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City of Adelaide acknowledges that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pays respect to Elders past and present.

We recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. We acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today.

We work closely with Kaurna people on a range of initiatives including the Kaurna place naming of the City's Park Lands and other City features. It also includes working closely with Kaurna people to identify, preserve and protect areas of Kaurna cultural significance throughout the Adelaide Park Lands.

In 2012 City of Adelaide adopted the new Kaurna spelling system and some of the Kaurna Park Lands naming was updated - see revised Kaurna names.


Kaurna Shield / Wokali

The Kaurna Shield, or wokali as it is known in the Kaurna language, is a bark shield that was used by the original people of the Adelaide Plains.

Research suggests that this wokali shield is more than 150 years old, and was used in ritual combat by a Kaurna man of the Adelaide Plains.

Wokali shields were cut with stone chisels from the outer bark of mature river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis). The surface was coated in white pipe-clay and decorated with opposing arcs of red ochre. A pliable wooden handle was fixed to the shield through the central holes. Wokali shields were made expressly for use in battle and very few have survived to the present day. This example has a split along its length, probably resulting from damage during combat. The use of wokali shields during ritual fighting was observed by Europeans on the Adelaide Plains from the late 1830s until the mid-1840s.

This shield was retained in private hands until it was acquired during the mid-1950s by the discerning Adelaide collector, Igor Zorich, a Russian immigrant. It formed the centrepiece of his family’s collection until its recent acquisition by the South Australian Museum.Image of a Kaurna shield

The shield’s acquisition has been generously supported by the National Cultural Heritage Fund and by the City of Adelaide.

City of Adelaide uses a representation of the original Kaurna shield on City Park Land’s signage along with a plaque on the Adelaide Town Hall which commemorates the Kaurna people.

This representation of the shield and the history of the wokali, has been endorsed by the Kaurna Nation Cultural Heritage Association (2014).

Kaurna Language

Listen to the pronunciation of the Kaurna words by clicking on the words in bold.

Kaurna  is the language Indigenous to Adelaide and the Adelaide Plains. When Adelaide was first established Kaurna was a vibrant language spoken by the original inhabitants of Adelaide – the Kaurna people. The colonists even made use of the language, and for at least a few years, knowledge of Kaurna was keenly sought.

Two of the first colonists to arrive in South Australia, William Williams of the Colonial Store and James Cronk, went out of their way to learn Kaurna. Williams published his wordlist in the newspaper in 1840. It was the ‘Protector’ of Aborigines’ duty to familiarise himself with the local cultures, customs and languages and to engage interpreters in their dealings with the Indigenous population. So it was that when George Gawler, South Australia’s third governor, arrived in October 1838, the Protector William Wyatt acted as interpreter when he addressed the local Indigenous population within a few days of his arrival.

This speech and Wyatt’s Kaurna translation were also published in the newspaper at the time. Gawler actually encouraged the colonists to listen out for Indigenous names, so that these might be placed on the map.

Image of Clamor Schurmann Photo of Christian Teichelmann

Two German missionaries, Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann, arrived on the same ship as Gawler and immediately set about learning and describing the Kaurna language.

Within 18 months of their arrival, they published a sketch grammar, vocabulary of about 2,000 words and about 200 translated sentences. On 23 December 1839, they opened a school at Piltawodli   which they taught in the Kaurna language for five and a half years before it was closed down by Governor Grey.

Kaurna children were taught to read and write in Kaurna and several letters written by Kaurna children survive. The missionaries translated the Ten Commandments, six German hymns, a school prayer and some biblical truths into Kaurna.

Despite a promising start, the Kaurna language soon ceased to have value. In fact, Governor Grey actually forbade the German missionaries from preaching in Kaurna as they were accustomed to doing. The colonists insisted on imposing English to the exclusion of all other languages. The Kaurna language was probably last spoken on a daily basis as early as the 1860s. Ivaritji is often said to have been the “last speaker” of the Kaurna language and she died in 1929.

Despite Gawler’s efforts to promote the use of Indigenous placenames, exceedingly few were recorded within the Adelaide City precincts and even fewer were officially gazetted. Long-standing Kaurna names appearing on the map include:

  • Morialta  Street (drawing the name from Morialta Falls to the east in the foothills)
  • Medindie  Road (leading to the suburb of Medindie)
  • and perhaps Pinky  Flat (possibly derived from pingko ‘bilby’ in Kaurna)

None of these are high profile streets or localities.

For the South Australian sesquicentenary in 1986 a series of plaques commemorating famous South Australians were placed along the footpath on the north side of North Terrace. One Kaurna name appeared, Witto-witto , a word which refers to the white cockatoo headdress worn by Kaurna men in ceremonies. It is perhaps ironic that this name was not used in reference to a Kaurna person, but rather referred to Charles Witto-witto Cawthorne, one of William Cawthorne's sons on whom he bestowed a Kaurna name. William Cawthorne had close relationships with Kaurna people, particularly Kadlitpinna , and made a Kadlitpinna record of Kaurna artifacts, some of which were not documented by other observers. Three prominent South Australian Aboriginal peoples' names appear on plaques. They are Gladys Elphick, Jimmy James and David Unaipon.

1995 saw the first Kaurna language appear in public artwork. The Yerrakartarta installation by Darryl Pfitzner and Muriel Van der Byll incorporates a number of Kaurna words and a sentence adapted from one appearing in Teichelmann & Schürmann (1840). In the ensuing decade, many Kaurna words, phrases and text have appeared on plaques and in public art throughout the city and the wider metropolitan area, as people have become aware of the city's Indigenous heritage.

The City of Adelaide's Kaurna placenaming strategy is a significant development in the use of Kaurna language in the city. Kaurna names for parks and squares have been reinstated, allocated or developed and in November 2001 the Torrens River was dual-named with its original name Karrawirra Parri (redgum forest river). During NAIDOC week in 2001, Council convened Tarntanyangga Kaurna Yerta  in Tarntanyangga  -Victoria Square in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the design of the Aboriginal Flag by Harold Thomas. The name Tarntanyangga  was officially recognised by Council in May 2002. On 8 July 2002, Council unanimously endorsed the Flags and Banners Policy resulting in the flying of the Aboriginal flag in Tarntanyangga on a permanent basis. Information about these Kaurna naming initiatives and acknowledgement of the traditional custodianship of the Adelaide Plains area by Kaurna people is posted here.

Notes On Spelling And Pronunciation

All Kaurna words are written exactly as they appear in Teichelmann & Schürmann (1840) or Teichelmann (1857). By retaining these spellings, it is easy to find the words in the original sources. There are some shortcomings, but on the whole they were reasonably consistent in the way in which they wrote Kaurna words.


Kaurna has just three distinctive vowels, which may be long or short when they occur in the first syllable. They are:

  • i is usually pronounced as in pit; or sometimes as in ski
  • (remember, i is never pronounced [ai] as in I or mine)
  • a pronounced as in but; or [a] as in Bart or father
  • (remember, a is never pronounced [æ] as in apple)
  • u pronounced as in put
  • (remember, u is never pronounced as in but. This sound is always written as a)
  • ai is pronounced [ai] as in I, high, lie, or by.
  • au is pronounced [au] as I n cow, house or bough
  • ui is pronounced [ui], a combination of u in put and i in pit

Vowels written as e should be pronounced at the end of words, and as or occasionally as as in me in the middle of words. However, if it occurs after y it should be pronounced [?] as in but. Note that Kaurna yerta corresponds to Nukunu and Adnyamathanha yarta ‘land’. Similarly, vowels written as o should be pronounced [?] as in put, except after w when it is pronounced [?] as in but or [a] as in Bart.


The pronunciation of some Kaurna consonants, such as m, w and y is straightforward. They are pronounced much the same as they are in English. The letters ng usually represent the sound [?] as in singer, but sometimes ng is used to write the [?g] sound as in finger. In the middle of words English uses the digraph ng more often to write the latter [?g] cluster. In Kaurna ng [?] often occurs at the beginning of words and syllables whereas in English it often occurs at the end of words.

Stops (p-b, t-d, k-g)

Like Pitjantjatjara and many other Australian languages, Kaurna does not make a distinction between p and b; t and d; or k and g. That is, there is no voicing contrast. T&S wrote most words with an initial p, t or k, though they did write some words with an initial b or g. Sometimes they wrote the same word with both; for instance they usually wrote pa ‘he; she; it’ but sometimes they wrote it as ba. The actual sound is probably somewhere in between p and b (an unaspirated voiceless stop).

Rhotics (r sounds)

However, there is more guesswork in relation to the r sounds. It appears that there are three different rhotics (or r sounds) in Kaurna. There is a contrast between the r in wirri ‘shoulder blade’ (pronounced [wiri] in Nukunu with a glide r as in Australian English) and the rr in wirri ‘club’(pronounced [wirri] in Nukunu with a rolled r as in Scottish English, Indonesian or Italian). In addition, there is a short tapped r, which occurs in words like kari ‘emu’ or pari ‘maggot; rice’. It is pronounced much like the tt in ‘butter’.

Interdental, alveolar and retroflex consonants (t, n and l sounds).

Kaurna makes a distinction between interdental sounds (where the tongue is placed between the teeth), alveolar sounds (where the tongue touches the alveolar ridge behind the top teeth) and retroflex sounds (where the tongue tip is curled back). T&S did not distinguish adequately between these three classes of sounds. When T&S write the letter t, it could be an interdental [th]; alveolar [t] or retroflex [rt]. For instance, puti ‘hairy’ is equivalent to puthi in Nukunu, where the t is an interdental [th], whilst wito ‘reed’ is witu in Nukunu with an alveolar [t]. Milte ‘red’ has an interdental [lh] and [th] (the word is milthi [milhthi] in Nukunu), kalta ‘sleepy lizard] has an alveolar [l] and [t] , whilst in pilta ‘possum’ they are retroflex [rl] and [rt] as Nukunu has pirlta [pirlrta].

Similarly, the letter n could represent an interdental [nh] as in munto ‘belly’ (munthu [munhthu] in Nukunu); and alveolar as in mena 'eye’ (miina in Nukunu) or a retroflex as in minno ‘wattle gum’ (mirnu in Nukunu).

Comparisons with Nukunu indicate that when t or n are written at the beginning of words, most likely the sounds are actually interdentals [th] and [nh] pronounced with the tongue between the teeth.


English spelling combines some letters to represent certain sounds. Think of the combinations ph, ch, sh, ur, ough etc. Similarly, in Kaurna some sounds are represented by a digraph or combination of two letters. The letters ty represent a sound similar to the ch in church or j and dg in judge, except that the tongue is further forward, pressed flat behind the top and bottom teeth. When r occurs before t, n or l it is probably part of a digraph rt, rn or rl used sometimes by T&S to represent retroflex sounds.

Consonant Clusters

When r occurs before k (as in murki ‘face’ or birkibirki ‘peas’) and p (as in ngarpadla ‘aunt’), it is an r sound in its own right. Remember to pronounce the vowels in these words as explained above, not [?] as in slur or sir as we are tempted to do as English speakers.
Content courtesy of:

Kaurna Warra Pintyandi
Signatories: Dr Alice Wallara Rigney, Lewis O'Brien and Rob Amery



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