Iltyem-iltyemel anwern angkem nheng amerneh arlka. And thamptheng apaywenherremel amernarl. Tyerrty nhak apek ntwarr angerr arlkemarl, ntwarreng apekarl arem, kel iltyem-iltyemarl angkem tyerrty nhakeh anwern. Tyerrty ahert mapeh anwern iltyem-iltyem angkem – merneh arlka apek petyetyeh arlka apek nheng mern arlkwetyeh, tea arlka apek arlkwetyeh anetyeh apek war. War anwern iltyem-iltyem angkem.


We ask for food and things like that using hand signs. Or if we see a person calling out in the distance then we use hand signs to speak with that person. We use hand signs to talk to people who are deaf – to talk about food, or to ask them to come over to eat or drink tea or sit down with us. We just use hand signs.


Kwer mapeh arlka anwern iltyem-iltyem angkem. Nheng kereng arlka apek anwern ntertelh-ilem, nheng-lkwer anwern ntertelh-ilem: ‘Ntert-irrang kwenh aherreng kwenh!’ Iltyem-iltyem anwern angkem. Anwern apek ywerlt-irrem, tyerrty arrpenh map ywerlt-irrem wal iltyem iltyemarl angkem. Thamptheng tey arlka apek mern apek angetyetyeh, wal iltyem-iltyemarl angkem. Nheng tyerrty aywerlt apek or warlekwert apek nheng husband apek lose-em-ilem. Not angkem athew warlekwertan or ywerlt apek, itya.


We also use hand signs with kids, to quieten them down when we are hunting. We sign, ‘Be quiet, there’s a kangaroo there!’ We use hand signs for that. And we use hand signs when someone is bereaved. If someone loses a child, then they use hand signs to ask for things such as tea or food. They use hand signs. Somebody who has lost a child, or a woman who has lost her husband. Widows and those whose child has passed away are not allowed to speak.


April Campbell, speaking with Jenny Green at Ti Tree, May 2008 (Central Anmatyerr).

From: J. Green (2014) Drawn from the ground: sound, sign and inscription in Central Australian sand stories. Cambridge University Press


What part does sign language play in communication?

Sign is part of everyday communication in Indigenous communities in Central and Northern Australia. There are many situations where all members of the community may use sign alongside other forms of communication. Signing is also often used instead of talking. For example, people might sign while they are hunting, as noise would scare away animals. Sign is used for giving directions, and for communicating across a long distance. Sign is also used as a way of showing respect within families, such as when a woman may need to communicate with others in the presence of her son-in-law or brother. Using sign is a way of holding more than one conversation at once, and can be used to communicate secretly, or while someone else is talking.


Sign is also commonly used in special circumstances, where speech is not appropriate, or cannot be used for one reason or another. One such situation is during sorry business (bereavement and mourning). Women may use sign to replace speech during sorry business. Sign is also used by deaf people, and those who have aphasia. For such people sign is the primary mode of communication, and the knowledge of sign in their family network is an important factor in their capacity to communicate.


The map below, which has been adapted from one published by sign language researcher Adam Kendon (1988:32), shows the distribution of sign languages in Australia. The blue dots represent the most highly developed sign languages.


The map shows that Central Australia is one of Australia’s signing ‘hotspots’, a region where sign languages are highly developed. It appears that the development of elaborate sign languages is closely related to the cultural practice of women’s speech bans during periods of bereavement (see Kendon 1988. Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia. Cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


In the 1980s, Adam Kendon noted broad similarities in signing practice throughout Central Australia, especially in what he called the North Central Desert sign languages, which include Anmatyerr, Kaytetye and Warlpiri as well as Warumungu, Warlmanpa, Mudburra and Jingili. While some individual signs differ from place to place, on the whole they have much in common, especially if the groups are neighbours. In general terms, Kendon found that the proportion of signs shared between groups in this region is much higher than the proportion of words that are shared.  For example Anmatyerr and Warlpiri signs for verbs are very similar even though spoken forms differ a lot between these languages. Kendon recorded between 400-500 signs for Anmatyerr and Kaytetye, compared to around 1500 for the neighbouring Warlpiri. Speakers of Anmatyerr and other Arandic languages have a number of ways of referring to their signing practices. Iltyem-iltyem, is an Anmatyerr adverbial term based on a reduplicated form of iltya ‘hand’, and means ‘using your hands to communicate, either using hand signs while talking or using hand signs alone’. In Central Anmatyerr sign the practice is referred to by first signing ‘hand’ then signing ‘tell’.


In the Central region sign language is a largely gendered and age-related practice: women are generally more proficient than men and older people more proficient than younger ones. However, this picture is complicated by the impact of language contact, colonisation and cultural change. Much sign language has been lost, and speakers of Arandic languages comment on this loss, reflecting on the fact that older generations once knew signs that are no longer in common use. As senior Arrernte woman MK Turner says, “More people in the communities know about hand signs than town people do, even young mothers out there will know” (Turner 2010:110).


In her book Iwenhe Tyerrtye, MK Turner describes iltyem-iltyem in a way that expresses its important cultural value:


Arelhe ampwe mape, the old women, those old people still iltyeme-iltymele angkerlte-aneme, they still talk with their hands. And sometimes they take it for a long time by talking with hands. There’s a real, real, real, real gentle feeling in that when you’re talking with hands, like that person would be just whispering if they were using their voice. People stop talking out loud in sadness time, because they don’t want to make the same words or sound – that same sort of sound to get them words out that they used to when those loved ones were still alive. My mothers used to talk like that all the time. (Margaret Kemarre Turner 2010: 110–111)

From: M.K. Turner – Iwenhe Tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person. Alice Springs: IAD Press.


This web-site also contains some Ngaatjatjarra signs. By analysing documentary records from the 1970s Kendon found that the sign language of the Ngaatjatjarra people from the Western Desert appears to be quite different from Anmatyerr, Kaytetye and Warlpiri sign. It appears that the cultural practice of speech bans is not found in the Ngaatjatjarra regions, and these cultural practices have an effect on whether it is men or women who become the most knowledgeable about sign. If you want to see an example of a sign that is really different between these regions compare Ngaatjatjarra MARLU ‘kangaroo’ and Anmatyerr AHERR ‘kangaroo’.