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spacer Garay Guwaala • Talk the Language

Dhaalan • Pronunciation

Below is a general guide to Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay pronunciation followed by a longer, more detailed discussion on pages 2 and 3. It owes a lot to the material in Peter Austin’s Dictionary of Gamilaraay and to comments from John Hobson, but they are not responsible for any errors in the final product.

Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay are  being relearnt and rebuilt, and it will not be possible to reproduce exactly the sounds that traditional people made as we don’t have those people to listen to us and correct us. However, with effort and care we will get closer to those sounds, and our Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay will sound less like English and more like it should.

Note that in the GY writing system two letters (such as dh, ng and dj) can be used to represent one sound, in the same way that English uses 'ph' in 'elephant' or 'th' in 'thin'.  Also, many people used to speaking English have trouble saying the ng sound at the start of a word and rr. But, with practice, you will master them.

GY spelling Similar English sound
short vowel, as in 'cart' or 'cut', but sounds like 'o' in 'cot' after w
long vowel, as in 'card'
short vowel, as in 'fit' or 'feet'
long vowel, as in 'feed'
short vowel, as in 'soot' or 'suit'
long vowel, as in 'sued'
as in 'bay' or 'hay'
as in 'buy' (but sometimes like 'oy', as in 'boy')
like 'b' in 'bin' or 'p' in 'spin' but never like 'p' in 'pin'
like 'd' in 'duck' or 't' in 'tuck' but never like 't' in 'stuck'
like 'g' in 'git' or 'k' in 'kit' but never like 'k' in 'skit' (That is, there is no significant puff of air with any of b, d or g.)
like English 'n' but with the tip of your tongue between your teeth
like English 'd' and 't', but with the tip of your tongue between your teeth
like 'n' in ‘onion’, but with the tip of your tongue against your bottom teeth, and the top of your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth
like 'judge' or 'church' and even like the 'ch' in 'catcher', but the tongue position is the same as for ny
a single sound, as in 'sing', not two sounds, as in 'finger'
a rolled 'r', as some Scottish or German people say it. Often, at the end of a word, it can sound like the 'd' in 'bed'
The following sounds are pronounced much the same as in English
though wu at the start of a word is mostly pronounced like u
though yi at the start of a word is mostly pronounced like i

The sounds of Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay
You can read more about the GY pronunciation system on pages 6-8 of the Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay Yuwaalayaay Dictionary. It's important to realise that any written description of sound is limited, so take the description as a general guide, not as a precise description. The only way to really learn about the sounds is to listen to them, so to learn good GY pronunciation you need to use material from the archival tapes (such as the stories reproduced on this website at Guwaabal), and listen to it carefully. Even that material is limited because the speakers had sometimes lost their teeth, or were remembering a language that they had not used for many years.

GY uses many sounds that are also used in English, and others that are not. Our mouths and ears are trained to the language(s) we know, so you may have to get used to making new sounds and noticing differences that you didn’t notice before.

Because the spelling system for GY is fairly new it is a lot more consistent and so a lot easier to read than English. Generally, there is only one letter or pair of letters for each sound. In English the pronunciation of many words has changed over the centuries but the spelling has not, and so the spelling system is inconsistent and quite difficult to learn. (Think of the different sounds represented by 'ough' in 'plough', 'through', 'cough', 'rough' and 'bought'.) In GY the pronunciation of words has not changed recently, so the spelling system is very friendly, and does not take long to get used to.

The GY sounds that are similar to English include the three vowels a, i and u, and the consonants l, m, n, r, w and y. In GY (and in most Aboriginal languages) there is little or no distinction between the sounds made by English 'b' or 'p'. You can use either, but we have chosen to use the letter b in GY spelling. Similarly there is no distinction between 'd' and 't' (we have used d) or between 'g' and 'k' (we have used g).

Variation in pronunciation
In any language there will be variation in pronunciation. Sometimes this variation is dialectal: people in one place or family might pronounce things differently from others. Sometimes it depends on whether the person is speaking casually or formally, slowly or quickly. Listen to the many different ways people say 'going to' in English (e.g. 'They’re gunna do it.'). So it is perfectly normal to have these variations but, to begin with, it is better to try to develop standard GY pronunciation. If you try to talk it casually you will probably introduce patterns of casual English rather than casual Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay.

New sounds and spellings
There are some sounds that people who only speak English have difficulty learning to distinguish and find hard to make. These include dh, nh, dj, ny, rr and also ng at the start of a word. As well, the way unstressed vowels are pronounced in GY is very different to the English pattern.

Remember that ng is always one soft sound, as in 'sing'. If you see ngg then this is two sounds together (ng and g) and so has a hard pronunciation, more like English 'finger'. A full stop between the letters n and g (n.g) means that there are two distinct sounds (n and g, as in 'turnkey' or 'sun-glasses'), not one sound, as in ng.

It is a good idea to practise these by yourself somewhere—in the shower or when driving or walking. You can practise ng by saying 'singinginginging . . ', and then gradually dropping the 'si' at the start. For nga say 'singanganga . . .' and once again try to drop the 'si'. For rr try to make machine gun or engine noises.

The GY sounds nh and dh are similar to English 'n' and 'd' but are both made with your tongue between your teeth. The sound dh should never be pronounced like English 'th'.

The GY sounds ny and dj are both made with the tip of your tongue against your bottom teeth, and the flat part of your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth. You can practise ny by acting like a cheeky child and saying 'nya-nya-nya-nya-nya'.

When a nh is followed by a dh the nhdh that would result is simplified and written ndh  (too hard!). Similarly nydj is written ndj.

Vowels are sounds that can be made continuously with the mouth open. There are three vowels in GY and they are written a, i and u. When the sound is made for a longer period it is called a long vowel, and these are written aa, ii and uu. There is some variation in the way vowels are pronounced. Vowels are particularly influenced by the sounds immediately before or after them. So a is often like the 'u' in the English word 'cut' or the 'ar' in 'cart', but is different after w, when it often sounds like 'o' in 'cot'. There are other less noticeable changes to this sound, often depending on the sounds that precede or follow it.

In most cases the difference between long and short vowels is very important because it makes a difference to the meaning of the word. In the words below, vowel length always affects the meaning of the word:

milan one
milaan a type of yam
dhurri will spear
dhuurri will crawl
yili lip
yiili savage

The GY word gabaa is used by some old people for 'white person', and they use gaba for 'good'. Some young people do not know the 'good' meaning of gaba and use gaba to mean 'white person'. This is an example of a language changing so that you no longer need to make a sound distinction. At times vowel length does not seem to make a difference to the meaning. In some of the recordings the word for 'rock' is pronounced as both maayama and mayama.

Unstressed vowels
In English, unstressed vowels tend to be said in a way that loses a lot of the distinction between the vowels. For instance when most people say 'principal', the second 'i' and the 'a' don’t sound much like 'i' or 'a', but more like the 'er' in 'butter'. However in Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay, and in many Aboriginal languages, the vowels retain their basic sound much more strongly. When you say bigibila each of the 'i' sounds and the 'a' needs to be pronounced clearly. Most people need lots of practice to use the GY pattern rather than the English pattern for pronouncing vowels. 

To recap, here are a few examples of GY pronunciation:

GY word Meaning 'English' spelling
gagil bad guggil (but with an ‘i’ sound in the second syllable)
walaay camp wol-eye  (emphasis on ‘eye’)
wamba mad womba (keep the ‘a’ sound in the second syllable)
yinarr woman inarr or inud
wuulaa bearded dragon oohlaa (both syllables long and stressed)

GY words can begin with b, m, dh, nh, g, ng, w and y and a small number of words may begin with dj and ny. GY words can end with a, aa, i, ii, u, uu, n, l, rr and y. One exception recorded is maang, meaning 'message stick'. This could well be a borrowed word, possibly from Wiradjuri, since that language uses a final ng.

Stress patterns
GY has patterns for stressing or emphasising parts of a word. The stressed part of the word is emphasised or said a bit louder, and maybe for a bit longer. In English the first syllable of the word 'happy' is stressed, but in 'beside' it is the second syllable that is stressed.

A syllable is a part of a word that contains a vowel, such as 'ri-ver', 'ju-ve-nile', 'al-pha-be-ti-cal'. In GY each syllable begins with a consonant and contains one vowel, such as: ga-ba, wam-ba.

For the great majority of words in GY the rules are as follows. Firstly, you need to work out where the main emphasis goes. When there are single vowels only in the word the emphasis falls on the first syllable. Thus, gaba, guni and wambanhiya. However, when there are double vowels in the word they are emphasised. Thus, bubaa, dhaadhaa, birralii and yaama. But remember: unstressed vowels always remain recognisible, unlike many instances in English.

Secondly, you need to work out the lesser emphasis. This occurs on the syllables two to the left or right of the main emphasis. The underlining shows the lesser emphasis in the two words wambanhiya and birralii burrulaa.

This introduction to the pronunciation of Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay will get you started, and is enough to help you with the language lessons provided on this website. Don't forget to listen to the transcripts and listen to the stories in Guwaabal to improve your pronunciation.

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