Emojis help immortalise endangered Kaytetye language in Central Australia in new Kaytetyemoji app: ABC

ABC Alice Springs / By Lara Stimpson: Posted Wed 19 Apr 2023

Original Story here on ABC

It is hoped the emojis will help preserve the Kaytetye language for future generations.(Supplied: Caddie Brain)

Kaytetye language is so endangered, the 2021 Census recorded only 110 people who spoke it.

Now, it’s been immortalised as part of the latest instalment of the Indigemoji project, preserving core aspects of life as seen and heard in First Nations languages.

There are 112 emojis in the Kaytetyemoji app, painting a picture of life on Kaytetye land north of Alice Springs, for younger generations — and users across the country — to access for years to come.

With so few speakers, transforming language into an emoji suite allows for users to see, and hear, words in Kaytetye language.

The emojis include audio of the word spoken in language, and a phrase it would commonly feature in — modelled after the successful launch of Arrentemoji, which preserved the Arrente language spoke through Alice Springs.

Key points:

  • There are 122 emojis in the Kaytetyemoji app including 44 new emojis specific to life on Kaytetye country
  • It is hoped the emojis will help keep the endangered Kaytetye language alive
  • Kaytetye elders wanted to preserve their language in a way that fit into young people’s lives
A group of people in front of a wall, with the new emojis displayed behind them.

The Kaytetyemoji team, celebrating the launch of the app in Barrow Creek.()

Valentine Shaw is a senior Kaytetye speaker who helped oversee the project.

She sees the emojis as a way to pass down her language to younger people, giving them ownership of their language.

“It’s important to develop something that was digital for young people to access simple words for animal and actions,” she said.

“A lot of young people are digital natives, they’ve always got their phones handy.

“It kept our language alive, kept our culture alive, and gave those that didn’t have the language or the skills to look at the picture and understand it.”

Connection to country

Senior Kaytetye speakers came together in early 2022 to conceptualise what Kaytetyemoji might look like.

The team worked to translate relevant emojis from the previous Indigemoji project, Arrentemoji, while developing 44 emojis unique to living on Kaytetye country.

The project launched to a crowd of about 70 people, in Barrow Creek, on Saturday.

A group of people are gathered at the entrance of a tin building. The sky is cloudy, with pockets of blue.

The app was launched in Barrow Creek on Saturday.(Supplied: Caddie Brain)

One emoji in particular, “Artnke”, means “flat-topped hill” — a prominent feature of the landscape surrounding Barrow Creek.

It’s this specificity Ms Shaw believes makes the emojis so significant.

“The flat top hills that are in Kaytetye country, a lot of Kaytetye people recognise that it belongs just to our country,” she said.

“These are the types of things we can do to help increase [young people’s] knowledge of Kaytetye language.”

Language for a digital generation

Matthew Ngamurarri Heffernan is a Luritja man.

A technologist, he built on the existing coding from the Arrentemoji project to develop Kaytetyemoji.

It was a role he found fulfilling, considering the close connection to his own country.

“I thought it would be a real privilege to be able to work on a language app for mob from around my area,” Mr Heffernan said.

A young child smiles while pointing to emoji's printed out and pinned on the wall behind her.

Around 70 people gathered for the app’s launch in Barrow Creek, 300km north of Alice Springs.()

He said using digital technology was a great way to ensure language was preserved and passed down through the generations, and was available as a resource for the wider community.

“Rather than saying, ‘Let’s get rid of technology’, or ‘Let’s discourage technology use’, [the elders] were looking at ways they could incorporate it into their normal, everyday use,” he said.

“It’s important for them, in their own community, but also to everyday Australians.”

“It exposes the language to them, so they’re aware of the challenges that exist for language preservation and language use in smaller areas,” Mr Heffernan said.

The app can be used on various mobile devices and is free for anyone to download online.