reading and pronouncing Yolngu languages
See also: Australian
all seen Yolngu words written on various websites and in books
or on CD liner notes, but how do we pronounce those words
and what is the correct way of spelling them?
like all Indigenous Australians possess oral languages. Their
languages were never written. Many Australian languages can
now be written and several different conventions apply across
the country as each language was initially documented by a
different linguist whom developed their own system to represent
the sounds not found in English or incapable of being represented
by standard English characters. This is particularly true
of the languages spoken in central Australia. The way in which
the same sound in different central Australian languages is
represented can be very different (Arrernte versus Pitjantjatjara
linguists were mission workers in northern Australia and the
system still used today to write Yolngu languages was initially
developed during the early mission days of the 1930's and
developed further into useful grammar texts in the 1950's
and 60's. Because the writing of Yolngu languages is such
a recent phenomenon they are very phonemic. This means that
once you understand how a character represents a particular
sound you cannot possibly mispronounce it. This is certainly
not true of languages such as English where a character can
be pronounced several different ways. Yolngu languages have
31 sounds. Six are vowels and 25 are consonants. The vowels
are a, e, i, o and u and similar to English, and also a long
a (^) similar to the 'a' in the English word 'father'.
languages there are six characters not represented in English.
There are also several English characters that are not present
such as c, f, q, s, v, x and z. Yolngu languages also contain
several sounds for which English has no equivalent but can
which can be approximated using English characters in combination.
Such sounds include those represented by dh, th, nh, dj, tj,
ny, and rr. Tongue positions used to make these sounds are
not positions generally used to make English sounds.
Darwin University (formerly Northern Territory University)
have developed a font for displaying Yolngu characters that
can be downloaded for free from their website: http://learnline.cdu.edu.au/yolngustudies/resources_fonts.htm
articles presented on this website, we have chosen to display
the Yolngu words using a close approximation in English characters
and also followed in parentheses with the equivalent keyboard
characters used in the YM Font.
the widely known Yolngu word for didjeridu is here written
"yirdaki (yi[aki) " and the word for Yolngu is written
"Yolngu (Yol\u) ".
yidaki would be incorrect because the 'd' sound is actually
a retroflexed 'd' ([). This means that the tip of the tongue
flexes back to touch the palate above and behind the top teeth.
Imagine an american-sounding 'r' before the 'd' and you'll
be closer to the correct pronunciation. The word could also
be correctly written yidaki.
(\) character forms a single sound the same as 'ng' in the
English words 'hang' or 'bring'. This character '\' is used
in the YM font because there are Yolngu words where 'n' and
'g' occur together but are pronounced as separate sounds.
Gunga is a good example. It is pronounced as gun-ga. This
character combination can also occur in English words. The
words 'engulf' and 'engage' are good examples of 'ng' sounded
separately: en-gulf and en-gage.
English words 'mingle' or' jungle', 'g' is sounded as separate
from the character 'n' and the 'n' sounds like 'ng' as it
does in the words 'hanger' or 'bringing'. Mingle and jungle
are pronounced 'ming-gle' and 'jung-gle'. Sometimes there
is a combination of these sounds within the word, such as
in the word 'mingling' yet both 'ng' sounds are written the
same even though they sound different. 'Mingling' could be
written in the YM font more accurately reflecting the phonemics
as 'mi\gli\' (ming-gling).
Yolngu words it should be remembered that long vowels only
occur in the first syllable and that usually only the first
syllable is stressed.
is only an introductory article some brief guidelines for
the pronunciation of vowels are given. Some additional online
examples may be found on this website in my article, "Australian
'a' in 'ago'
'a' in 'father'
between 'e' in 'sleep' and 'e' in 'net'
'i' in 'tin'
the 'ou' sound in 'bought'
'u' in 'put'
are interested in learning more about Yolngu languages you
can either enrol in online subjects at Charles Darwin University
or work away at your own pace with some of the resources that
can be purchased from CDU. Currently available publications
include both books and CD-Roms and are listed on the Yolngu
Studies website: http://learnline.cdu.edu.au/yolngustudies/resources.htm
this is a brief article - there is so much more to Yolngu
words than their literal meaning and, as mentioned above,
Yolngu words are a part of an individuals' identity. Yolngu
languages, like their designs, song and ceremony and clan
estate are owned by their respective groups. Permission has
been granted to CDU and other similar bodies to teach and
disseminate this knowledge for greater understanding both
at a community level and in the wider world. This doesn't
mean these words are available for commercial exploitation
Peter R Lister