Eastern and Central Arrernte spelling and pronunciation

Although written records of Arrernte go back for over 100 years, the language has only been systematically written down in word lists, dictionaries and other language publications since the late 1970s. Over the years, there have been a number of different attempts to arrive at a consistent way of spelling the Arrernte language. People visiting or living in Alice Springs will have noticed the variation in the spelling of Arrernte words around the town, with even the word ‘Arrernte’ spelt in quite a few different ways: Arunta, Aranda, Arrarnta and Arrente, to mention just a few. Over the last 25 years or so, Arrernte people in Alice Springs and in communities such as Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) have worked together with linguists to develop a spelling system that is consistent and reflects the sound system of the Arrernte language.


These are the letters and combinations of letters used to spell the main sounds in Arrernte (letters in capitals are emphasised):

a, e, h, i, k, kng, l, lh, m, n, ng, nh, ny, p, pm, r, rn, rl, rr, rt, rtn, t, th, thn, tn, tny, ty, u, w, y


In Arrernte there is no distinction between ‘p’ and ‘b’, ‘t’ and ‘d’, or ‘k’ and ‘g’, so even though you won’t see ‘b’, ‘t’ or ‘g’ written, you may hear a word spelt with ‘p’ pronounced as a ‘b’, and so on – there is no meaningful distinction between these sounds in Arrernte.

Each of the consonant sounds, except ‘h’ and ‘w’, can also have a ‘w’ added to form another, rounded-consonant sound. They are called rounded consonants because to make these sounds the lips must be rounded. You can hear rounding in the English ‘w’ sound, as in the words ‘window’, ‘quick’, and ‘equip’.


'ateme (unrounded t)'burst or split open 'atweme (rounded t)'hit or kill


If there is another syllable after a rounded consonant, the following vowel sounds like the ‘oo’ in ‘pool’.


'apwerte (pronounced uh-PUT-uh)'rock, hill


But if a rounded consonant occurs in the last part of the word (that is, just before the final letter of the word), then the consonant and vowel sound like ‘ua’ in the English word ‘qualm’.


'ampwe (ump-WA)'old, elderly


The following is a simple guide to the way Arrernte words are pronounced. For a more in-depth discussion refer to the introduction to the Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary or, better still, try and practice some Arrernte words with an Arrernte speaker. The only way you can get a feel for the melody and rhythm is by listening to and speaking the language.



Bilabial sounds

These sounds are made with the lips.


m sounds the same in Arrernte as it does in English.




p sounds like ‘p’ in the English word ‘spot’, but not like the English word ‘pot’, the difference being that the ‘p’ in ‘pot’ has a little puff of air which escapes when the sound is made, where the ‘p’ in ‘spot’ does not.


'apere'river red gum tree


pm sounds a bit like ‘pm’ in the English word ‘top-most’, though Arrernte ‘pm’ is really one sound rather than a ‘p’ followed by an ‘m’. Sounds where the air is stopped on the first letter and released on the second letter, like in the sound ‘pm’ are called pre-stopped nasals. One of the examples below illustrates an instance of where a ‘w’ is added to the ‘pm’, making a rounded consonant, but the ‘pmw’ combination of letters is still pronounced as a single sound.


'apmere'country, place 'apmwe'snake


w when written on its own in a word sounds is like the ‘w’ in English words such as ‘wet’.


'werte'hello, greeting


Lamino-interdental sounds

These sounds are made with the tongue touching the back of the upper front teeth, and sometimes with the tip of the tongue protruding slightly between the teeth.


lh, nh, th, thn/tnh are completely different from ordinary English sounds ‘l’, ‘n’ and ‘th’. To learn how to say the sounds lh, nh, and th try doing the following: Say the English word ‘the’ and notice where your tongue is. Now attempt to say ‘the’ with your tongue in the same position but do not let the air come out gradually between your tongue and teeth (as it does when you say ‘the’ normally). Instead, let the air out all at once as if you were saying a d sound. Try the same technique with the lh and nh sounds.


'alheme'go 'nhenhe'here


th is close to the English sound ‘th’ in ‘there’.




thn/tnh are two alternative ways of writing the same sound. These two sounds are made with the tongue protruding slightly from between the teeth almost as though someone were lisping when they said the word.




Apico-alveolar sounds

These sounds are made with the tip of the tongue touching the hard ridge behind the upper teeth.


l, n and t are more or less the same as the corresponding sounds in English.


'aleme'liver 'aneme'sit 'atere'fear, fright


tn is another pre-stopped nasal, and the sound is a little like the ‘tn’ found in the English word ‘chutney’. Remember that it is really one sound rather than simply a ‘t’ followed by an ‘n’.


'tneme'stand 'atneme'digging stick


rr is quite different from ‘r’ which is like the ordinary Australian English ‘r’ sound. Arrernte ‘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. It is usually more like a rapid tap sound, unlike a true rolled sound.


'arreme'lice 'arrentye'devil, monster


Apico-post alveolar (retroflex) sounds

These sounds are made with the tip of the tongue curled back in the mouth.


r, rl, rn, rt, rtn

These sounds are hard for English speakers to hear and produce properly. They have a heavier sound than non-retroflex sounds ‘l’, ‘n’ and ‘t’ and, a bit like the way some Americans pronounce the word ‘water’. The ‘r’ sound is like the normal Australian English soft ‘r’.


'kwerte'smoke 'arne'tree, stick 'artneme'cry 'arlte'day 'areme'see


Lamino-palatal sounds

These sounds are produced by thrusting the tongue so it touches the backs of both sets of teeth. The blade of the tongue rests against the front part of the roof of the mouth.


ly sounds somewhat similar to the sound in the middle of ‘million’.


'lyepelyepe'intestines 'ulye'shade


ny sounds somewhat similar to the sound in the middle of words such as ‘onion’ ‘senior’ and ‘canyon’.


'anyente'one 'nyingke'zebra finch


ty sounds somewhat similar to the ‘ch’ in the English word ‘church’, or the ‘j’ in ‘judge’.


'apetyeme'come 'tyape'grub


tny is made with a ‘ty’ sound so close before a ‘ny’ sound that it is really one sound.


'tnyeme'dig 'atnyeme'fall


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


'yaye'elder sister 'ayepe'tar-vine


Dorso-velar (peripheral) sounds

These sounds are made with the back part of the tongue held up to the back part of the mouth.


h in Arrernte is a difficult sound to make. It is similar to the Scottish pronunciation of the ‘ch’ in the word ‘loch’ and is only used a few Arrernte words. Arrernte children and some young adults tend not to pronounce it, making the ’a’ sound longer than normal instead. Regardless of whether or not the ‘h’ is actually pronounced, the words are still written with the ‘h’.


'aherre'kangaroo 'ahentye'throat


k in Arrernte is very close to the English ‘k’ or ‘g’ sound as in ‘kin’ or ‘girl’. As mentioned before, there is no meaningful distinction between ‘k’ and ‘g’ in Arrernte.




ng is pronounced like the ‘ng’ in English words such as ‘sang’ and ‘lung’, but not like the ‘ng’ in ‘finger’ or ‘danger’.


'ayenge'I 'ngangkere'traditional healer


kng is a blend of the ‘k’ sound and the ‘ng’ sound, made by blocking the flow of air, then releasing it through the nose, a bit like a half-formed sneeze. English speakers typically find it difficult to pronounce this sound at the beginning of a word.


'alknge'eye 'kngwarraye'one of the skin names


Rounded consonants

As mentioned above, 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.


'apwerte'hill, rock 'kwarte'egg 'atweme'hit, kill 'akngwelye'dog



The vowel sounds in Arrernte words are heavily influenced by the consonant sounds around them.


a is typically pronounced like the ‘a’ in the English word ‘father’ or, at the beginning of words like the ‘a’ sound in ‘alone’, but not like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’.


'anatye'bush potato 'Arrernte'


a sounds a bit different when it comes before ‘rl’, ‘rn’, ‘rt’  or ‘rtn’ and is pronounced more like the ‘ei’ in the English word ‘eight’.




Many Arrernte words begin with the letter ‘a’, although this ‘a’ may not be pronounced all the time. The meaning of the word remains the same whether the initial ‘a’ is pronounced or not, though this is not always the case.


'tnyeme'dig 'atnyeme'fall 'mpe'let’s go 'ampe'child


It should be noted that there are some words that never begin with ‘a’, for example kwatye ‘water’.


e in the middle of a word often sounds like the ‘e’ sound in the English word ‘hermit’.


'merne'food 'apmere'country, place


However, when ‘e’ follows ‘w’ the lips are rounded, and it sounds like ‘oo’ in ‘soot’ (except when the ‘we’ comes at the end of the word).


'kwerte'smoke 'apwerte'rock, hill


All Arrernte words end with the letter ‘e’, although it is not always pronounced. Rather, if the next word begins with a vowel, the final vowel sound is dropped so that the words flow smoothly together.


i is often used at the beginning of words, or following a hyphen. It sometimes sounds similar to ‘i’ in the English words ‘in’ or ‘ill’.


'inteye'cave 'tyampite'billy can


Or it might sound like the ‘e’ in ‘bed’.


'ngkwinhe'yours 'utyipme'rib


If ‘i’ is followed by ‘ly’, ‘my’, ‘rl’, ‘rn’, ‘rt’, ‘rtn’, ‘ty’, or ‘tny’ the sound is slightly different, and it will sound more like the ‘ee’ in ‘feet’ or ‘eel’.


'ilweme (ill-OOM-a)'die 'irlweme (eel-OOM-a)'take something off 'arritnye (uh-REET-nya)'name 'ampinye (um-BEEN-ya)'side, area


u is pronounced differently depending on whether it is at the beginning of a word or in the middle. At the beginning of a word it may sound a bit like the ‘u’ in the English word ‘put’ or the ‘oo’ in ‘oops’.




When ‘u’ is in the middle of a word, and therefore stressed, it sounds something like the ‘au’ in the English word ‘caught’, or the ‘or’ in ‘port’.


'apurrke'tired 'apurte'clump


When pronouncing some words you need to be careful because it can sometimes be hard to hear the difference between certain sounds. In most instances, the context in which the word is used will give you a clue as to which sound is the correct one. Other times, it can be helpful to look at the mouth and lips of the person saying the word and watch to see if they are rounding their lips or not, as in the difference between the next two words..


'apwerte (uh-PUT-a an unrounded sound)'rock, hill 'apurte (uh-PORT-a a rounded sound)'clump


Other vowel sounds in Arrernte

There are some combinations of vowels that have a different sound to the sounds described above.


ay sounds like the ‘ie’ in the English word ‘lie’ or in some words like ‘ay’ in ‘away’.


'alaye (uh-LIE-a or uh-LAY-a)'lake, sea 'yaye (YAY-a)'elder sister


When it is part of an imperative (command) verb, ‘ay’ always sounds like the ‘ay’ in ‘away’ and the final ‘e’ sound is not pronounced (as it is in the above examples).


'apetyaye! (uh-PITCH-aye)'come here! 'anaye! (uh-NEIGH)'sit!


ey sounds like ‘ee’ in the English word ‘bee’.


'meye (me-ya)'mother 'urreye (oo-REE-ya)'boy


aw sounds a bit like ‘ow’ in the English word ‘how’.


'ulyawe (‘ool-YOW-a’)'pigweed


ew sounds a bit like ‘ow’ in the English word ‘snow’ – the lips are rounded when making this sound.


'anewe (uh-NO-a)'spouse



Another thing that is important when pronouncing words in any language is knowing on which part of the word the stress or emphasis goes. For example in English, the correct pronunciation of the word ‘ignorant’ is ‘ignorant’ rather than ‘ignorant’. The placement of stress in Arrernte words does not change the meaning, as it sometimes can in English, but incorrect stress will make words sound strange.

In Arrernte the stress is usually on the first vowel after a consonant that comes at the beginning of a word.

Examples (with the stress written in capitals):

'urInpe'hot 'apEtyeme'come


If the only vowel after a consonant would be the last vowel in the word, the main stress usually goes on the vowel right at the beginning of a word.





Many Arrernte words are quite long. In order to make it easier to read Arrernte, Arrernte people decided to put hyphens between certain parts of words to break them up. For example it is more difficult to read Mparntwarenyekenhe than it is to read Mparntwe-arenye-kenhe (Alice Springs-originating from-belonging to).


In practice, the use of hyphens is inconsistent. Sometimes you will find that the same word may be written with a hyphen, as two separate words, or as a single word. In the example below, ‘having water’ is written correctly each time.


'kwatye-akerte'having water

kwatye akerte having water

kwatyakerte having water


Combinations of short words and short endings that begin with vowels are usually written as a single word. For example, re (he/she/it) +arle becomes rarle.