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Database was last updated on:
May 11, 2006

Stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine

Didjeridu & Traditional Music of the Top End
The content of this page was originally created by Peter Lister

Australian Languages
See also: Writing, reading and pronouncing Yolngu languages

Surprisingly some 110 languages/dialects are still spoken fluently in Australia, which is about one third of the original number spoken. Aboriginal languages were not written and there is still some difficulties with spelling conventions. Several Aboriginal sounds don’t have English equivalents, and so a combination of these factors has led to misnaming, misidentification and much confusion about the particular plant or animal concerned. This has implications for potential bushfood and medicinal plants where misidentification may be dangerous.

[Please note; the following hypertext links are to sound files that are a little quiet - my apologies, you may have to turn up the volume a little]

Australians are particularly ignorant of their indigenous languages and there are relatively very few non-Aboriginal speakers of Aboriginal languages. The media make a concerted effort to pronouce non-English names for various multicultural events and significant individuals, but they still fail to correctly pronounce Aboriginal words. Yothu Yindi have been in the public’s eye for a decade now, yet most of us can’t pronounce the band’s name, let alone names such as Manduwuy Yunupingu or his brother Galarrwuy or Gatjil Djerrkura, all of whom hold prominent cultural and professional positions, including the title 'Australian of the Year'. Knowing a language can be particularly useful, in fact, probably essential, when working in the fields of ethnobotany and ethnoecology. It allows for greater clarity of interpretation, less ambiguity with nomenclature and greater raport with indigenous consultants.

Some simple, basic rules of pronunciation for Aboriginal languages are as follows;

1. Stress (accent) for most Australian languages is usually on the first syllable. (Examples: Gundungurra [which probably should be spelt Gandangarra]- the local Blue Mountains people, Gunwinggu - a western Arnhem Land language group.)

2. The letters t, p, & k, sound more like d, b & g respectively - Aboriginal languages generally are not as highly aspirated as English. (Example: Tjapukai - a Nth Queensland coastal language)


‘Ng’ at the beginning of Aboriginal words is very common eg; ngayulu (I), ngalkun (eat), ngura (home) are Pitjantjatjara examples; ngali (we two), ngarali (tobacco) and ngatha (plant food) are Yolngu matha examples.
  • tj has more of a dy sound (Example: tjitji)
  • ny is as ni in onion (Example: nyinanyi, nyuntu)
  • ly as lli in million (Example: palya)
  • dh is like a d, but the tip of the tongue is placed between the teeth (common in Top End languages). (Example: Dharug and Dharawal - Sydney language groups)
4. There are two kinds of r. Retroflex r is like the American r and often occurs before an n, l or t and is often written without the preceeding r and underlined viz; n, l & t. (Examples: punu, punu; tjuntala, tjuntala; tjuta, tjuta.- I've had to write these twice because hypertext covers the position of the underline.)

There is also a sharp or rolled r as in the Scottish r, and often written as rr. (Example: Galarrwuy, Yirrkala)

Care must be taken to pronounce correctly (and obviously to record carefully), the subtle differences in sound to avoid ambiguity. For example, in Pitjantjatjara, the word piti refers to a large wooden dish, whereas, piti (with a retroflex r before the t - indicated by the underlining) is a hole in the ground.


Copyright 2002-2006 J.H. Burrows and Peter Lister