Western Desert language

The Western Desert language, or Wati, is a dialect cluster of Australian Aboriginal languages in the Pama–Nyungan family.

Western Desert
Native toAustralia
RegionDesert areas of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory
EthnicityWestern Desert cultural bloc
Native speakers
7,400 (2006 census)[1]
Western Desert Sign Language
Manjiljarra Sign Language
Ngada Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3Variously:
ktd  Kokata (Kukarta)
kux  Kukatja
mpj  Martu Wangka
ntj  Ngaanyatjarra
pii  Pini
pti  Pintiini (Wangkatja)
piu  Pintupi-Luritja
pjt  Pitjantjatjara
tjp  Tjupany
kdd  Yankunytjatjara
Glottologwati1241  Wati[3]
Wati languages (green) among Pama–Nyungan (tan)

The name Wati tends to be used when considering the various varieties to be distinct languages, Western Desert when considering them dialects of a single language, or Wati as Wanman plus the Western Desert cluster.

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'.[4] As the whole group of dialects that 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, the language is mutually intelligible across its entire range.


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

Starred names are listed as separate languages in Bowern (2011 [2012]).

Other names associated with Western Desert though they may not be distinct varieties include Dargudi (Targudi), Djalgandi (Djalgadjara), Kiyajarra (Giyadjara), Nakako, Nana (Nganawongka), Waljen, Wirdinya, and perhaps Mudalga.

The Nyiyaparli language is no longer classified as Wati.

There is considerable variation across this region (which is unsurprising given the size of the area).



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 are 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.


Peripheral Laminal Apical
Bilabial Velar Palatal Alveolar Retroflex
Stop p [p] k [k] tj [c] t [t] rt ]
Nasal m [m] ng [ŋ] ny [ɲ] n [n] rn ]
Trill rr [r]
Lateral ly [ʎ] l [l] rl ]
Approximant w [w] y [j] r ]

As shown in the chart, the WDL distinguishes five positions of articulation, and has oral and nasal occlusives at each position. The 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, resulting 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.

Sign language

Most of the peoples of central Australia have (or at one point had) signed forms of their languages. Among the Western Desert peoples, sign language has been reported specifically for Kardutjara and Yurira Watjalku,[6] Ngaatjatjarra (Ngada),[7] and Manjiljarra. Signed Kardutjara and Yurira Watjalku are known to have been well-developed, though it is not clear from records that signed Ngada and Manjiljarra were.[8]


  1. A80 Western Desert at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  2. Dixon, R. M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development. Cambridge University Press. p. xxxvii.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Wati". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. "Pitjantjatjara language, alphabet and pronunciation". www.omniglot.com. Retrieved 2017-06-23.
  5. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Yulparija". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  6. Miller, Wick R. (1978). A report on the sign language of the Western Desert (Australia). Reprinted in Aboriginal sign languages of the Americas and Australia. New York: Plenum Press, 1978, vol. 2, pp. 435–440.
  7. C.P. Mountford (1938) "Gesture language of the Ngada tribe of the Warburton Ranges, Western Australia", Oceania 9: 152–155. Reprinted in Aboriginal sign languages of the Americas and Australia. New York: Plenum Press, 1978, vol. 2, pp. 393–396.
  8. 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.
  • Rose, David (2001), The Western Desert Code: an Australian cryptogrammar, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, ISBN 085883-437-5
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