Where’s Andrew? The People and The Rock

“Thank You” will take you pretty much anywhere in the world.

Not just because your mother told you so.

It’s a basic travel rule and it really works. I’ve never really counted, but I’m sure that I’ve uttered “thank you” in at least 50 different languages around the world. I’ve since forgotten how to say it in Khmer or Setswana or Aymara, but while I was in those places, I spoke it as much as I could. In my book, “thank you” is the only travel essential, right up there with your passport and toothbrush. We may think we sound lousy as we butcher the local dialect but I’m convinced it’s the most sincere noise we can make as travelers.

Australia’s official language is Australian, which means that “thank you” generally works, but so does “ta!” or “cheers, mate” answered with a shoulder-shrugging “no worries!” Pretty easy–until you begin to inquire about the Aboriginal languages, of which there are hundreds. This is not an exaggeration–in Central Australia, I found myself driving twenty or thirty miles only to discover a whole new language group completely separate from the one I just left behind. I know nowhere else like it in the world–a whole continent covered in a kaleidoscope of idiosyncratic languages. In Northern Territory, there are over 200 Aboriginal languages still spoken today, most of them totally different from one another. Some are more widespread than others but a few are doomed to disappear, with only have a handful of surviving speakers still left in the world.

Dying languages mean dying knowledge and forever locking the doors to a lost world. As a language fanatic, I find the idea completely tragic. I am always amazed by how much we spend on protecting and preserving rare endangered species while overlooking the critically endangered languages that are dying off all around us.

Travelers play a role in this–wherever we go, we carry our dominant language with us, deepening the ruts of English worldwide. As a lingua franca, English facilitates global travel hugely, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most meaningful, especially when applied to a foreign landscape.

“Stories” are essential to aboriginal life and culture, although I’m not sure that the aboriginal “story” means the same as “whitefella story.” After chatting with a few aboriginal people, I get the sense that they are stuck with the English word “story” as an umbrella description for a range of things like hymn, prayer, ancestry, song, lessons, scripture, knowledge, history, folktales and even science.

Above all, aboriginal “stories” relay the Dreaming (or dreamtime)–the creation of the earth and all that is in it. This is a concept most foreign to us whitefellas but filled with its own poetry. So much so that earnest academics have devoted their work to putting down some of these Dreamtime stories and translating them into English, even in rhyme. I admire such attempts but feel that they miss the mark hugely. My brief time in Aboriginal Australia gives me the sense that after centuries of troubled interaction, there is still no bridge across the massive gap of cultural misunderstanding that lies between modern Australia and native Aboriginals. There are too many stories lost, too many untold.

What cheered me up was flipping through a local dictionary and discovering Pitjantjatjara words like wiltjanyina, which translates as, “the time of year that you first start to sit in the shade of a tree.” There is a whole story in that one word–I love that!


It is the reason I love learning new languages, even if it’s just “thank you.” Local language offers a kind of story about each particular place–Geography gives birth to new words everywhere. For example, in Ukrainian, the word for November is Listopad which means “falling leaves”. Like wiltjanyina, it describes a very specific time and place in the world.

I arrived at Uluru well past the season of Wiltjanyina. Aboriginal people took up their spots in the shadows very early in the day, moving slowly within the cool shade as it slowly circled the tree. I visited the astounding red rock that rises up like a temple in the middle of Australia. At first, I struggled to describe the brilliant color of Uluru until I discovered there is already a very good word for it in Pitjantjatjara: tjitin-tjitin, or “glowing red”.

Pitjantjatjara is but one of the hundreds of native languages spoken in Australia, but it’s the one they speak near Uluru–it is one of the old languages born from this desert geography. The rest of the world knows Ayers Rock for the great explorer–and that will never change–but another people call it Uluru. Those people are the Anangu, a name that simply means “People” in their own language.

Now, I think all cultures are ethnocentric. I think it’s the only way a tribe can survive in spite of the swarm of conflicting tribes and cultures in today’s world. China in Chinese is “Middle Kingdom”, spelled with a character that denotes the center of it all. In Greenlandic, Greenland is Kalaallit Nunaat or “Land of the People”. And we Americans defined our newfound identity in three words: “We the People.”

To learn a language is to travel–to step outside our own band of people and to vocally acknowledge another people. Not to hand them our words to describe their land, but to learn from their words and remember their land in those words.

The word Uluru has no specific meaning in Pitjantjatjara–it’s merely the name of a place, although the place itself holds special meaning for the Anangu.

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I was told that only around 4,000 native speakers of Pitjantjatjara remain. That seems shockingly small–around 4,000 people live on my street back in Washington, D.C.–and yet Pitjantjatjara is one of the larger, more substantial indigenous language groups left in Australia, today.

If we ever lose that language, we lose that place. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I take of the rock, or how many postcards get sent out by the 250,000 tourists who visit each year, or even that the UNESCO recognizes Uluru as a World Heritage site. When an Aboriginal language dies, a piece of Australia goes with it.

There is no word for “Australia” in Pitjantjatjara, there is simply ngura–the land. Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it is a beautiful land–mostly red, and forever changing. At one moment, the sky is cobalt and the rock a shade of maroon, the next Uluru turns pink and the sky lights up with fantastic lightning. What’s more, out here in the desert you smell everything–the rain freshens the air and washes away the lingering dust. The trees offer a bouquet of scents, and even the stones have a particular mineral smell.

My brief time at Uluru was filled with great memories and I left the rock with a strong sense of gratitude. I will never speak Pitjantjatjatjara fluently, but I did learn how to say thank you–Palya.

The National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project strives to document the world’s most endangered languages, including those in Central Australia. Find out more about the work of linguist K. David Harrison.

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