Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara spelling and pronunciation

The Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara Alphabet

This dictionary conforms to the standard spelling system used in most quality Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara printed material. It uses a selection of 14 letters from the English alphabet, and an extra mark – the underline to indicate a retroflex – which can be used beneath some letters. Three of these symbols – g, j and the underline – always occur in association with one of the other letters.

These are the 23 letters and combinations of letters used to spell the main sounds of Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara:

a, aa, i, ii, k, l, ḻ, ly, m, n, ṉ, ng, ny, p, r, ṟ, t, ṯ, tj, u, uu, w, y

In the alphabetical listings in this dictionary the entries are listed in strictly English alphabetical order, ignoring the underline that indicates retroflex pronunciation.



a as in English ‘nut’ or ‘China’ but NOT as in ‘apple’.


'anu'went 'papa'dog


i as in English ‘Indian’ or ‘ink’ but NOT as in ‘idle’, ‘minor’.


'ini'name 'kati'take, bring


u as in English ‘put’ but NOT as in ‘umbrella’ or ‘cup’.


'upa'weak 'munu'and, plus


Sometimes you will find Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara words with a double vowel (aa, ii, or uu), usually in the first syllable. This signifies that the normal single vowel sound is stretched out to make a long sound. In English we often make this distinction between a long and a short vowel by using a different combination of letters. For example in the words ‘win’ and ‘wean’.


aa as in English ‘part’ or ‘father’.


'kaaṉka'crow 'taaṉpa'boulder


ii as in English ‘tree’ or ‘seen’.


'nyii-nyii'finch 'wiinpa'fork lightning


uu as in English ‘saw’ and sometimes ‘room’.


'yuu'windbreak 'puuṉi'blow on


In some older Pitjantjatjara literature these long vowels are sometimes written with a colon rather than with double letters, i.e. a: instead of aa, i: instead of ii, u: instead of uu. In other literature again no distinction is made between the long and the short vowels and both are written with a single letter. In literatures such as this, fluent speakers will usually know whether the vowel is long or short by the context.


Sometimes two different vowels are written together. They are pronounced by combining the two sounds.


au as in English ‘lout’ or ‘lousy’. Sometimes people write this vowel combination as awu.


'pauṉi (pawuṉi)'cooking, shooting 'anu'edible sap of tree


ai as in English ‘pay’ or sometimes ‘pie’ Sometimes people write this vowel combination as ayi.


'anu'non-meat food 'ankupai (ankupayi)'goes, walks



The 17 consonant sounds can be set out as follows, grouped according to how they are pronounced. Sometimes a combination of two letters (a ‘digraph’) is used to write a single sound – just as in English sh, th and ph each represent only a single sound.



Sounds Similar to English



as in English ‘skate’ (not heavy with air as in ‘Kate’). It may at times sound more like the g in ‘gate’.

'maku'witchetty grub 'kata'head



as in English ‘let’.

'mala'rufous hare wallaby 'ila'near



as in English ‘met’.

'mama'father 'mimpu'wooden bowl



as in English ‘not’.

'nampa'number 'wana'women's digging stick



as in English ‘speak’ (not heavy with air as in ‘peak’). It may at times sound more like the ‘b’ in ‘bat’.

'upa'weak 'papa'dog


as in English ‘rake’ or ‘hurry’. It is written with underlining to distinguish it from the other rolled ‘r’ sound. Except when it occurs at the beginning of a word it is written without an underline because the rolled ‘r’ never occurs at the beginning of a word and so the convention in written Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara is not to bother underlining the ‘ṟ’ when it starts a word, assuming that everyone knows that it is not a rolled ‘r’.

'waṟu 'fire, firewood 'rapa'confident, brave



as in English ‘stake’ (not heavy with air as in ‘take’). At times it sound more like the ‘d’ in ‘dug’.

'tili'flame, light 'piti'coolamon



as in English ‘wet’.

'wari'cold 'puwa'hit


y as in English ‘yet’.

'yara'go 'wayaṉu'quandong


Sounds Not Used in English

The three retroflex sound ‘ḻ’, ‘ṉ’, and ‘ṯ’ are pronounced differently from the corresponding letters ‘l’, ‘n’ and ‘t’. These sounds are made by curling or turning the tip of the tongue back a little towards the roof of the mouth. All these underlined letters sound like the American pronunciation of the final sound in words like ‘yarn’ and ‘cart’ and ‘snarl’ where the r is pronounced in front of the n and t and l.


'aḻa'opening, hole 'maḻu'kangaroo


'ṉanpa'belt (traditionally made of hair) 'iṉi'loose


'piṯi'hole in the ground, burrow 'waṯa'butt, foundation


Note that only the combinations ṉṯ or nt occur together, not ṉ plus t or n plus ṯ.

'tjiṉṯu'sun, day 'punti'cassia bush



is pronounced like the rolled r in Scottish. The ‘tt’ in ‘butter’, when spoken very fast, is rather like the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara r.

'ara'go! 'tarara'really quickly, fast


Two Letters to Make One Sound

Like English Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara sometimes uses two letters for one sound. Most of them are different from any sound in English so need special attention.



The ll in ‘million’ is pronounced quite like Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara ly. But it is not a combination of l plus y like in ‘tall youth’, nor has it any similarity to the ‘ly’ in ‘mainly’.'palya'good, okay




as in English ‘singer’ or ‘wringer’. However, unlike English, there are many Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara words that BEGIN with the ‘ng’ sound.

'minga'ant 'ngayulu'I



The first n in ‘onion’ is often pronounced like the ‘ny’ in Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. This combination is NOT the same as the ny in English ‘many’.

'nyawa'look 'ananyi'going



as in English ‘judge’ or ‘jam jar’, but NOT like the ch in ‘church’.

'tjitji'child 'katja'son



Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara words are always pronounced with the stress (emphasis) at the beginning of the word, on the first syllable; for example, mulapa ‘true’, ‘truly’. (In long words, other syllables are also stressed but never as strongly as the first syllable). In English there is no consistent rule and syllables other than the first are often stressed, so learning to emphasise the first part of every word and not overemphasise other syllables can be difficult for the English speaker.

Because stress can change the ending of a word to sound like a different word altogether, wrong stress can cause embarrassing misunderstandings.


'ma-pitjakuṉa?'Can I come over to you? 'ma-pitja kuna'Go away dung! 'aṉangu kutjupaku'It belongs to someone else. 'aṉangu kutju paku'One person is tired.



Pitjantjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara have many long words. This is because many endings (suffixes) may be attached to Pitjantjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara words, which in English would be separate words. For example, in English prepositions (‘from’, ‘to’, ‘at’ etc.) are separate words, whereas in Pitjantjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, equivalent suffixes such as -nguṟu ‘from’, -kutu ‘to’ and -ngka ‘at/in’ are usually attached to the end of words. For example, karukutu means ‘to the creek’. Karu is the word for ‘creek’ and kutu is an ending meaning ‘to’. Some Pitjantjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara people write these endings preceded by a hyphen or as a separate word.

Some endings are written with a hyphen separating them from the main part of a word so that the word doesn’t look too long and is thus easier to read. For example, the avoidance marker -tawara is hyphenated for this reason in the phrase minangka-tawara, ‘to avoid the rain’, which consists of mina ‘rain’, -ngka ‘the situation of’, and -tawara ‘to avoid’.

Another way that hyphens are used in Pitjantjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara is in words where two or more syllables are repeated. For example, mirin-mirinpa ‘cicada’ and kura-kura ‘crummy, ordinary’. Hyphens are also written in words where a syllable with a long vowel (‘aa’, ‘ii’ or ‘uu’) is repeated, for example, nyii-nyii ‘finch’.

These conventions follow the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary, compiled by Cliff Goddard (IAD Press, 1996).