Sign languages in Central Australia

How to use the iltyem-iltyem website

The iltyem-iltyem website is organized around short video clips. The clips are grouped into categories, which roughly follow the categories found in the IAD Picture Dictionary series. Read on for instructions about how to interpret the identifications that go with each clip, and how to browse and search.

Sign clips and labels

Each clip shows a ‘chunk’ of communication or an ‘utterance’. The chunk always includes a sign or a series of signs, and more often than not there is also speech.

Each clip is labeled to show signs and speech, as shown here (click on the image to view a larger version):


The Indigenous language identification label for each sign is shown in CAPITALS.

English sign identification labels are shown in italic CAPITALS underneath.

If there is speech it is shown in plain writing under the sign identification labels.

There is a translation of the speech in English.

While in many of the examples sign and speech convey similar meanings this is not always the case. Sign and speech work together to create meanings that are complementary.  Where these meanings are not easy to understand, a discussion is provided in the box below the English translation.

How do I find clips?

It is possible to browse through the website, and also to search for particular signs.


For browsing from the home page, click on a language group or a location to find the category page for that language or community group (remembering that a community may have more than one language group). Then choose a category to browse. This takes you to a list of signs for each category.

Each image is a link – click on that to view the clip.

To change the community or the language, use the menus at the top of each page as shown below:



To search for a particular sign, use the search function on the home page. This search function is also located at the top of each page.

Here you can do a simple search based around an English or language word. This search will look across all data categories to find the search term.

The advanced search function allows you to focus your searching – you can search through categories, search on a particular language, or search sign identification labels, including the English versions.

Where is the English translation?

You can hide or reveal the English translations for both Sign Identification labels and the whole clip. The link for this command is at the bottom of each page, as shown below:



What do the sign identification labels mean?

The Iltyem-iltyem project is working with consultants from a number of language groups in Central Australia – Anmatyerr (Eastern, Central and Western), Arrernte, Alyawarr, Kaytetye and Ngaatjatjarra. Each spoken language is different, and each one has its individual writing system.

The sign identification labels are based on words from the spoken language of each language group. They do not represent the full range of meaning of the words, nor the signs. They are labels only, which relate to a core concept conveyed by the sign. The English equivalents are provided to give a translation equivalent for each sign. The English label also provide a ‘bridge’ between the sign identifications for signs used across language groups.

Linguist Adam Kendon worked with Warlpiri signers and with others in Central Australia in the 1980s and developed a comprehensive set of numerical sign identifiers based on detailed annotations of the signs. In comparison the sign identification labels used in this project are in an early stage of development, and will be a focus of future work. For further details of Kendon’s work on sign see Kendon (1988). Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia. Cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

How do the sign identification labels link to the signs?

Each clip has been annotated using ELAN software (  and these annotations form the basis for the sign identification labels.

On the website, the sign identification labels for each sign clip are separated by commas. These show the signs that are used in the clip, in the order that they appear. The sign identification labels are not time-aligned to individual signs within the clip, but rather to the clip as a whole.

This is an example of a sign clip with two signs: Clarrie Kemarr Long signing IRRETY  and ARLKWEM (EAGLE/EAT).

Sometimes a signer will repeat a sign, and when this happens we usually repeat the sign identification label.

An example of this is Clarrie Kemarr Long signing these signs: ANKA, ARLKWEM, IRRETY, AHERR (RAW, EAT, EAGLEHAWK, KANGAROO).

In this clip Clarrie signs ANKA, ARLKWEM, IRRETY, then repeats ANKA and ARLKWEM before signing another sign AHERR. This is an example of a more complex sign sentence, and you may need to play the clip a few times to be able see each sign as it appears.

It may be hard to see the subtle changes in position and movement that show the transition from one sign to the next. If this is the case, do a search for the individual sign identification label, as there may be another clip that has this sign on its own.

Why include speech in a sign language resource?

Many of the sign clips on this web-site also include speech. Sometimes sign and speech are closely co-ordinated and at other times either the sign or the speech may add different things to the total communicative message. Local spoken languages were the starting point when we were recording signs for the web-site – mostly we asked questions using speech and the consultant responded with signs. Sometimes the signers spoke as they signed and other times they signed in silence.

So far we have been working with hearing signers, rather than signers who are deaf. The reasons behind this lie in the particular nature of these sign languages. Whereas sign languages used in Deaf communities operate with little or no connection to speech, these ‘alternate’ sign languages found in Central Australia are used in various contexts by people who also use spoken language. Sign is used in everyday conversation for particular cultural reasons. Female bereaved kin may use sign to replace speech during mourning, and for this reason it is the women who are assumed to be most knowledgeable about sign. All members of the community may use sign to support other modes of communication. Sometimes sign replaces speech when talk is not practical or desirable. Signs are used in certain types of restricted ceremonies and in other situations where speaking is inappropriate. Sign is used when hunting (as noise would scare off prey), when giving directions, and for communication between people who are a long way from each other.

Sign is an additional communication system, one that enhances and enriches speech, and can replace it on occasions. For some speech and/or hearing impaired individuals sign is the primary mode of communication.

 Sometimes the signers’ hands move too quickly to see the signs – how do I deal with this?

At this stage of web-site development the clips play at one speed only! We have attempted to show a range of clips – some have one sign only, and others have a number of signs that follow each other in quick succession. There are a couple of ways that learners can deal with this. Where you encounter a clip with a number of signs, the sign identification labels show which signs are included in the clip. You can then do a search using the individual sign labels to find other clips which have those signs.

What about pointing?

You may notice as you watch clips, that signers often point to indicate places and people in the signing space. These points are similar to deictic words such as ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘him’ her’, ‘it’, and ‘them’. Signers use points to indicate people, animals and objects that are being referred to. Points also index relationships, places, directions, movement, orientation and distance.

So far we have focused on lexical signs – signs that have semantic content that is consistent whenever the sign is used. These are the signs that the project has focused on identifying so far, but we have also included some clips where there is pointing. Quite often pointing is combined with a lexical sign, to show where something is located in space, the direction of movement, or the relationship with something.

The project is still working out the best way to analyse points, and how to provide sign IDs for them. The meaning of the points changes depending on the context, just as it does for deictic words. At the moment we are labelling points that function as pronouns (which express meanings such as ‘I, you, him/her’) with the Sign ID PT-PRO. The English Sign IDs provide more information about what the sign means in context. The following clip shows how this works – Mavis Penangk points to herself, and the Sign is identified as PT-PRO with the English Sign ID label ‘I’.

In another example Helen Ross uses a point with a kinship sign to link the signed relationship to a particular person. In this example, the English Sign ID is just labelled PRONOUN, as it is not clear who the referent is for the kinship relationship.

Points are also used to express locational meanings, such as ‘that, here and there’. We have labelled locational points with the Sign ID PT-LOC, and use the English sign ID to provide more information on the contextual meanings.

For an example of a clip with a locational point, view Eileen Campbell signing IRNTANG (HILL). In this clip Eileen is pointing to show where something is. The point is tightly integrated with the lexical sign that precedes it (INTEM/LIE).

It is not always clear how to interpret points – for example, in many instances it is not clear whether a point is functioning as a pronoun or a locational, and in many cases these functions overlap. Where it is not clear whether a point is a pronoun or a locational, the point is simply labelled PT.


The role of pointing in sign is complex and interesting, and a topic for further research.