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The sounds and writing systems of Aboriginal languages

Aboriginal languages in NSW are at various stages in the process of language revival. Successful Aboriginal language programs are based on sound linguistic analysis of the early records, historical documents and recordings, and all surviving community-held knowledge. This analysis is carried out by linguists and community members who are specialist Aboriginal language researchers.

Throughout the Aboriginal Languages pages of the Board of Studies website, you will find examples and experiences of linguists working with communities and schools to support and develop programs for students. Linguistics can help in the revival of Aboriginal languages in a number of ways. It gives insights into the sound system and grammatical features of any given language, the common features of languages across NSW and relationships between languages. Linguistic research can also advise community members of what is possible and what is not possible in the reconstruction process of the language. With sound advice and consultation, community groups are then able to make informed decisions about the development of their languages. Three topics that schools and communities have consistently requested information about are:

  • The sounds of Aboriginal languages
  • The spelling systems of Aboriginal languages
  • Stress patterns in pronouncing Aboriginal languages.

The sounds of Aboriginal languages

The starting point for anybody learning a language is to figure out the sounds of that language. The following list of sounds is not a complete list of all the sounds possible in NSW Aboriginal languages but are those most commonly found in NSW Aboriginal languages.

Vowels

Most Aboriginal languages in NSW have three basic vowels with a short and long distinction, such as those in the following chart.


front
back
high i/ii   u/uu
low   a/aa  

Consonants

The ‘Place and Manner of Articulation’ chart can help with our pronunciation of consonants and the following chart shows most of the most common consonants in NSW Aboriginal languages. ‘Place of articulation’ is where you put your tongue to produce the sound. ‘Manner of articulation’ is what happens to the air and where it is obstructed when coming out of your mouth. It is important, for example, to remember that there is no ‘h’ sound as such in any Aboriginal language. When we see the ‘dh’ and ‘nh’ we know we put our tongue behind out teeth (dental).

Where there are two letters, such as b~p, it means that different groups may choose to write these sounds differently. For example, the Gumbaynggirr group has chosen ‘b’ to represent the bilabial stop whereas a Ngiyampaa group has chosen ‘p’ and this is reflected in the spelling of these languages names.

The place and manner of articulation

Place
Manner bilabial dental alveolar laminal velar
stop b~p dh~th d~t dy~dj g~k
nasal m nh n ny~nj ng
lateral     l    
rhotic     rr    
glides w   r y  

The following chart will help with pronunciation of Aboriginal languages. The English word is provided as a guide to which sound it is like in English. The Aboriginal language used here is Wiradjuri so words are written in its accepted writing system.

a

gadhi

snake

as in ‘a’ in ‘above’

aa

munyaa

fish

as in ‘a’ in ‘father’

ay

yugay

dingo

as in ‘ay’ in ‘play’

b

bagan

boomerang

as in ‘b’ in ‘book’

d

dinawan

emu

as in ‘d’ in‘dog’

dh

dhabal

bone

dental ‘d’

dy

dyinang

foot

as in ‘d’y’ in ‘d’ya reckon’

g

garru

magpie

as in ‘g’ in ‘good’

i

gulambali

pelican

as in ‘i’ in ‘bit’

ii

babiin

father

as in ‘ea’ in ‘beat’

l

ngulung

face

as in ‘l’ in ‘look’

m

mirri

dog

as in ‘m’ in ‘many’

n

naagun

koala

as in ‘n’ in ‘no’

ng

ngarradan

bat

as in ‘ng’ in ‘sing’

nh

gunhi

mother

as in ‘nth’ in ‘tenth’

ny

nyimirr

blossom

as in ‘n’ in ‘onion’

r

bari

tall

as in ‘r’ in ‘run’

rr

garru

magpie

trill ‘rr’

u

yugay

dingo

as in ‘u’ in ‘put’

uu

guumil

belt

 

w

wilay

possum

as in ‘w’ in ‘well’

y

yurung

clouds

as in ‘y’ in ‘yell’

The spelling systems of Aboriginal languages

In Australia, most Aboriginal languages have been written using a phonemic orthography. This means that, unlike English, each letter only represents one sound, or more specifically one phoneme. So for the case of ‘y’, for example, we don’t have to worry about whether it’s pronounced in any of the following ways: ‘yes’, ‘jury’ or ‘why’. It is always pronounced as in ‘yes’. Italian is another language that has such an alphabet.

Also if you refer back to the ‘Place and Manner of Articulation’ chart you will see there are two letters, such as b~p, this means that different groups may choose to write these sounds differently. For example, the Gumbaynggirr group has chosen ‘b’ to represent the bilabial stop whereas a Ngiyampaa group has chosen ‘p’ and this is reflected in the spelling of the names of these languages.

It is important that each group within the Aboriginal language community adopts the same writing system. This allows for sharing of resources.

Stress patterns in pronouncing Aboriginal languages

Stress patterns are also quite predictable in Aboriginal languages. Generally, stress will fall on the first syllable in the word and every second syllable after that. Some words from Aboriginal languages have been borrowed into English. In some cases the correct stress pattern has been retained and we pronounce the word much as it was in the Aboriginal languages. Take the following example borrowed from Wiradjuri:

kookaburraarrow right gugubarraarrow right GU-gu-BU-rra
(in English) (in Wiradjuri) (syllables in capitals are those stressed)

Some words, however, may retain the same sounds but the stress pattern is from English. Take the following example borrowed from the Sydney language:

WooloomooLOO arrow right WU-lu-MU-lu
(English stress pattern) (Sydney language stress pattern)

Once you’ve learnt which letter represents which sound, or phoneme, and you know the general rule of thumb for stress, you are well on the way to being able to read the language with accurate pronunciation.

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The sounds and writing systems of Aboriginal languages