Mpakwithi Lesson 1

Learning a language

Children learn a language effortlessly by listening and talking. Usually adult language learners need to use a combination of styles of  learning:

  • Being immersed in the language (listening to and speaking with fluent speakers).
  • Reading.
  • Participating in courses.

There are many other ideas on how to begin learning a new language.  Many educators suggest learning the most common words first.  If you applied this to English, the first ten words you would learn are: the, be to, of, and, a, in, that, have and I. Congratulations, you have mastered the ten most commonly used words in the English language and remain almost wholly unable to communicate with people.

We hope this course will be a helpful part of the mix of activities and learning experiences that lead to your goal of mastering this beautiful cha.

First Encounters – Mpakwithi Greetings

In real life, we may also begin learning in the same way we meet new people:  we greet them and we learn to introduce ourselves and to find out about them.  These are really ritualized exchanges and are not, strictly, conversations.  Nevertheless, they are an important part of one of the best-known functions of language: communication.

We should begin by introducing ourselves in Mpakwithi. I will introduce myself and tell you what we are going to do next.

A bit more

In this column you will find reminders and suggestions as well as extra information that may interest you.

Pranganje – a Mpakwithi greeting!

Pranga-nje is a Modern Mpakwithi phrase that was originally developed to say ‘Good morning’ but is now taken to mean ‘Good day’ as well.

Of course, it can contrast with Mbruyi-nje (good night) as well.

Did you know?

“Phoneme” is linguists’ word for a speech sound that can change the meaning of words in a particular language.


You may have noticed that the word pranganje is spelt with a ‘p’ but sounds like a ‘f’. This is because /p/ always articulates as a continuant when it is followed by a continuant (such as the retroflex /r/ or a /w/).

Angu nduwidhi… My name is…

We should learn to introduce ourselves.  In Mpakwithi, we say ‘Angu nduwidhi Xavier.  This has an equivalent meaning to ‘my name is Xavier’.

It may be interesting to note that in English we would say “my name is…” but in Mpakwithi we say “I name …”. There is an important difference here with English:  in Mpakwithi, there is a word very similar to ‘my’ which is ‘thamru’.  But we cannot say ‘thamru nduwidhi’.*

If we wish to ask someone to identify themselves, we say “ndrru ‘ani?” or “who are you?” (literally – “you are who?”)

Ndrru ’ani? – Who are you?

If we wish to ask someone to identify themselves, we say “ndrru ‘ani?” or “who are you?” (literally – “you are who?”)


*This is because of a phenomenon called alienability of possession:  if a thing can be dissociated it is said to be alienable.  Conversely, if it cannot be dissociated it is inalienable.  So in Mpakwithi, ones kin, ones name and ones body-parts are considered inalienable, therefore their possession is marked by the Nominative pronouns, rather than the Genitive which is used for alienable possession.

Some new sounds – ndrr, nd, dh and ‘

The word ndrru contains a sound that is not used in English.

The first sound in ndrru /ndrr/ or  [ndr] is called a prenasalised post-alveolar stop and it is produced with your tongue touching the back of the alveolar ridge your teeth (this is around the same place where you make the /ch/ sound in English, like in the word chill). It is a complex sound to produce: first, the tip of the tongue touches behind the alveolar ridge, blocking the flow of air out of the mouth (and forcing it through the nose), then you release the blockage, allowing your tongue to flap against the alveolar ridge.

This video shows how to pronounce ndrr:

ndrr… nrdrru – You (one person)


ndrru = you  (only one person)

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

Another new sound

The word nduwidhi contains two sounds that are not common in English.

The first sound in nduwidhi /nd/ or  [nd] is called the prenasalised alveolar stop and is produced by blocking the flow of air from out of the mouth by touching the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, forcing the air out of the nose, before  releasing it as a a stop.  We do make this sound in English in the word ‘ended‘. But we never make it at the start of a word.

This video shows how to pronounce nd:

nd… nd…uwidhi – name


nduwidhi = name

Another new sound

The other new sound we encounter in the word nduwidhi is  ‘dh’.

The dh sound in nduwidhi /dh/ or  [ð] is called a dental fricative and is produced by touching the tip of the tongue against the upper front teeth, leaving a small channel open to allow turbulent air to escape.

In most varieties of English, we make this sound in the first part of this, then, thus and that.

This video shows how to pronounce dh:

dh… nduwi…dh…i – name

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

Another new sound

The word ‘ani contains a sound that is not really used in English… but also is**.

The first sound in ‘ani /’/ or  [ʔ] is called the glottal stop and is produced by completely closing the throat at the glottis, allowing the airflow to build up behind the blockage and then releasing it.  In most varieties of English, we make this sound in between ‘uh‘ and ‘oh‘ in ‘uh-oh‘.

This video shows how to pronounce :

‘a… ’ani – who?


In Australian English, /ʔ/ is al allophone of /t/ and we often delete the ‘t’ at the end of words and replace it with /ʔ/. Just think about how you say “What time?” – do you pronounce the /t/ in ‘what’?  Another common usage in Australian English is to replace the /t/ when it is followed by /-en/ – think of how you pronounce ‘fatten’ or ‘batten’.

How are you?

Another feature of some ritualized greetings includes asking how each other is. In English, people we have never met – such as cashiers – will ask “how are you?” to which we are likely to respond, “fine thanks, and you?” And our cashier will respond with “fine thanks”.  The exact responses vary (the collocutors may exchange “fine” with “good” or “well”) but the constant is that we expect to receive the ritualized responses. It would be odd to reply with an honest answer to the cashier “I’m suffering from gas” or “I’m growing hungry waiting for you to finalize this transaction”.  And, so it is in Mpakwithi as well.

Ndrru nje?

We ask “Ndrru nje?” or “are you good?” to mean the same as “how are you?”. Like in English, it would be strange to answer with an honest answer.  Instead, we expect to hear “Angu nje” or simply “nje” or “good” as a reply.

There are always exceptions and it is very acceptable for people in intimate relationships – siblings, (grand)parents and (grand)children, friends – to ask each other about their welfare and to provide more detailed, candid answers.


Another new sound

The word nje contains another sound that is not found  in English.

The first sound in ‘nje /nj/ or  [ɟ] is called a prenasalised palatal stop.  This sound is produced by raising the middle part of the tongue up to touch against the hard palate (this is approximately where your tongue touches when you say the bold part in the word onion), this blocks the flow of air through the mouth and we lower our velum to force the air through the nose.  Then we release the blockage and raise the velum, producing the nj.

This video shows how to pronounce nj:

nj… nje – good

Taking leave – Mpakwithi farewells

The simplest way to say farewell in Mpakwithi is to say “vaw”.  It’s the equivalent of “bye” in English – in fact, in 1981, Terry Crowley recorded it as “Cheerio!”



Vaw = bye!

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

Another new sound

Vaw begins with a letter that looks familiar but in fact is not found in most varieties of English.  This sound is /v/ or [β].  It is called a bilabial fricative and is made by holding both lips together very closely but allowing turbulent air to escape through a narrow channel between them.

This video shows how to pronounce v:

v… vaw – bye


The bilabial fricative doesn’t appear in English but our neighbours in the region may be familiar with it.  Fijian uses the letter v in the same way as Mpakwithi and use it to say Viti, vinaka or vaka.  In Japan some stops are sometimes reduced to bilabial fricatives in fast speech, such as in Kobe-shi (神戸市).  Portugese speakers may recognise the sound in bado.


We have learned the two words

            ndrru – “you” (one person)

            nje  – “good”

They make the greeting Ndrru nje? – “How are you?”

We have also learned about the sounds /ndrr/, /nd/, /dh/, /’/, /v/ and /nj/, and how to pronounce them.

Did you know?

A digraph is a combination of letters that represents a unique sound. The letter combinations ‘nh’ and ‘th’ and ‘rr’ are digraphs representing Guugu Yimidhirr sounds that do not occur in English.

What’s the big difference between Australian languages and English?

Let’s finish this lesson with a look at the big picture.

What is the big difference between English and Mpakwithi – or any other Australian First Nation language?

The big difference between English and Mpakwithi can be summarised in one sentence:

  • In English you express meaning by putting words in a certain order, and by linking words with small “help words”;
  • In Mpakwithi you express meaning by adding endings to the words.

If you continue learning a First Nation language, this is the essence of what you’ll do: learning to put the right endings onto words.  You have to learn the words too, of course, but the ideas you’ll learn are mostly about adding the right endings to words.

Did you know?

When meaning is shown by the order of words, linguists call this ‘syntax’.

When meaning is shown by endings on words, linguists call these word-endings ‘suffixes’.

Let’s have a look at what this means. We’ll start by making a sentence with three words:

  • I
  • now
  • go

We need to place – in time – the idea that “I am going now”.  The words in Mpakwithi are:

  • Angu
  • kunu
  • anga

To make it clear that we are going presently, we must add ‘-na’ to the end of the word anga:

Angu kunu angana.


In English meaning is shown by the order of words (syntax).

In Mpakwithi, meaning is shown by adding endings to words (suffixes).

We can change the ending on the word anga to -‘a if we wish to say “I must go now”.

So we get:

Angu kunu anga’a.


There are no little words  like ‘to’ in Mpakwithi. Mpakwithi has word endings (suffixes) instead:

to Johnny (English) = Johnnyngi (Mpakwithi)

Words and word-endings (suffixes) in Lesson 1

ndrru – you (one person)

nje – good

nduwidhi – name

Angu – I

-na – ending for the Present Tense

-‘a – ending for the Imperative Mood

kunu – now

anga – go

‘ani? – who?

Vaw! – bye!