Alyawarr Spelling and Pronunciation

Although written records of Alyawarr go back a long way, the language has only recently been systematically written down for word lists, dictionaries and other language publications. The spelling system adopted is the result of many years of work with Alyawarr speakers, who expressed their views about which letters to use for which Alyawarr sounds. Many of the sounds of Alyawarr are different to those found in English, so it is not possible to simply spell Alyawarr words the way they ‘sound’ in English. English spelling also contains many inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. (Consider words such as ‘through’, ‘bough’, ‘cough’, ‘enough’, ‘bought’ and ‘although’, in which the sequence of letters ‘ough’ stands for six distinct sounds.)

In the spelling system used for Alyawarr and other languages in the Arandic group, English letters, or combinations of two or three letters, are used to represent the sounds of the language. Each Alyawarr sound is expressed in a unique way. Once this system has been mastered, it is possible to predict the way an Alyawarr word sounds from the spelling, something which is much more difficult to do in English.

You will notice that many Alyawarr words begin with ‘a’, although they may not be pronounced with this ‘a’ all the time. The meaning of the word is not usually affected by including the ‘a’ on the front of the word or leaving it out, though some speakers of the language may prefer to pronounce the word in one way or the other. Note that there are some words that never begin with ‘a’, such as kwaty ‘water’. There is also some variation between the way that different Alyawarr speakers pronounce common words. For example, the word for ‘bush onion’ may be pronounced both as irreyakwerr and yerrakwerr and the word for ‘long ago’ may be heard as both awank and awatnk. In this dictionary we have tried to include the most common pronunciations – others are in the Alyawarr to English Dictionary.

The Alyawarr alphabet

Below are the letters and combinations of letters used to spell Alyawarr consonant sounds, grouping similar sounds together. The rows show types of sounds that are similar in the way they are made. The columns show sounds that are made at the same point in the mouth (reading from left (the lips) to right (the back of the mouth)).

p th t yt ty rt k
m nh n yn ny rn ng
pm tnh tn ytn tny rtn kng
lh l yl ly rl
w y r h

The letters used to write Alyawarr vowels are a, e and i.


In Alyawarr there is no distinction between ‘p’ and ‘b’, between ‘t’ and ‘d’, and between ‘k’ and ‘g’, so don’t be surprised to hear a word spelt with ‘p’ pronounced with a ‘b’, or a word with ‘t’ in it pronounced with a ‘d’. The English sounds ‘p’, ‘t’ and ‘k’ have a little puff of air (called aspiration) that escapes from the mouth. This aspiration helps English speakers distinguish between ‘p’ and ‘b’, ‘t’ and ‘d’ and ‘k’ and ‘g’. Alyawarr lacks this puff of air, and so the distinction between these sets of sounds is irrelevant to Alyawarr ears. For Alyawarr spelling the letter ‘p’ was chosen instead of ‘b’, the letter ‘t’ instead of ‘d’ and ‘k’ instead of ‘g’.

Alyawarr does not have the sounds spelt in English as ‘v’, ‘s’, ‘f’, ‘z’, ‘sh’, ‘x’ and some others. When English words with these sounds in them are borrowed into Alyawarr, some speakers pronounce the sounds in the English manner. Other speakers replace them with what they perceive to be the closest equivalent Alyawarr sound. So, for example, an English word like ‘bicycle’ might sound, in Alyawarr pronunciation, like ‘pathikel’, ‘patyikel’ or ‘patyikwel’.


p, t, k, m, n, l, r, pm, tn

The Alyawarr sounds written as ‘p’, ‘t’, ‘k’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘l’ and ‘r’ sound similar to those sounds in English.


'aper'river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) 'itep'hand 'aker'meat 'amern'food (from plants and trees) 'inap'echidna (porcupine) 'ilep'axe 'areyel'seeing

With the sounds spelt as ‘pm’ and ‘tn’ the flow of air through the nose is momentarily stopped, changing the sounds ‘m’ and ‘n’ to ‘pm’ and ‘tn’ respectively. These sounds are not common in English, but can be found in the words ‘upmarket’ and ‘outnumber’ respectively. Not all Alyawarr speakers use these sounds.


'apmer'place, country 'atnem'digging stick


th, nh, tnh, lh

Alyawarr has a set of sounds that are spelt using the letters ‘th’, ‘nh’, ‘tnh’ and ‘lh’. These are called dentals, and they are pronounced with the tongue touching the back of the upper front teeth, and sometimes with the tip of the tongue protruding slightly between the teeth. To Alyawarr speakers, these sound completely different from the ‘ordinary’ ‘t’, ‘n’ and ‘l’. The ‘tnh’ sound is the same as ‘nh’, but the air flow though the nose is momentarily stopped first. Not all Alyawarr speakers use this sound.


'atherr'two 'nhenh'this, here 'tnhweyel'attacking, biting 'alheyel'going


yt, yn, ytn, yl

The sounds spelt as ‘yt’, ‘yn’, ‘ytn’ and ‘yl’ are called prepalatals, and are produced by the rising of the tongue towards the palate, which occurs during the production of the consonant sound. This means the preceding vowel sound is changed as the tongue glides upwards. Thus, ‘ayt’ sounds like ‘ate’ and ‘eyt’ sounds like ‘eat’.


'atnyemayt'witchetty grub 'alpeyt'flower


The combination ‘ayn’ sounds like the ‘ain’ in ‘pain’, and ‘eyn’ sounds like the ‘een’ in ‘been’.


'aynteyel'lying down 'arnteyn'wasp, hornet


The ‘ytn’ sound is the same as ‘yn’, but the air flow though the nose is momentarily stopped before pronouncing the ‘n’.


'aytneyel'falling 'aytningkerr'they (plural pronoun referring to people belonging to the same skin group as each other)


The sequence of sounds spelt ‘eytn’ is not common in Alyawarr.


The combination ‘ayl’ sounds like ‘ale’, and ‘eyl’ sounds like ‘eel’.


'aylayl'boomerang 'arreyl'cheek


ty, ny, tny, ly

The sounds spelt as ‘ty’, ‘ny’, ‘tny’ and ‘ly’ are called alveopalatals, and are produced by putting the tongue tip forward so it touches the backs of both sets of teeth. The blade of the tongue rests against the palate.


The ‘ty’ sound is pronounced in a somewhat similar (but subtly different) way to the ‘ch’ in ‘church’, or the ‘j’ and ‘dg’ in ‘judge’.


'tyap'edible grub 'apetyeyel'coming


The ‘ny’ sound is pronounced a bit like the sound in the middle of words such as ‘onion’, ‘senior’ and ‘canyon’. The ‘tny’ sound is the same as ‘ny’, but the air flow though the nose is momentarily stopped first. Not all Alyawarr speakers use this sound.


'anyent'one 'nyerr'shame, embarrassment 'atnyem'witchetty bush


The ‘ly’ sound is pronounced a bit like the sound in the middle of ‘million’.


'lyerrk'thick shade 'lyepelyep'intestines


rt, rn, rtn, rl

There is another group of sounds, called retroflexes, that are made with the tip of the tongue higher in the mouth than for ‘t’, ‘n’, and ‘l’, and curled back. These sounds are hard for English speakers to hear and produce properly. They have a ‘heavier’ sound than non-retroflex sounds, a bit like the way some Americans pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’. The ‘rtn’ sound is the same as ‘rn’, but the air flow though the nose is momentarily stopped first. Not all Alyawarr speakers use this sound.


'kwert'smoke 'arntap'bark (of tree) 'artneyel'crying 'arlkweyel'eating


ng, kng

The ‘ng’ sound is pronounced like the ‘ng’ in English words such as ‘sang’ and ‘lung’, but not like the ‘ng’ in ‘finger’ or ‘danger’. This sound is common at the beginning of Alyawarr words and some English-speaking people may have trouble hearing or pronouncing it in this position, as it is not found at the beginning of English words. The ‘kng’ sound is the same as ‘ng’, but the air flow though the nose is momentarily stopped first. Not all Alyawarr speakers use this sound.


'nganeyel'climbing 'ngenty'soakage 'akngey'father



The ‘h’ sound is a difficult one for non-Alyawarr speakers, and it is made when the back of the tongue approaches the back of the mouth. It is not found in English and is only in a few Alyawarr words. Alyawarr children and young adults tend not to pronounce it at all, substituting a long vowel instead. However, the words are still written with the ‘h’, whether it is actually pronounced or not by a particular speaker. Traditional speakers pronounce the vowels on either side of the ‘h’ in different syllables.


'aherr'kangaroo 'ahenty'throat



The ‘w’ sound is like the ‘w’ in English words such as ‘went’.


'warl'house 'wep'spider 'awangk'day trip, hunting trip



The ‘rr’ sound is quite different from ‘r’, which is like the ordinary English ‘r’ sound. ‘Rr’ is a hard, rolled, tapped or trilled sound, a bit like that used in Scottish English. It can be made with a quick flick of the tongue against the ridge behind the teeth, or it can be a rolled or trilled sound, made by several quick flicks of the tongue.


'arrakert'mouth 'arrkerr'barn owl



The ‘y’ sound is similar to the ‘y’ sound in the word ‘yes’, but not like that in ‘by’, ‘hymn’ or ‘silly’.


'yanh'that, there 'yerr'ant 'ayep'tar vine




All the consonants except for ‘w’ and ‘h’ have another form, where they are pronounced with rounded lips. This is written with a ‘w’ following the consonant.


'mwekart'hat 'atweyel'hitting 'anwenger'behind 'rwa'fire 'antyweyel'drinking 'lywa'shade 'kwart'egg





This is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ (but is shorter in length) or, at the beginning of words, like the ‘a’ sound in ‘alone’.


'arrakert'mouth 'walth'nulla-nulla 'amak'elbow



Remember that many Alyawarr words start with ‘a’, and that this ‘a’ is often dropped, without the meaning of the word changing.

You may hear variation in the vowel sound at the end of the word, or no vowel sound at all. This final sound is not written in the Alyawarr spelling system (even if it is present in the spoken word).

An ‘a’ is written on the end of some small words. These words must be pronounced with a final vowel, because it is in the stressed (that is, the emphasised) syllable. Examples are: ra ‘he, she, it’, rwa ‘fire’, ampa ‘child’ and ilkwa ‘big’. But other small words such as nar ‘dragon lizard’ and wep ‘spider’ are not written as nara or wepa, as the stressed vowel is not on the end of the word.

An ‘a’ is written on the end of the imperative (or command) forms of verbs where only one person is being addressed. Examples are ana! ‘sit!’, alha! ‘go!’ and akemerra! ‘get up!’. Before ‘y’ the ‘a’ is pronounced either like ‘ay’ as in ‘bay’, or like the ‘uy’ in ’buy’. These two sounds are virtually identical to the ears of Alyawarr speakers.



The vowel sounds in Alyawarr words are heavily influenced by the consonant sounds in the word, and this is especially true of ‘e’. However, it will often sound like the second vowel sound in ‘cricket’ or ‘border’.


'ilep'axe 'amern'food (from plants and trees) 'apmer'country, place


Following ‘w’ the lips are rounded, and ‘e’ sounds a bit like ‘oo’ in ‘soot’.


'kwenpay'cloud 'mwetek'car 'kwert'smoke


Before ‘y’ the ‘e’ is usually pronounced like ‘ee’ as in ‘feet’.




‘e’ is not written at the beginning of Alyawarr words.



The letter ‘i’ is most commonly found at the beginning of words, and at the beginning of some word endings (following a hyphen). It usually sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘in’ or ‘ill’.


'intey'cave 'ingkety'foot 'irrety'axe 'rtney-iylpeyel'stopping suddenly 'tyampit'billycan




Another thing that is important when pronouncing words is knowing which part of the word you emphasise, or stress. For example, in English the correct pronunciation of the word ‘ignorant’ is ‘ignorant’ rather than ‘ignorant’. A difference in stress can make a word sound weird, and in some cases, such as the difference between the two words permit (I permit you to do it) and permit (a liquor permit), a difference in stress can change the meaning of the word.

In Alyawarr the stress is usually on the vowel after the first consonant or consonant cluster.


'arrakert'mouth 'antetherrk'carpet snake 'ntelyapelyap'butterfly, moth




Many Alyawarr words are made up of lots of different parts or endings, and so can be quite long. In order to make it easier to read Alyawarr words, hyphens are put between the parts of words to break them up. Hyphens are used to break up doubled-up words such as awely-awely ‘lightning’. They are used before most, but not all, long endings (two syllables or more). For example, apmer, ‘camp’, plus the ending –itwew, ‘at’, is written as apmer-itwew, ‘at the camp’. The word arelh, ‘woman’, plus the ending –kenh, ‘belonging to’, is written as arelh-kenh, ‘the woman’s’.

(Note that –kenh and some other endings that appear to be only one syllable are in fact two. They begin with an unwritten ‘e’ sound, and so are hyphenated.)