Aboriginal Australians Create Online Hand Sign Dictionary

An ongoing project led by a group of Aboriginal Australian women aims to digitally document and preserve traditional hand signs that accompany speech in communities across the Central Australian desert. Under the name Iltyem-Iltyem, meaning “signaling with hands” in the Anmatyerr language, the project collected hundreds of videos from four Aboriginal communities, covering five different spoken languages. Below, Janie Long of Ti Tree explains the project in her native language:

The official Iltyem-iltyem website launched at the Batchelor Institute graduation on 6 September 2013. The site contains over 400 clips of hand signs, which are searchable by category, community or language. According to the project blog,

We hope that this website will support Indigenous people in Central Australia to maintain, teach and learn their sign languages. We hope that the website also raises the profile of sign languages and their importance for communication in Central Australian communities. An understanding how sign languages work should be a part of the tool kit for education and health programs throughout the region, and we hope that this website will contribute to this understanding.

The Iltyem-Iltyem official website describes the many functions of hand signs in Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia, including to communicate across distances, as a way to not scare off animals while hunting, to communicate secretly, or when someone else is talking. Hand signs are also used in customary situations where speech is considered inappropriate (such as mourning practices).

Iltyem-Iltyem project team

The Ti Tree participants of the Iltyem-Iltyem hand signs project.

Women are generally more proficient at signing than men. The project, which began in 2011, engaged dozens of Aboriginal women to record traditional hand signs that accompany their native languages. They were supported by multi-media practitioners and linguists from the University of Melbourne and Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. To complete the recordings, the team created a portable  “signadome” – a special purpose tent developed as a mobile recording studio and travelled from community to community.The Iltyem-Iltyem tumblr page chronicles the development of the project and the challenges faced in documenting traditional hand signs. The team plans to complete Iltyem-Iltyem in 2016, after which the site will be archived and will possibly remain available as a public resource.

Iltyem-Iltyem participant

Iltyem-Iltyem participant Janie Long reviews footage.

The Iltyem-Iltyem handsign project is funded by the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Project and the Australian Government's Indigenous Languages Support program (formerly the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records program). Users must first register before viewing the site.


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