Get CityMag in your inbox. Subscribe
September 12, 2018

James Tylor on the power of language

You call this place Adelaide but we call it Tarntanya.

  • Words: James Tylor
  • Illustration: Kate Gagliardi
  • Edited by Rob Amery at Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi

You call this place Adelaide but we call it Tarntanya. You might have noticed that places around the city now have two official names. Victoria Square is now also called Tarntanyangga, the River Torrens is Karrawirra Pari, and Mount Lofty is also called Yuridla. You might think these are new names, but they are the original Kaurna names used for these places for tens of thousands of years. During colonisation the British used European names to establish ownership over the Kaurna Nation in South Australia, creating a new dominant history through language.

Kaurna people are the traditional Indigenous owners of the Adelaide Plains, and the Nation stretches from Witawartingga Cape Jervis in the south to Murrkauwi Crystal Brook in the north, and sits between Nganu Mount Lofty Ranges and Yarlu Spencer Gulf. Kaurna people have been in the Kaurna Nation of the Adelaide Plains for over 65,000 years. Kaurna place names are signifiers for important people, animals, plants, geology, constellations and events in cultural stories and songlines that connect to the histories of this landscape.

Yuridla is the Kaurna name for the summits of Mount Lofty and Mount Bonython. Yuridla translates as Two Ears, yuri ‘ear’ and –dla ‘two’, referring to the two ears of an ancestor called Nganu who forms part of one of the oldest Kaurna origin stories, dating back to 65,000+ years ago. Mount Lofty was renamed by Matthew Flinders when he sighted Yuridla in the distance on his ship during his famous circumnavigation of the continent in 1802-03, claiming Australia as part of the British Empire.

Kaurna call the River Torrens Karrawirra Pari, which means Red Gum Forest River, because of the forest of Eucalyptus Camaldulensis growing along the river. The River Torrens is named after Robert Torrens who invented Torrens Title, a registered land ownership and transfer system first impelled in South Australia. This system ignored the millennial old Kaurna land ownership system called Pangkarra, where a district of family land was passed down from father to eldest son.

Tarntanya is the Kaurna name for Adelaide and has been an important cultural ceremonial meeting place for Kaurna people for 65,000 years. Tarntanya is the area from Tarntanyangga Victoria Square to the south bank of the Karrawirra Pari River Torrens. Tarntanya translates to Tarnta Male Red Kangaroo and Kanya Rock. The sacred Kanya yellow rock was quarried from the site by British colonists to build the Old Parliament House, Old Adelaide Goal, Military Barracks and Trinity Church. The colonial name Adelaide refers to German-born Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV of England. Sadly, Tarnta Kangaroo no longer live in Tarntanya.

The language we use to name a place has power over how we define ourselves as a community in Tarntanya Adelaide. Language is an ever evolving way we communicate and define our contemporary community’s identity, history and culture. What do you call this place?

Share —