Mpakwithi Lesson 3 coming soon

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.

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 guugu.

A Guugu Yimithirr Greeting

Before we begin studying Guugu Yimithirr, we want to be able to say a few words so we can begin to speak straight away. Let’s start by saying “Hello!”

The speaker in the video below is  Guugu Yimithirr language teacher Lillian Bowen. 

A bit more

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

Nhundu wanhtharra? – How are your?

Did you know?

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

Nhundu wanhtharra? means “How are you?”

The exact translation is “You, how?”

Nhundu means “you”, but the word nhundu is only used to address one person. Later we’ll learn the words for addressing more than one person.


nhundu = you  (only one person)

Some new sounds

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

The first sound in nhundu  /nh/ is pronounced with your tongue between your teeth (not behind your teeth). This video shows how to pronounce nh:

nh … nhundu – You (one person)


nh – tongue between teeth

nh is a Guugu Yimithirr phoneme

We find the sound /nh/ in wanhtharra too. When you say wanhtharra you should put your tongue between your teeth like you do when you say nhundu.

wa-nh-tharra … wanhtharra

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

After /nh/ in wanhtharra comes the sound /th/. In Guugu Yimithirr /th/  stands for a very different sound to the sound in English “think” or ”this”. The Guugu Yimithirr /th/ is another sound that you pronounce with your tongue between your teeth.

wanh-th-arra … wanhtharra


th – tongue between teeth

th is a Guugu Yimithirr phoneme

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

The /rr/ sound in wanhtharra is another sound that can be difficult for some English-speakers. In Guugu Yimithirr the symbol /rr/ is always pronounced as a trilled sound.

wanhtha-rr-a … wanhtharra


rr – always trilled

rr is a Guugu Yimithirr phoneme

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

If you find it difficult to say trilled rr’s, don’t worry. An English ‘r’ will do until you get the hang of it.

Guugu Yimithirr speech sounds

Let’s think for a moment about the sound /nh/.

Is it a kind of n-sound? Is it a blend of n and h?

No, it’s not a kind of n-sound. To Guugu Yimithirr speakers, /nh/ and /n/ are very different. They are as different as the first sound in “fine” and “vine” are to English-speakers. There are some similarities between the sounds /nh/ and /n/. That is the the reason why English-speaking students hear a kind of n-sound when Lillian Bowen says nhundu. But /nh/ is a completely distinct sound. We have to write the sound /nh/ with a letter /n/ and a letter /h/ because the sound /nh/ was unknown in Europe, so there’s no single letter for it.


We have learned the two words

            nhundu – “you” (one person)

            wanhtharra – “how”

They make the greeting Nhundu wanhtharra? – “How are you?”

We have also learned about the sounds /nh/ and /th/, which are pronounced with your tongue between your teeth. And the trilled /rr/ sound.

Now let’s say Nhundu wanhtharra again:

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.

Nhundu wanhtharra?

Now practice saying the whole thing

Responding to a greeting

The response to Nhundu wanhtharra is usually Ganaa!, which means “alright”, “fine”.


Watch, listen and practice this yourself

The /aa/ in ganaa is long; double vowels in Guugu Yimithirr are always long.

Now let’s practice the two phrases we’ve learned:


aa – is a long ‘a’ sound.

Double vowels in Guugu Yimidhirr are always long.

Watch, listen and practice with a friend.

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 Guugu Yimithirr – or any other Australian First Nation language?

The big difference between English and Guugu Yimithirr 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 Guugu Yimithirr 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:

  • boy
  • horse
  • kick

Let’s say that the boy kicked the horse and not the other way round.  How do we make clear in English that it was the boy who did the kicking?

We do that with the order of the words.  The doer of the sentence is mentioned first:

“The boy kicked the horse.”

If we mention the horse first, the meaning of the sentence changes:

“The horse kicked the boy.”

This looks obvious, and people who speak English might see it as natural. But it’s not.  In Guugu Yimithirr the doer of a sentence is marked with the ending –ngun.  Once the doer is marked that way, we can scramble the sentence, and the meaning remains the same.


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

In Guugu Yimidhirr meaning is shown by adding endings to words (suffixes).

These are the three words in Guugu Yimithirr:

  • yarrga – “boy”
  • yarraman – “horse”
  • thabi – “kicked” (past tense)

Guugu Yimithirr often has the verb, the action word, last in a sentence. This is how we usually say it:

Yarrgangun yarraman thabi – “The boy kicked the horse”


In Guugu Yimidhirr, word order doesn’t change meaning.

Yarrgangun yarraman thabi. – The boy kicked the horse.

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

But if we change the order of the words like this:

Yarraman thabi yarrgangun

the meaning stays the same.

Yarraman thabi yarrgangun. – The boy kicked the horse.

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

The other difference we mentioned is that English has a large number of little “help words” that mean little by themselves; they must be linked to other words.

“To” is such a word.  In English we say “Give it to him”. We might think it’s natural for languages to have words for “to”, “from”, “with” and so on – what we call “help words” in this lesson.  But many languages are different.  In Guugu Yimithirr, the phrase “to Johnny” is translated like this: Johnnywi. Only one word is needed: Johnny plus the ending –wi.

Let’s learn two new words for the next sentence:

  • nambal – “money”
  • wuwaa – “give!” (command form)

Compare the Guugu Yimithirr sentence and the English translation:

Johnnywi nambal wuwaa! – “Give the money to Johnny!

You notice there are fewer words in the Guugu Yimithirr sentence. There’s no word for “to”, because the “to” is an ending stuck to the word “Johnny”.


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

to Johnny (English) = Johnnywi (Guugu Yimidhirr)

Johnnywi nambal wuwaa!. – Give the money to Johnny!

Watch, listen and practice this yourself

Summary of Lesson 1

  • We greet one person like this: Nhundu wanhtharra?  and the response is: Ganaa!
  • In Guugu Yimithirr we express meaning by putting endings on words.

Words and word-endings (suffixes) in Lesson 1

nhundu – you (one person)

wanhtharra – how

ganaa – alright

yarrga – boy

-ngun – ending for the doer in a sentence (ergative)

yarraman – horse

thabi – kicked (past tense)

nambal – money (or “stones”; the word comes from likening coins to pebbles)

wuwaa – give (command form)

-wi – suffix meaning “to” (allative)

Test yourself

Now go to the Quizlet web site to practice these words: