HOW TO READ AND WRITE GUUGU YIMITHIRR

Introduction

Introduction

The English writing system isn’t easy to master. We are so used to reading and writing in this language and we don’t necessarily notice that:

  • the same sound is often spelt using different letters or letter combinations. 

For example: ‘green’, ‘bean’, ‘field’ are all pronounced using the same sound (in bold), but we write this sound in various ways. The same goes for ‘pasta’, ‘cup’ (Australian pronunciation), and so many others;

  • the same letters or letter combinations are often pronounced differently. 

For example: ‘daughter’, ‘laughter’, ‘ghost’ are all spelt with the same letter combination (in bold), but we pronounce this letter combination in various ways. The same goes for ‘great’, ‘giraffe’ and so many others.

This is because English has a writing system that has a long and complex history. The correspondence between the sounds and the way we spell them has changed and evolved through time, becoming quite inconsistent and complicated. 

On the other hand, Guugu Yimithirr – like most languages, was traditionally only passed down through speech and song.  Its writing system is fairly recent and has been developed so that one sound generally corresponds to one spelling.

To learn how to read and write Guugu Yimithirr we need to learn the spelling rules that are used to write the sounds of the language. Some of these will seem difficult at first because they are different from what we are used to when reading and writing English. But in time you will get used to them.

Below you will find the Guugu Yimithirr alphabet. Notice how different it is from the English one:

a, aa, b, d, g, i, ii, j, l, m, n, nh, ny, ng, r, rr, th, u, uu, w, y.

Some letters have one character, while others have two. Also, unlike in English, in Guugu Yimithirr one letter generally corresponds to one sound. 

Alphabet

 The Guugu Yimithirr alphabet: how to pronounce the letters

In the table below letter pronunciations are described as being ‘similar to’ a sound we know, ‘in between’ sounds we are familiar with or ‘like’ an English sound. Describing sounds is difficult and it is important to keep in mind that the guidelines provided are approximations. The best way to learn how to pronounce Guugu Yimithirr is to listen to the example words by using the link provided and practice pronouncing the sounds out loud.

Letter Examples Audio links Pronunciation / Sound
a bayan, house  bayan This sound is similar to a short:

pasta, cup

(Australian pronunciation)

gaban, book gaban
awuun!, good! awuun
aa yuwaal, beach yuwaal This sound is similar to a long:

father, start

(Australian pronunciation)

gudaa, dog gudaa
waandaar, white cockatoo waandaar
b bama, people bama This sound is pronounced in between an English B and a P. 
bubu, country bubu
biiba, father biiba
galbay, long galbay
d dagil, build dagil This sound is pronounced in between an English D and a T.
diini, red diini
gudaa, dog gudaa
g guugu, language, speech guuguu This sound is pronounced in between an English G (as in ‘great’) and a K. 

It is never pronounced as in ‘giraffe’

gugaa, kookaburra gugaa
gumbiin, string gumbiin
murruga, car murruga
gudaa, dog gudaa
i bidi, forehead bidi This sound is similar to:

piano, happy

birra, leaf, paper birra
jirimandi, coconut jirimandi
ii miil, eye miil This sound is like:

green, bean

diini, red diini
biiba, father biiba
j juugaar, sand juugaar This sound is similar to:

jam, fridge

jirimandi, coconut jirimandi
bujuur, feathers bujuur
l biililil, paddling biililil This sound is like:

light, love

nambal, stone, money nambal
yulmbu, island yulmbu
m miil, eye miil This sound is like:

mother, some

murruga, car murruga
nambal, stone, money nambal
n bayan, house bayan This sound is like:

night, fin

nambal, stone, money nambal
manu, neck, throat manu
nh nhundu, you (one person) nhundu This sound is pronounced like an English N while pressing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth
wanhu, who wanhu
nhinhinhi, groper fish nhinhinhi
ny gaanyi-gaanyi, too fat gaanyi-gaanyi This sound is similar to:

canyon, onion

nyinda, shallow nyinda
ng gangurru, black kangoroo  gangurru This sound is like:

singer, wrong

It is never pronounced as in ‘finger, dingo’

ngurraar, black cockatoo ngurraar
nguman, taipan snake nguman
r waandaar, white cockatoo waandaar This sound is like:

right, red

It is never silent like in Australian English: car, mortar

jirimandi, coconut jirimandi
baari, chin baari
rr garrgu, later garrgu This sound is like a Scottish or Spanish

 rolled ‘r’

ngurraar, black cockatoo ngurraar
birrbirr, parrot birrbirr
th yimithirr, with this yimithirr This sound is pronounced in between an English D and a T while pressing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth

This never sounds like ‘th’ in English

thalun, sea, blue thalun
buthu, maybe buthu
u bubu, country bubu This sound is similar to a short:

book, put

yugu, tree, wood, fire yugu
burriwi, emu burriwi
uu guuju, fish guuju This sound is similar to a long:

boot, fruit

buurraay, water buurraay
guugu, language, speech guugu
w waandaar, white cockatoo waandaar This sound is like:

word, want

awuun!, good! awuun
yuwaal, beach yuwaal
y yugu, tree, wood, fire yugu This sound is like:

yellow, you

mayi, food mayi
bayan, house bayan
y at the end of a word  buurraay, water buurraay This sound is like:

boy, buy

Letters / Sounds

Letters/sounds of the alphabet: summary and useful tips

VOWELS

The vowels of Guugu Yimithirr don’t match the ones of English. To spell vowels, instead of using A, E, I, O, U like in English, in Guugu Yimithirr we use A, AA, I, II, U, UU. 

  • Short vowels

The short vowels in Guugu Yimithirr are A, I, U. They are always pronounced the same way:

A is pronounced similarly to: pasta, cu

I is pronounced as in: piano, happy

U is pronounced similarly to: put, book

This is different from what we are used to. For example, in English the vowel A isn’t always pronounced with the sound we find in ‘pasta’. Think of: ‘cat’, ‘because’, ‘bean’, etc.

Also, in English many words that have the sound that we find in ‘pasta’ are spelt with a different letter: for example, ‘cup’ (Australian English).

Pay attention to how the short vowels are pronounced and spelt in Guugu Yimithirr.

In the examples below, you’ll notice how the meaning of the words changes depending on which sound/spelling we use:

A (pasta)

mala, culprit

magu, before    

U (put)   

mula, honey     

mugu, back

A (pasta)

birra, leaf, paper 

barrbil, camp

I (piano)

birri, creek

birrbal, collect

U ( put)  

wagul, flying fox

walu, like

I (piano)

wagil, cut

wali, around

  • Long vowels

The long vowels in Guugu Yimithirr are AA, II, UU. They are always pronounced the same way:

AA is pronounced similarly to: father, start

II is pronounced as in: green, bean

UU is pronounced similarly to: boot, fruit

Pay attention to how the long vowels are pronounced and spelt in Guugu Yimithirr.

In the examples below, you’ll notice how the meaning of the words changes depending on which sound/spelling we use:

AA (father)

gugaa, kookaburra

UU (boot)

guguur, mouse

AA (father)

gudaa, dog

II (green)

gudiir, mosquito

UU (boot)     

muunh, dark

II (green)

miinh, guess what!

  • Short vs. long vowel sounds

In Guugu Yimithirr we need to pay attention to the difference between:

the short vowels A, I, U  and the long vowels AA, II, UU. 

This is similar to the difference we have in English between the short vowel sound in ‘bin’ and the long vowel sound in ‘bean’. The vowel sounds used in these two words are very similar but pronouncing a short vowel or long vowel changes the meaning of the words. 

In Guugu Yimithirr the short vowels A, I, U are different sounds from the long vowels AA, II, UU.

Using one or the other changes the meaning of words: 

A (pasta)

bala, skinny

AA (father)

baalaa, thin-leaved Condoo tree

I (piano)

buli, fell

II (green)

bulii, will fall

U (put)

buthu, maybe

UU (boot)

buuthuu, parrot fish

CONSONANTS

  • Some consonants of the Guugu Yimithirr alphabet are pronounced the same as the English ones: j, m, n, l, r, y, w.
  • Others correspond to sounds we are familiar with: ng, ny, rr.
  • Some others are similar to sounds we use in English, yet pronounced quite differently: b, d, g.
  • Finally, some do not exist in English: th, nh.

When reading and writing Guugu Yimithirr we need to pay attention to the consonant sounds and their spelling, especially those that we are not used to perceiving as different from one another:

  • R and RR

Both sounds are familiar to English speakers, in English we can easily use one in place of the other. Remember that in Guugu Yimithirr ‘r’ and ‘rr’ are different sounds that change the meaning of words, we need to pronounce them and spell them the right way:

R (right) RR (rolled R)
bira, certainly

maral, girl

birra, leaf, paper

marral, bottle

NH and N

NH doesn’t exist in English, we pronounce it like the sound N while pressing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth. NH can sound quite similar to N for a beginner Guugu Yimithirr learner and the two sounds can easily be confused. Pay attention to the difference between N and NH both in sound and in spelling, using one or the other changes the meaning of words:

NH (N while pressing the tip of the tongue between the teeth)

wanhu, who?

N (night)

wanu-wanu, mischievous

  • TH and D

The sound TH doesn’t exist in English, we pronounce it like the sound in between a D and a T while pressing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth. TH can sound similar to D, which we pronounce as in between an English D and a T. Pay attention to the difference between TH and D both in sound and in spelling, using one or the other changes the meaning of words:

TH (sound between D and T while pressing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth)

thagu, left hand

gathii, far away

D (sound between D and T)

dagu, thing

gadii, come!

Special Rules 1

Special spelling / pronunciation rules: when one letter does not correspond to one sound

As we have seen, in Guugu Yimithirr one letter generally corresponds to one sound. However, there are some exceptions:

  • Spelling ‘i’ or ‘y’ at the end of a word

At the end of a word I and Y are pronounced the same, as in ‘happy’. We use I after a consonant and Y after a vowel (A, AA, U, UU).

I at the end of a word, after a consonant Y at the end of a word, after a vowel
gaari, not

birri, creek

babi, father’s mother

wali, around

ngaabaay, head

balay, flat

gulnguy, boat

‘-ay’ at the end of a word

At the end of a word the A in ‘-ay’ is pronounced differently from a regular A (pasta, cup):

Spelling Examples Pronunciation
‘-ay’, when at the end of a word buday, ate

gurray, said

yiway, here

Is pronounced like:

day, may

Notice how this is different from AA (father) in ‘-aay’ when we find it at the end of a word:

‘-ay’ (day) at the end of a word:

bagay, poked, dug

buday, ate 

yiway, here

‘-aay’ (father) at the end of a word:

bagaay, keelback snake

buurraay, water 

ngaabaay, head 

  • Pronunciation of MB, NB

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr the letter B is pronounced in between an English B and a P. Sometimes it sounds more like an English B and some other times more like an English P. Ultimately, in Guugu Yimithirr it doesn’t matter much if the sound is closer to a B or a P. Unlike in English, this is one sound rather than two.

However, when we find M, N right before B, we need to pay attention to our pronunciation:

Spelling Examples Pronunciation
mb nambal, stone, money This sounds like:

number

In this case, the letter B sounds like an English B

nb ganbi, blood This sounds like:

unbreakable 

In this case, the letter B sounds like an 

English B

Pay attention to the difference in the pronunciation of B in the examples below:

After M and N

‘B’ is pronounced like B

In all other cases ‘B’ is pronounced in between B and P
nambal, stone, money  bubu, country
thaymburr, generous bayan, house
ganbi, blood biiba, father
munbal, blue plum, quadong milbi, story

SPECIAL NOTE: B at the beginning of a word

At the beginning of a word B often sounds more like an English B, you will learn the correct pronunciation for different words as you make progress. 

  • Pronunciation of ND

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr the letter D is pronounced in between an English D and a T. Sometimes it sounds more like an English D and some other times more like an English T. Ultimately, in Guugu Yimithirr it doesn’t matter much if this sound is closer to a D or a T. Unlike in English, this is one sound rather than two.

However, when we find N right before D, we need to pay attention to our pronunciation:

Spelling Examples Pronunciation
nd gundal, hit This sounds like:

handy

In this case, the letter D sounds like the English D

Pay attention to the difference in the pronunciation of D in the examples below:

After N

‘D’ is pronounced like D

In all other cases ‘D’ is pronounced in between D and T
gundal, hit gudaa, dog
bandil, pronounce, chop diini, red

SPECIAL NOTE: D at the beginning of a word

At the beginning of a word D sometimes sounds more like an English D, you will learn the correct pronunciation for different words as you make progress.

  • Pronunciation of NTH and NHTH

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr the letter TH is pronounced in between an English D and a T, while pressing the tip of the tongue between the teeth. Sometimes it sounds more like an English D (while pressing the tip of the tongue between the teeth) and some other times more like an English T (while pressing the tip of the tongue between the teeth). Ultimately in Guugu Yimithirr it doesn’t matter much if this sound is closer to a D or a T. Unlike in English, this is one sound rather than two.

However, when we find N, NH right before TH, we need to pay attention to our pronunciation:

Spelling Examples Pronunciation
nth thalunthirr, Guugu Yimithirr coastal dialect This sounds like:

handy, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth for the TH sound only. 

The tongue needs to shift position between the pronunciation of the N and TH.

In this case, the letter TH sounds like the English D, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth

nhth nganhthaan, we

wanhtharra, how?

This sounds like:

handy, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth for both the NH and the TH sound.

In this case, the letter TH sounds like the English D, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth

Pay attention to the difference in the pronunciation of TH in the examples below:

After N and NH, ‘TH’ is pronounced like D, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth In all other cases ‘TH’ is pronounced in between D and T, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth
thalunthirr, Guugu Yimithirr coastal dialect yimithirr, with this
muyanthirr, ashamed dulbiilthirr, sad
nganhthaan, we buthaal, lying
wanhtharra, how? tharramali, thunder

SPECIAL NOTE: TH at the beginning of a word

At the beginning of a word TH sometimes sounds more like an English D while pressing the tip of the tongue between the front teeth. You will learn the correct pronunciation for different words as you make progress.

  • Pronunciation of NGG

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr the letter G is pronounced in between an English G (as in ‘great’) and a K. Sometimes it sounds more like an English G and some other times more like an English K. Ultimately, in Guugu Yimithirr it doesn’t matter much if this sound is closer to a G or a K. Unlike in English, this is one sound rather than two. 

However, when we find NG right before G we need to pay attention to our pronunciation:

Spelling Examples Pronunciation
ngg bunggu, knee

balawunggal, cyclone

baalnggu, teenager

This sound is like:

dingo, finger

This is pronounced as the sound NG, as in ‘singer’ followed by G, as in ‘great’

Pay attention to the difference in the pronunciation of G in the examples below:

After NG, ‘G’ is pronounced like G (great) After all other letters ‘G’ is pronounced in between G (great) and K
wanggar, up gulnguy, boat
balawunggal, cyclone yugu, tree, wood, fire
thunggul, snake gaban, book
guga, kokaburra
gumbiin, string

SPECIAL NOTE: G at the beginning of a word

At the beginning of a word G sometimes sounds more like an English G (as in ‘great’), you will learn the correct pronunciation for different words as you make progress.

Special Rules 2

Other special spelling / pronunciation rules: letter combinations that look similar but spell different sounds

There are a few letter combinations that we need to pay attention to when reading and writing Guugu Yimithirr. It is important not to confuse them with other letters of the alphabet or similar letter combinations, as they spell different sounds.

  • NGG and NG:

In Guugu Yimithirr there is an important difference between: NGG (as in ‘dingo’, more on this p.12) and NG (as in ‘singer’). These are two different sounds. In English we spell them both the same way and so we might get confused about how to pronounce or spell them.

Get used to hearing the difference between the two sounds by pronouncing the words out loud. Notice how these two sounds/spellings are different and the meaning of words changes depending which one we use:

NGG (dingo)

wanggaar, up

NG (singer)

wangarr, white person, ghost 

  • NNG and NG:
Spelling Example Pronunciation
nng baanngaa, cry This is pronounced as the sound N followed by the sound NG (as in ‘singer’)
  • N-G and NG:
Spelling Examples Pronunciation
n-g nhin-gal, sit, be

balin-ga, echidna

ban-gun, elbow

This sound is like:

ungrateful, unglazed

It is pronounced as the sound N followed by the sound G (as in ‘great’).

We use a hyphen in between the two letters N-G not to confuse this sound with NG, as in ‘singer’. Notice how these two sounds are different and their pronunciation changes the meaning of words:

N-G (ungrateful)

biluun-gu, next to

NG (singer)

biluungu, about the hip

  • NYJ and NG:
Spelling Examples Pronunciation
nyj manyjal, mountain

banyji, brother-in-law, sister-in-law

janyjil, bathe, dive

This sound is similar to:

dungeon

N.B. To learn the correct pronunciation of this sound, listen carefully to the example words

Notice how these two sounds are different and their pronunciation changes the meaning of words:

NYJ (dungeon)

manyjal, mountain

NG (singer)

mangal, hand

Language variation

Language variation

  • Same language different words

Just like English speakers sometimes use different words, depending on where they come from (for example, American people use ‘vacation’ and British people use ‘holiday’ to describe the same thing), Guugu Yimithirr speakers may use different words to refer to the same item:

English Thalunthirr (coastal dialect) Waguurrga (inland dialect)
moon giitha waarigan
head gambuugu ngaabaay
stake thunggul thaarba

A LITTLE HISTORY – When Guugu Yimithirr started being used in church, the Thanlunthirr word for ‘sky’ was used as a translation for ‘heaven’. Nowadays everybody uses the original Thalunthirr word for ‘heaven’ and the Waguurga word for ‘sky’:

Thalunthirr (coastal dialect) Waguurrga (inland dialect)

traditional meaning 

today’s meaning

jiiri

sky

 heaven

wangunh

sky

sky

  • Same language different sounds

Just like English speakers pronounce words differently, depending on where they come from (for example, think of how differently Americans and British people pronounce the word ‘cat’), Guugu Yimithirr speakers don’t pronounce all words exactly the same.

Below are listed the sound variations in Guugu Yimithirr. Some people pronounce words using one sound or the other, while others use one sound as well as the other, depending on the situation. Both spellings are in use:

‘nh’ ‘ny’
she/he

always

nhulu 

nhuumaar 

nyulu 

nyuumaar 

th  j
young sister thin-gurr  jin-gurr 
nhth nyj
dry banhthil banyjil

  • Variations in spelling

The writing system described here was formalised by linguist John Haviland in 1991. It is now taught and used in the Hope Vale primary school during Guugu Yimithirr classes. However, this isn’t the only way Guugu Yimithirr has been written in the past and even today you will find people still use different spellings, since the language has been written a few different ways through the years.

In the left column of the table below you will find the writing system we have described here. Next to each spelling, in the right column, you will find the corresponding different ways of writing the same sounds that you might come across.

Spelling taught at Hope Vale school Other spellings Examples
th dh Guugu Yimithirr – Guugu Yimidhirr
j dy
n-g n.g, ng
nng ng
ngg ng
nhth nth, nhdh
nyj nydy, nj
EXERCISES

Exercises

  1. Write the Guugu Yimithirr alphabet and next to each entry add a word you remember that has that particular sound.
  1. Write the other sounds of Guugu Yimithirr that are not part of the alphabet. Can you remember a word that has that particular sound for each?
  1. Can you remember the spelling / pronunciation rules for:
  • i or y at the end of a word
  • ‘-ay’ at the end of a word
  • mb / nb
  • nd
  • nth / nhth
  • ngg
  1. Can you remember how to pronounce:
  • ng 
  • ngg
  • nng
  • n-g
  • nyj

PRONUNCIATION and SPELLING practice

  1. Play the audio for each word from the list below and practice writing them down.
  1. Read the words out loud, and then play the audio to check the correct pronunciation for each word.
buurraay, water buday, ate
mala, culprit mula, honey   
magu, before    mugu, back
birra, leaf, paper birri, creek
wagul, flying fox wagil, cut
bala, skin baalaa, thin-leaved Condoo tree
buli, fell bulii, will fall
buthu, maybe buuthuu, parrot fish
guyuu, milk, breast guuju, fish
dagu, thing thagu, left hand
gadii, come! gathii,  far away
madi-madi, maggot maji, matches
budal, eat burral, top
wanu-wanu, mischievous  wanhu, who?
ganhil, song gaanyil, in-law
ngigan, vain nyinda, shallow
mangal, hand manyjal, mountain
wangarr, white person, ghost wanggaar, up
bunhthi, mud bunyji, tea leaf
bira, certainly birra, leaf, paper
maral, girl marral, bottle
ganhaarr, crocodile ganhaal, older sister
mugur, mother’s younger brother mugul, old
guuju, fish guugu, language, speech