HOW TO READ AND WRITE GUUGU YIMITHIRR

Introduction

INTRODUCTION

We are used to reading and writing in English and we don’t necessarily notice that:

  • We spell the same sound using different letters or letter combinations. 

For example: we pronounce ‘green’, ‘bean’, ‘field’ using the same sound, but we write this sound using various letter combinations (in bold). The same goes for ‘pasta’, ‘cup’ (Australian pronunciation): we pronounce these words using the same sound but spell it using different letters (in bold);

  • We use the same letters or letter combinations to spell different sounds. 

For example: ‘daughter’, ‘laughter’, ‘ghost’ are spelt with the same letter combination (in bold), but we pronounce this letter combination differently for each word. The same goes for ‘great’, ‘giraffe’: we use the same letter (in bold) but we pronounce it differently in each word.

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 passed down exclusively through speech and song until recently.  Its writing system 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 we will get used to them.

Below is the Guugu Yimithirr alphabet. Let’s pay attention to 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.

Unlike in English, in Guugu Yimithirr one letter generally corresponds to one sound.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

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 the guidelines provided are only approximations: English and Guugu Yimithirr don’t sound the same! The best way to learn how to pronounce Guugu Yimithirr is to listen to the example words by using the audio links provided and practice pronouncing the sounds out loud.

 

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

pasta, cup

(Australian pronunciation, Macquarie Dictionary)

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

father, start

(Australian pronunciation, Macquarie Dictionary)

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

It is never pronounced as in ‘giraffe’

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

piano, happy

(Macquarie Dictionary)

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

green, bean

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

jam, fridge

However, it is pronounced pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth.

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

light, love

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

mother, some

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

night, fin

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

canyon, onion

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

singer, wrong

It is never pronounced as in ‘finger, dingo’

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

right, red

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

(Macquarie Dictionary)

jirimandi, coconut
baari, chin
rr garrgu, later This sound is like a Scottish or Spanish ‘rolled r’
ngurraar, black cockatoo
birrbirr, parrot
th yimithirr, with this 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
buthu, maybe
u bubu, country This sound is similar to a short:

book, put

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

boot, fruit

buurraay, water
guugu, language, speech
w waan, crab This sound is like:

word, want

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

yellow, you

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

boy, buy

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

Vowels

LETTERS / SOUNDS OF THE ALPHABET

Summary and useful tips for the 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. 

Some vowels are short: A, I, U. Others are long: AA, II, 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 letter 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 some words are very similar but their meaning changes depending on which sound/spelling we use:

A (pasta) Audio links U (put)  Audio links
mala, culprit

 

magu, before

mula, honey

 

mugu, back

A (pasta) I (piano)
birra, leaf, paper

 

barrbil, camp

birri, creek

 

birrbal, to collect

U ( put)   I (piano)
wagul, flying fox

 

walu, like

wagil, to 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 some words are very similar but their meaning changes depending on which sound/spelling we use:

AA (father) Audio links UU (boot) Audio links
gugaa, kookaburra guguur, mouse
AA (father) II (green)
gudaa, dog gudiir, mosquito gudiir
UU (boot)      II (green)
muunh, dark 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 the words: 

A (pasta)  Audio links AA (father) Audio links
nhila, now, today nhilaa, new
bayan, house bayaan, single, unmarried
I (piano) II (green)
buli, fell bulii, will fall
U (put) UU (boot)
buthu, maybe buuthuu, parrot fish

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

Consonants

LETTERS / SOUNDS OF THE ALPHABET

Useful tips for the CONSONANTS

We have seen that the Guugu Yimithirr vowels are: A, AA, I, II, U, UU. All the other letters of the alphabet are the consonants. We have also seen that some of these sounds are kind of similar to English ones, while others do not exist in English.

When reading and writing Guugu Yimithirr we need to pay attention to the consonant sounds (and their spelling) 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. However, 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) Audio links RR (rolled R) Audio links 
bira, certainly birra, leaf, paper
maral, girl 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) Audio link N (night) Audio link
wanhu, who? 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) Audio links D (sound between D and T) Audio links
thagu, left hand dagu, thing
gathii, far away gadii, come!

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

Spelling/pronunciation Rules 1

SPELLING / PRONUNCIATION RULES – Part 1

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 way, as in ‘happy’. We use I after a consonant and Y after a vowel.

I at the end of a word, after a consonant Audio links Y at the end of a word, after a vowel Audio links
gaari, not ngaabaay, head
birri, creek balay, flat
babi, father’s mother gulnguy, boat
wali, around yawuuy, still, serious, sad
  • Pronunciation of ‘ay’

We have seen that A is pronounced as in ‘pasta’, ‘cup’.

However, when a word ends in ‘ay’ we always pronounce the A as in ‘day, may’:

Examples Audio links Pronunciation
balay, flat AY is pronounced like in:

day, may

galbay, long
gurray, said
yiway, here
bamangay, people (plural)

Mid-word, when ‘ay’ is at the end of a syllable, it is also pronounced as in day, may:

[WHAT IS A SYLLABLE? Look at the box at the end of this section]

‘ay’ at the end of a syllable (day) Audio links
thaymburr, generous

thay-mburr

daygarr, nut

day-garr

yayngarr, sound

yay-ngarr

Notice how, when AY isn’t at the end of a syllable, but A and Y are divided between two syllables (A being the end of one syllable and Y being the beginning of the following syllable), A is pronounced as usual, as in ‘pasta’, ‘cup’.

‘ay’ in all other cases, A (pasta) Audio links
bayan, house

ba-yan

mayi, food

ma-yi

ngayu, I

nga-yu

Finally, notice how the pronunciation changes between:

  • ‘ay’ at the end of a syllable: A (day) 
  • ‘ay’ in any other case: A (cup) 
  • ‘aay’: AA (father)
ay’ (day) at the end of a syllable: Audio links ay’ (cup) in any other case Audio links aay’ (father): Audio links
bagay, poked, dug bayan, house bagaay, keelback snake
buday, ate  mayi, food buurraay, water 
yiway, here ngayu, I ngaabaay, head 
daygarr, nut gayal, raw, unripe dabaaygu, tomorrow DABAAYGU
WHAT IS A SYLLABLE? 

All words have syllables. A syllable is a sound unit in a word, a unit of pronunciation. 

For example, in English we have:

– 1 syllable words such as ‘yes’, ‘house’ – these words cannot be divided into smaller units.

– 2 syllable words such as ‘finish’: fin-ish, ‘learning’: learn-ing 

– 3 syllable words such as ‘bicycle’: bi-cy-cle, ‘difficult’: dif-fi-cult

– 4 syllables in words such as ‘dictionary’: dic-tio-na-ry

And so on.

In Guugu Yimithirr we have:

– 1 syllable words such as ‘miil’, eye or ‘waan’, crab – these words cannot be divided into smaller units.

– 2 syllable words such as ‘bubu’, country: bu-bu, ‘bayan’, house: ba-yan, ‘ngaabaay’, head: ngaa-baay.

– 3 syllable words such as ‘gangurru’, black kangaroo: ga-ngu-rru, ‘yimithirr’, with this: yi-mi-thirr

– 4 syllables in words such as ‘jirimandi’, coconut: ji-ri-man-di.

And so on.

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

Spelling/Pronunciation Rules 2

SPELLING / PRONUNCIATION RULES – Part 2

  • Pronunciation of MB, NB

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr the letter B is pronounced in between an English B and a P. In Guugu Yimithirr B is one sound rather than two.

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

Spelling Examples Audio links 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.

bayanbi, at home, in the house

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

After M and N

B is pronounced like English B

Audio links Pronunciation of B in all other cases Audio links
nambal, stone, money  bubu, country
thaymburr, generous bayan, house
ganbi, blood biiba, father
gunbu, song milbi, story
  • Pronunciation of ND

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr the letter D is pronounced in between an English D and a T. In Guugu Yimithirr this is one sound rather than two.

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

Spelling Examples Audio link Pronunciation
nd gundal, to 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

Audio links Pronunciation of D in other cases Audio links
gundal, to hit gudaa, dog
bandil, to pronounce, to chop diini, red
yindu, other, another yindu dambun, medicine man
  • Pronunciation of N-G and NGG

We have seen that in Guugu Yimithirr G is pronounced in between an English G (as in ‘great’) and a K. In Guugu Yimithirr this is one sound rather than two.

When we find N and NG right before G we need to pay attention to our pronunciation:

Spelling Examples Audio links Pronunciation
n-g nhin-gal, to sit, to be N-G sound is like:

ungrateful, unglazed

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

balin-ga, echidna
ban-gun, elbow
ngg bunggu, knee NGG is pronounced as NG+G (as in great).

It sounds like English ‘dingo’.

balawunggal, cyclone
thunggul, snake

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

After N and NG, G is pronounced like G (great) Audio links Pronunciation of G in other cases Audio links
balin-ga, echidna gulnguy, boat
ban-gun, elbow yugu, tree, wood, fire
wanggar, up gaban, book
balawunggal, cyclone guga, kookaburra
thunggul, snake gumbiin, string
IMPORTANT SPELLING RULE: We use a hyphen in between the two letters N-G to make sure we don’t confuse the two letters/sounds ‘N’ and ‘G’ with NG, which is one letter/one sound in Guugu Yimithirr. 

Notice how N-G and NG are different and their pronunciation changes the meaning of words:

N-G 

Pronounced as in: ‘ungrateful’

Audio links NG 

Pronounced as in: ‘singer’

Audio links
biluun-gu, next to biluungu, about the hip
  • 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. In Guugu Yimithirr this is one sound rather than two.

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

Spelling Examples Audio links 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 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 also sounds like the English D, while pressing the tip of the tongue in between the front teeth.

.

wanhtharra, how?

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 Audio links Pronunciation of TH in all other cases Audio links
thalunthirr, Guugu Yimithirr coastal dialect yimithirr, with this
muyanthirr, ashamed dulbiilthirr, sad
nganhthaan, we buthaal, lying
wanhtharra, how? tharramali, thunder

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

Tricky letters / letter combinations

LETTERS AND LETTER COMBINATIONS THAT LOOK SIMILAR BUT SPELL DIFFERENT SOUNDS

There are a few letters / 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.

We have already listed two of these in the ‘Spelling/Pronunciation – Rules 2’ section, but we have added them here again to have the complete series of ‘tricky letters/letter combinations’ in one place:

  • N-G and NG

We use a hyphen in between the two letters N-G to make sure we don’t confuse the two letters/sounds ‘N’ and ‘G’ with NG, which is one letter/one sound in Guugu Yimithirr. 

Notice how N-G and NG are different and their pronunciation changes the meaning of words:

N-G 

Pronounced as in: ‘ungrateful’

Audio link NG 

Pronounced as in: ‘singer’

Audio link
biluun-gu, next to biluungu, about the hip
  • NGG and NG

In Guugu Yimithirr there is an important difference between: NGG (as in ‘dingo’) and NG (as in ‘singer’).

In English we spell both sounds the same way and so we might get confused about how to pronounce them correctly in Guugu Yimithirr.

Spelling Example Audio links Pronunciation
ngg wanggaar, up NGG is pronounced as NG+G (as in great)

It sounds like English ‘dingo’

ng ngayu, I This is pronounced as in English ‘singer’

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 on which one we use:

NGG (dingo) Audio link NG (singer) Audio link
wanggaar, up wangarr, white person, ghost 
  • NNG and NGG

In English we do not have this combination, but in Guugu Yimithirr NNG and NG are different sounds. 

Spelling Example Audio link Pronunciation
nng baanngaa, to cry This is pronounced as the sound N followed by the sound NG (as in ‘singer’)

Notice how different these sounds are in the words below:

NNG (N + NG as in singer) Audio link NGG (NG as in singer + G as in great) Audio link 
baanngaa, to cry banggal, to lift (shoulders in pride), to puff (chest) banggal
  • NYJ and NG
Spelling Examples Audio links Pronunciation
nyj manyjal, mountain This sound is similar to:

dungeon

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

banyji, brother-in-law, sister-in-law
janyjil, to bathe, to dive

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

NYJ (dungeon) Audio link NG (singer) Audio link
manyjal, mountain mangal, hand

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

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) Audio links Waguurrga (inland dialect) Audio links
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’.

Traditional meaning Today’s meaning
Thalunthirr (coastal dialect) jiiri sky Heaven
Waguurrga (inland dialect) 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 some 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:

English translation sound/spelling

‘nh’

Audio links sound/spelling

‘ny’

Audio links
she/he nhulu  nyulu 
always nhuumaar  nyuumaar 
English translation sound / spelling

‘th’ 

Audio link sound / spelling

‘ j’

Audio link
younger sister thin-gurr  jin-gurr 
English translation sound / spelling

‘nhth’

Audio link sound / spelling

‘nyj’

Audio link
dry banhthil banyjil
English translation sound / spelling

‘rr’

Audio link sound / spelling

‘l’

Audio link
quickly dindaarrgu DINDAARRGU dindaalgu DINDAALGU
English translation sound / spelling

‘rr’

Audio links sound / spelling

‘n’

Audio links
to knead thirrmal THIRRMAL thinmal THINMAL
to scream baarrnggal BARRNGGAL baanngal BANNGAL
  • Same language different spellings

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.

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.

For questions and feedback please contact: srendina@pamalanguagecentre.org.au

EXERCISES

PRONUNCIATION and SPELLING practice

  1. Play the audio for each word from the list below and practice writing the words using correct spelling.
  2. 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, to cut
bala, skin baalaa, thin-leaved Condoo tree
buli, fell bulii, will fall
buthu, maybe buuthuu, parrot fish
guyu, milk, breast guuju, fish
dagu, thing thagu, left hand
gadii, come! gathii, far away
madi-madi, maggot maji, matches
budal, to 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 BUNHTHI bunyji, tea leaf BUNYJI
bira, certainly birra, leaf, paper
maral, girl marral, bottle
ganhaarr, crocodile gaanhaal, older sister
mugur, mother’s younger brother mugul, old
guuju, fish guugu, language, speech

We thank Mrs Lillian Bowen for kindly providing all Guugu Yimithirr audio recordings and her language expertise.