices. These oral traditions embrace special respectful ways of speaking, sign language and gesture, narrative practices (tjuma), sand storytelling (mirlpa), song and dance (turlku), and games.

To this day it is understood that to be a competent speaker in this speech community entails having proficiency in cultural as well as linguistic practices in different domains of use. This requires understanding the social conventions of language use (encompassing verbal and non-verbal communication modes), as well as mastery of the verbal arts and the special speech styles used in everyday and ceremonial contexts. As Elizabeth Ellis states: knowing the verbal arts of Ngaanyatjarra culture is “what being a Ngaanyatjarra person is”.

For the Ngaanyatjarra, the verbal arts are situated in social practices whose cosmological foundations originate in the Tjukurrpa: the ‘Dreaming’, or ‘Creation Time’ when Ancestral Beings created the landscapes and their inhabitants, defined social organisation, and laid out multi-dimensional templates for the myriad forms of life itself. Beliefs about Ancestral Beings and the Dreaming still permeate everyday life. Many narratives and other verbal art forms are anchored to place and have varying restrictions depending on the secular or sacred nature of their content, context, and audiences. The actions of the Ancestral Beings who created the environment remain embodied in the performance of ceremonies that re-enact the Ancestral Beings’ original acts.

It is understood that the Ancestral Beings also created language. These Beings spoke in certain ways, and the way that Ngaanyatjarra people speak now is influenced by the ways that the sacred Ancestral Beings spoke to each other in the Tjukurrpa. Their legacy remains in narratives from the Tjukurrpa and in the special speech styles and registers used by people to this day. The use of respect registers, ceremonial languages, and avoidance languages remains an important aspect of the spectrum of verbal artistry still found today. Western Desert people say that the respect register ‘yirrkapiri wangka’ was spoken by the Ancestral Beings in the Tjukurrpa first, during a manhood ceremony, then it was given to modern day people to speak and to hold. As Ngaanyatjarra people say, ‘you can go back into the Tjukurrpa and see this is the place, this is the song, this is the story – this is why we do what we do now and this is why we speak like we speak now’. Contemporary cultural practices and language practices all derive from these understandings.

There are many kinds of narrative in Ngaanyatjarra society. Without a doubt, the most important narratives are the Tjukurrpa stories that link directly to songs and to narratives about the creation of the land. Many of the Tjukurrpa stories are linked to the travels of the Ancestral Beings and the particular sites where events took place. The sequences of songs and stories that are linked to these sites are sometimes referred to as ‘songlines’.

Across the Western Desert storytelling, especially sand storytelling, integrates graphic designs drawn on the ground with speech, song, sign and gesture. Sand stories range from accounts of everyday events to performances of traditional narratives that are closely associated with the travels of the Ancestral Beings. Although the range of semiotic devices used in any particular instance of these stories varies, a skilled narrator may incorporate speech, song, sign, and gesture, as well as drawing. One of the features of storytelling styles is the way in which narrators use their voices in dramatic and creative ways to keep stories flowing, sustain audience attention, and give audible flavour and texture to narratives. Various vocal devices add poetic and rhetorical complexity to the stories and skilled narrators use a number of linguistic strategies to move deftly between speech styles that have varying degrees of formality and informality.

Sand storytelling developed in a particular cultural and ecological niche where inscribable surfaces – creek sand, fine soft red dirt – were readily available for private soliloquies, polyadic recounts (stories with many parts and narrators), or for collaborative, co- constructed actions. They constitute a key feature of traditional desert environments, and manipulation and experimentation with the ‘ground’ and its varied textures with the hands and the use of sticks, or today so-called ‘storywires’, is encouraged from early childhood onwards. Narrators typically employ conventionalised graphic forms, as well as leaves and sticks, to represent story characters. The storyteller may also use the mirlpa (mirlpinti/tjinytja) stick, or a storywire, to make marks on the ground and erase the surface of the ground once each story sequence has ended. Today young girls still learn to narrate by drawing upon a range of communicative resources deploying multiple modalities in the act of storytelling.

Ground-based games have also developed. The mama mama ngunytju ngunytju (father father mother mother) game originated from traditions of telling sand stories and tallying in the sand, leading to the depiction of sequential lines on the ground within the frame of the sand space in the game. Mainly played by girls, the aim of the game is to guess the identity of a person by decoding a series of verbal and visual clues linked to graphic schemas drawn on the sand. Children take from the game a heightened understanding of kinship relationships and spatial orientation within the desert landscape. Ngaanyatjarra children acquire these core cultural concepts as tacit knowledge required for myriad practices in the course of their lives.


Collection contents

The deposit consists of audiovisual data, comprising high quality audio recordings as well as events filmed with the use of multiple cameras. The top-down camera filmed ground-based storytelling or game activities and provided a clear record of the unfolding graphics, while a front camera captured multiple participants, their whole-of- body actions and gestures, and the sequence of the language event. Often an additional camera was used to capture close-ups of hand movements and facial gestures. The edited split screen films render a visually beautiful portrayal of people, place and activity. The rich red and green hues of the desert landscape provide a stunning visual backdrop to the filmed events. In addition, the filmed and edited iPad stories burst with digital colour and originality, blending tradition and innovation. Using the drawing app these young iPad artists rendered sequenced events on screen captured with a top camera and simultaneous recording of the oral narrative. Most of the Open Access edited films incorporate bilingual or English subtitles enabling access and understanding for a wider audience.

In this research we were fortunate to be able to capture some of the last speakers of some of these unique verbal art forms – a process that would no longer be possible as many of the last speakers have passed away. This is exemplified in the recording of the laka mourning song and the yirrkapiri wangka respect register. Quite possibly the last time laka was performed by anyone in the Ngaanyatjarra region was when one older woman (born in 1946) lost her husband in the 1980s. In 2013 she was able to recall this mourning song and have it recorded, a very special event.

Commencing in 2010 when asked by elders in the Ngaanyatjarra community to help record their oral traditions (and continuing in earnest with ELDP funding in 2012-2013), Ellis and Kral began documenting ‘yirrkapiri wangka’ (also known as anitji, tjaa nyantulypa or wawanypa) a special respect register/speech style used openly by all kin in ceremonial and non-ceremonial contexts. Primarily, this speech style is used by those who are the yirrkapiri (the grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, mother and father) of a boy going through the man-making ceremony. Importantly, we have been recording not only words and sentences, but also people’s memories of how this special language was used in the past, when it was used and where it was spoken. There are now less than a handful of people still alive who fully know this respect register. Without a doubt, this respect register is severely endangered, even though the ritual practices associated with the passage into manhood remain strong to this day. These days, when families can no longer use this special respect register they whisper or use hand signs when communicating with one another.

Please note: Community members only are allowed access to the deposited set of audio-visual recordings in ELAR of the yirrkapiri wangka special respect register. If you would like to access these restricted resources please write an email to ELAR (, who will request access on your behalf.


Collection history

The collection in ELAR draws on various project sources. From 2010-2011 Ellis and Kral began documentation under a Language Recording and Archiving Project for Ngaanyatjarra Media (Aboriginal Corporation) Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Recordings (MILR) Program Grant (Commonwealth Government). The next phase of research (2012-2013) was supported by ELDP (Endangered Languages Documentation Programme) Small Grant SG0187. Jennifer Green was supported by an ARC (Australian Research Council) Fellowship (DP110102767) and Inge Kral by an ARC DECRA Award (DE120100720).

Further research was undertaken by Ellis, Green and Kral under an Australian Research Council (ARC) – Discovery Indigenous Award (IN150100018 ‘Western Desert speech styles and verbal arts’) granted to Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis (2015-2019). This collection (including narratives, songs and games, and sign language, but excluding additional yirrkapiri wangka files) has been archived with the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC) as the Western Desert Verbal Arts Project Collection, WDVA1: Open Access DOI: 10.26278/5b589e9084c3b. Plans are underway to archive the full collection at AIATSIS (the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) in Canberra, Australia.


Other information

Different aspects of the deposited material have been promoted in publications including:

Ellis, E.M., J. Green & I. Kral (eds.) (2020) i-Tjuma i-Stories: Ngaanyatjarra ‘iPad’ stories from the Western Desert of Central Australia, Perth: UWA Publishers.

Ellis, E.M., J. Green & I. Kral (2019) ‘i-Tjuma: The journey of a collection – from documentation to delivery’. In L. Barwick, J. Green, & P. Vaarzon-Morel (Eds) Archival returns: Central Australia and beyond. LD&C Special Publication 18. University of Hawai’i Press & Sydney University Press, Honolulu & Sydney, pp. 303 – 323.

Ellis, E.M., J. Green & I. Kral (2017) ‘Family in mind: Socio-spatial knowledge in a Ngaatjatjarra/Ngaanyatjarra children’s game’. Research on Children and Social Interaction, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 164 – 198.

Ellis, E.M., J. Green, I. Kral & L. Reed (2019) ‘Mara yurriku: Western Desert sign languages’. Australian Aboriginal Studies. Journal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Vol. 2, pp. 89-111.

Kral, I. & E.M. Ellis (2020) In the Time of Their Lives. Wangka kutjupa-kutjuparringu: How talk has changed in the Western Desert. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishers.

Kral, I., J. Green & E.M. Ellis (2019) ‘Wangkarra: Communication and the verbal arts of Australia’s Western Desert’. International Journal of Intangible Heritage, Vol. 14, pp. 5-17.


Acknowledgement and citation

We wish to thank the Ngaanyatjarra community for supporting and participating in this research.

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Ellis, E.M., Jenny Green & Inge Kral. 2014. Documentation of the verbal arts of the Western Desert people of Australia, 2010 – 2013. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

All information on individual participants is available in the metadata and should be acknowledged in any citation.

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