Warlpiri Sign Language

Warlpiri Sign Language
Region North Central Desert, Australia
Native speakers
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

Warlpiri Sign Language, also known as Rdaka-rdaka (hand signs)[1], is a sign language used by the Warlpiri, an Aboriginal community in the central desert region of Australia. It is one of the most elaborate, and certainly the most studied, of all Australian Aboriginal sign languages.

Social context

While many neighbouring language groups such as Arrernte and the Western Desert Language have auxiliary sign languages, Warlpiri Sign Language, along with Warumungu Sign Language, appears to be the most well developed and widely used — it is as complete a system of communication as spoken Warlpiri. This is possibly due to the tradition that widows should not speak during an extended mourning period which can last for months or even years; during this time they communicate solely by sign language.

In Warlpiri communities, widows also tend to live away from their families, with other widows or young single women. As a result, it is typical for Warlpiri women to have a better command of the sign language than men, and among older women at Yuendumu, Warlpiri Sign Language is in constant use, whether they are under a speech ban or not.[2] However, all members of the community understand it, and may sign in situations where speech is undesirable, such as while hunting, in private communication, across distances, while ill, or for subjects that require a special reverence or respect. Many also use signs as an accompaniment to speech.


British linguist Adam Kendon (1988) argues that Warlpiri Sign Language is best understood as a manual representation of the spoken Warlpiri language (a manually coded language), rather than as a separate language; individual signs represent morphemes from spoken Warlpiri, which are expressed in the same word order as the oral language. However, "markers of case relations, tense, and cliticised pronouns are not signed." Some spatial grammatical features are present which do not exist in spoken Warlpiri, though spoken Warlpiri incorporates directionals in its verbs, and in such cases sign corresponds to speech.

See also


  1. "Iltyem iltyem". Iltyem iltyem. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
  2. Dail-Jones, M. A. (1984). A Culture in Motion: A Study of the Interrelationship of Dancing, Sorrowing, Hunting and Fighting as Performed by the Warlpiri Women of Central Australia. M.A. Thesis, University of Hawaii, Honolulu.

Further reading

  • C.D. Wright (1980) Walpiri Hand Talk: An Illustrated Dictionary of Hand Signs used by the Walpiri People of Central Australia. Darwin: N.T. Department of Education.
  • Mervyn Meggitt (1954) Sign language among the Warlpiri of Central Australia. Oceania, 25(1), pp. 2–16 (reprinted (1978) in Aboriginal sign languages of the Americas and Australia. New York: Plenum Press, vol. 2, pp. 409–423)
  • Adam Kendon (1985) Iconicity in Warlpiri Sign language. In Bouissac P., Herzfeld M. & Posner R. (eds), Inconicity: Essay on the Nature of Culture . Tübingen: Stauffenburger Verlag.
  • A. Kendon (1988) Parallels and divergences between Warlpiri sign language and spoken Warlpiri: analyses of signed and spoken discourses. Oceania, 58, pp. 239–254.
  • A. Kendon (1980) The sign language of the women of Yuendumu: A preliminary report on the structure of Warlpiri sign language. Sign Language Studies, 1980 27, 101–112.
  • A. Kendon (1984) Knowledge of sign language in an Australian Aboriginal community. Journal of Anthropological Research. 1984 40, 556–576.
  • A. Kendon (1985) Variation in Central Australian Aboriginal Sign language: A preliminary report. Language in Central Australia, 1(4): 1–11.
  • A. Kendon (1987) Simultaneous Speaking and Signing in Warlpiri Sign language Users. Multilingua 1987, 6: 25–68.
  • C. P. Mountford (1949) "Gesture language of the Walpari tribe, central Australia" Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 73: 100–101.
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