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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

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

We've 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?

Download the Yolngu (Yol\u) font for Windows or Macintosh

Yolngu, 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 for example).

Many early 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'.

In Yolngu 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.

Linguists at Charles Darwin University (formerly Northern Territory University) have developed a font for displaying Yolngu characters that can be downloaded for free from their website:

In the 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.

For example, the widely known Yolngu word for didjeridu is here written "yirdaki (yi[aki) " and the word for Yolngu is written "Yolngu (Yol\u) ".

To write 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.

The 'ng' (\) 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.

In the 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).

In pronouncing Yolngu words it should be remembered that long vowels only occur in the first syllable and that usually only the first syllable is stressed.

As this 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 Languages."

Vowel pronunciation guide

Character English equivalent sound
a as 'a' in 'ago'
aa (^) as 'a' in 'father'
e somewhere between 'e' in 'sleep' and 'e' in 'net'
i as 'i' in 'tin'
o like the 'ou' sound in 'bought'
u as 'u' in 'put'

If you 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:

Remeber, 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 by non-Yolngu.

Peter R Lister
May 2004


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