Ngan’gi Sounds and Writing



Despite the differences between them, we are still able to write both Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri using the same set of letters. This is because they both contain the same alphabet of 23 contrastive sounds. Traditionally Ngan'gi speakers did not use writing. The system of writing Ngan'gi used in this dictionary was developed by Nick Reid in the early 1980s, and over the years underwent a few modifications introduced by either Nick or Marrfurra. So far the writing of Ngan'gi has been the small-scale personal writings of Marrfurra, Nick and a few of the Nauiyu schoolteachers. With the continuing expansion of language programs in community schools, and advances in adult education, we hope that the pool of Ngan'gi writers and readers keeps growing!


Here's a quick introduction to the sounds and letters you need to know about. The Ngan'gi writing system uses a unique symbol for each sound. There is none of the doubling up that goes on in English with letters like k and c being used for the same sound (in e.g. cow and key), so we feel that spelling in Ngan'gi should be easier than it is in English. Speech sounds are generally divided into two groups called vowels and consonants.


Simple vowels


Vowels are sounds in which the air travels up your throat and out of your mouth without any obstruction. They contrast with consonants which are sounds made by obstructing the airflow with your tongue, teeth or lips. We make different vowel sounds by altering the shape of the inside of our mouths, so the air that flows through has a different sound. There are two ways that we alter the shape of the inside of our mouths. Firstly we can open or close our mouths to make the size of the hollow part bigger or smaller. Secondly we can move our tongue up and down, or backwards and forwards to change the shape of the hollow part. Ngan'gi has just these four simple vowel sounds; Ngan'gi's 4 simple vowel sounds

a low back vowel as in fun, but
e low front vowel as in bed,get
i high front vowel as in hit, sit
u high back vowel as in put, full
Note: Sometimes e may sound like the a in cat. This happens when it is the first vowel in a word, particularly when it follows a p or k. Remember that we write it e all the same. eg. Pendela 'a placename'

Here are some Ngan’gi words using these 4 vowel sounds.

a     e  
mamak goodbye!   elele curlew
daba arm   eke uncle
data shoulder   peke tobacco
walfaga buffalo   wembem house
wamanggal wallaby   dede country
ngalwangga short-necked turtle   memekem floating grass
i     u  
nyinyi you   kukuk! wait!
minmi no!   tyusyuk sick
pigipigi pig   muk a sore
wityi a little while   kukuluk the flu
fiti heat   wurmulurru a crippled woman
miyi bushtucker   kunumbut white ochre


Diphthongs (said as dip–thongs) The four simple vowels discussed above have a constant quality – that is, they can be pronounced without moving the tongue, or changing the size or shape of the hollow space inside your mouth. In contrast, other types of vowels require some kind of movement. Try saying English ‘buy’ and you should be able to feel that to finish off the vowel sound you have to make some change to your mouth-shape. In fact, you begin the vowel sound with your tongue low and pulled back (like a). To finish this sound off you must push your tongue into a front, high position (like i). These kinds of vowels that aren’t constant, but shift from one shape to another, are called diphthongs. In Ngan'gi there are three diphthongs, which we write as ay, uy and aw. Lets look at these in turn.


Ngan'gi's 3 diphthong sounds

ay This sounds like the vowel in the English word ‘I’. Try saying these words:
  wakay, ngerim-way, yakay finished, I finished it. Look out!
uy This sounds like the oy in the English word ‘boy’. Try saying these words:
  damuy, puy!, wirribem buy, muywasyan eye, go away!, She’s pregnant, eyebrow
aw This sounds like the ow in the English word ‘cow’. Try saying this word:
  kaw, or kakaw come here!


None of these diphthongs are very common, in fact kakaw is the only known word that has the diphthong aw.


In addition to these diphthongs we should note another type of vowel distortion that occurs. Ngan'gi has four Tongue Body (palatal) consonants ty, sy, ny and y, and when you move your tongue into this position it tends to distort the quality of the vowel that comes before it, and makes it sound like a diphthong. This is most common where palatal sounds are preceded by the vowel a. Try saying these words:


adany shark   ngatypirr distant
wasyan body hair   dawayirr forehead


In all of these examples the a vowel sounds like the diphthong ay. However because this pronunciation is predictable from the presence of the following palatal sound, we know that in these cases we do not need to write the vowel as a diphthong. For instance, we would not write ‘shark’ as adayny, but simply as adany.


Although a is significantly distorted before Tongue Body sounds, we only hear a little bit of distortion with e and u. Ask a Ngan'gi speaker to say the following words, and see if you can hear the slight difference in the vowel quality of e and u, where e before y sounds a bit like the diphthong in English ‘pay’, and where u before ny or ty sounds a bit like the diphthong in English ‘boy’.


wereyi my brother
Neyeri placename
mawuny ironwood tree
yenim-wuty he poured it out
Note: If a vowel gets diphthongised because it's followed by a Tongue Body (palatal) sound (ty, ny, sy, or y), then we don't bother writing it as a diphthong, just as a simple vowel.




Consonants are sounds made by obstructing the airflow with your tongue, teeth or lips. Some consonants are so obstructive that they block off airflow altogether, others just make a partial disruption of the flow. They contrast with vowels which involve uninterrupted airflow. We make different consonant sounds by using our lips and tongue to create different kinds of obstructions. Ngan'gi has the 19 consonant sounds shown in the table below.


Ngan'gi's 19 Consonant sounds arranged alphabetically

b as in big
d as in do
f as in fat or vat
g as in go or sometime as in German 'Bach'
k as in car
l as in light
m as in me
n as in no
ng As in sing
ny as in canyon
p as in pig
r as in rice
rr a bit like the ‘rolled’ rr in Scottish English (no real Australian English equivalent)
s a bit like the s in measure, (but more retroflexed, so no real English equivalent)
sy as in shy or gendarme
t as in tin
ty a bit like ch in chew (but not an exact equivalent)
w as in win
y as in yellow
Note: the Ngan'gi writing system does not make any use of the English letters c, h, j, o, q, v, x or z.


Tongue Positions for Consonants


For many Aboriginal languages, linguists describe the differences between consonants by dividing them up into groups depending on what part of the roof of the mouth the tongue strikes. They talk about ‘dental’ sounds, ‘alveolar’ sounds, ‘palatal’ sounds etc. All these words are names for parts of the roof of the mouth. Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri are a little different to the majority of Aboriginal languages in that the precise part of the roof of the mouth that the tongue touches is not very important. What is important is the shape of the tongue. For instance a sound like ty can be made with the tongue hitting the roof of the mouth almost anywhere it can reach. It can be far forward against or between the teeth, or far back behind the upper teeth. Where it hits doesn’t matter, it is the broad flattened shape of the tongue that makes this sound distinctive. We call these 'Tongue Body’ sounds. Contrasting with these sounds are ‘Tongue Tip’ sounds, which are made by the tongue tip hitting the roof of the mouth, and 'Tongue Back' sounds, which are made by raising the back of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Here is a list of all the consonants in Ngan'gi divided up into tongue shape types (plus ‘lip’ sounds which don’t use the tongue).


Ngan'gi's 19 Consonant sounds arranged by place of obstruction

Lips Tongue tip Tongue Body Tongue back
p t ty k
b d    
f s sy g
m n ny ng
w l y  


Try saying these sounds and see if you can feel that the tongue is in a similar shape for each group. We'll discuss each column in turn;


Lip sounds


In Ngan'gi there are 5 Lip sounds. Three of these, p, b, and m are made by blocking off the airflow with your two lips pressed together - just as their corresponding English sounds are.


The next lip sound is f, which can be made by squeezing air between the upper teeth and lower lip, as in English f. However Ngan'gi can vary from its English equivalent in two significant ways. Firstly it can be either voiceless or voiced (i.e. sounding like an f or a v). And secondly, older speakers of Ngan'gi will be more likely to pronounce this as a bilabial fricative (i.e. made by squeezing air between the upper and lower lips, without direct involvement of the teeth).


The last lip sound is w, and it sounds like the English w in ‘win’. Listen for these 5 Lip sounds in these words


p   b   f   m   w  
pipiri brain bi axe fungguli sugarbag mamak goodbye! wembem house
peke tobacco burra pelican fetyen blood mimuy long yam were brother
pugali cousin bafun ash,dust finy sweat mimenem billygoat plum walipan fishnet


Tongue Tip Sounds


In Ngan'gi there are 7 Tongue Tip sounds. Two of these, t and d, are made by bringing the tip of your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, usually hitting somewhere behind the upper teeth. Sometimes the tongue tip hits so far back that it is curled over backwards. Linguists call this curled-tip type of sound ‘retroflex’, but for us it is just another Tongue Tip sound.


The s sound is a very rare sound in Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri and a very unusual one. There is really nothing like it in English. Try saying the English 's' in 'measure', but with your tongue tip curled back as far as you can.


The n, r, and l sounds are all very similar to their English equivalents. The n sounds much like the n sound that we have in Australian English, in words like ‘no’, or ‘nice’. The r sounds much like the r sound that we have in Australian English in words like ‘red’, or ‘rice’. The l sound is just like the English l in ‘like’, or ‘feel’.


The rr is a sound that is often called a ‘rolled r’ or a ‘trilled r’. It is just like the ‘trilled r’ in Indonesian or Italian. While we don't use this sound in Australian English, you can hear a very similar sound in some dialects of English such as Scottish English or Welsh English. Listen for these 7 Tongue Tip sounds in these words.


t     d  
tundumuy secret   dede country
ngete antbed   dagum dew, mist
fiti heat   dederri back
s     n  
asiminmin small flying fox   nem he, him
awisamuy white crane   nelen road
ngirrsibem we all are standing   nimi forked stick for carrying fish
r     rr  
kuri water   yewirr stick
piri pus   mirri sun
detyeri ear   durrmu paint
wirifi coolamon   ngurrp emu
lurruty fast      
walkity flower      
aliyi fat      
alalirr edible meat      


Tongue Body Sounds



In Ngan'gi there are 4 Tongue Body sounds, ty, sy, ny and y. Listen for these 4 Tongue Body sounds in these words.


ty     sy  
tyi breast   syirre behind
tyabuty grandpa   asyapul egg white
tyulut hook spear   wasyan body hair
ny     y  
nyinyi you   yagama wooomera
menyirr sand   yu yes
awiny bream   yenggi fire


The sound ty is made by raising the tongue body to the roof of the mouth. We don’t have the exact same sound in English, but the sound that is usually written as ch (in 'chin') is quite close. Technically English ch is actually a close sequence of two sounds (the stop 't' released into the fricative 'sh'), whereas the Ngan'gi Tongue Body stop ty is made with a single movement of the tongue body against the roof of the mouth.


In the case of Lip sounds and Tongue Tip sounds, we find two stops, one voiceless and one voiced. However there is no voiced Tongue Body stop in Ngan'gi. If there were, we would probably want to write it as 'dy' (it would sound like j in English ‘jam’). In fact there is one place where we do hear a sound like English j. In words like dawanytyirr 'armpit' and minytyangari 'lily stalk', where ty comes after an ny within a word, then the cluster of consonants nyty is voiced all the way through and sounds like 'nydy' (or like the 'nge' in an English word like 'hinge').

Note: Even when ty follows a ny and has the voiced sound of nydy, we still write it as nyty not nydy.


The sound written as sy can sound like the English 'sh'. As was true for f, this sound is sometimes voiced, sounding a bit like the g in English ‘rouge’. We still write it as sy though.


The sound ny is made by holding the body of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, just as you would to make a ty, and letting the air escape out of your nose. In Ngan'gi we write this sound with two letters, ny, but remember that it is a single sound (not an n sound followed by a vowel, as in English ‘any’). This sound occurs in English in words like ‘canyon’, and ‘new’, though as you can see it is spelt rather differently in each word. In English this sound never appears at the end of a word or syllable, so it can be quite hard for English speakers to hear it there in Ngan'gi. Often the best guide to its presence is the distortion of the preceding vowel (see the discussion of diphthongs above). If you can’t hear the final ny in adany ‘shark’, you can tell that it must be there because of the diphthongized quality of the a that comes before it. Less easy to hear is the final ny in awiny ‘bream’, because does not get distorted by Tongue Body sounds as much as a does.


Finally, the Ngan'gi sound y is just like the English y in ‘yellow’.


Tongue Back sounds


These are made by raising the back of the tongue up to touch the roof of the mouth. In Ngan'gi 3 sounds are made this way: k,g and ng. Listen for these 3 Tongue Back sounds in these words.


g     k  
gagu meat   kukuluk flu
waga urine   kuri water
agarrfuri skin   kekulkul heart
ngambaty tide      
ngete antbed      
ngityirr ground, dirt      


It is tempting to assume that the difference between the sounds k and g in Ngan'gi is just like it is in English. This is not really true, so here we’ll try to explain the difference.


In English the main difference between k and g is ‘voicing’, ie whether your voicebox is vibrating or not. Try saying ‘came’ and ‘game’. Both k and g are stops (ie they block off the airflow), the difference is that your voicebox starts vibrating sooner when you say ‘game’, and later when you say ‘came’.


However in Ngan'gi things are a bit different. K is pretty much the same as it is in English, i.e. it is a stop made without the voicebox vibrating. However g is quite different. Sometimes g can be like English g (ie. a voiced stop), but most of the time it is very like a fricative. This means that the tongue doesn’t really block off the airflow effectively. Another difference to English is that g in Ngan'gi can be either voiced or voiceless. It's usually voiceless at the beginning of words, and voiced in the middle of words. We Ngan'gi writers find the best way to describe the difference is that k is 'hard', but g is 'soft'. Try getting a native speaker of Ngan'gi to say two words like;


kinyi here
guniguni old woman


and see if you can hear this difference for yourself. This is one of the hardest differences for English speakers learning Ngan'gi sounds to master.


The sound ng is made with the back of the tongue raised up and pressed against the back of the roof of the mouth, just as it is for k and g, and air escapes through the nose. English speakers are likely to have problems saying ng at the beginning of a word, because in English it only occurs in the middle or at the end. In Ngan'gi this sound occurs frequently at the beginning of words so it is essential to master it. Here is an exercise to help you pronounce initial ng if you are not a native Ngan'gi speaker.



Take an English word like ‘singer’. Repeat it to yourself several times, and as you do so, shift the stress from the first syllable (SInger) to the second syllable (siNGER). Keep saying it with the stress on the second syllable, gradually making the 'si-' fainter until you drop it out altogether, so you are left just saying the ‘–NGER’. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t make this sound straight away – it takes some practise.Focus on the contrast between word initial n and ng in these two sets of Ngan'gi pronouns:

ngagarri                  us two      

ngagurrnagarri       you two 

ngagurr                  us all

nagurr                    you all


Sorting out ng and n’g and ngg


In this way of writing Ngan'gi we are using the two letters ng to write the single sound which we have called a Tongue Back nasal sound. There are a few words where we find the sequence of n (the Tongue Tip nasal sound) followed by g (the Tongue Back stop sound). If we write this sequence of n plus g as ng, it will be confused with the symbol ng that we are using to write the Tongue Back nasal. The way we get around this problem is this. When ng represents the two sounds n (Tongue Tip nasal) followed by g (Tongue Back stop), we write them with an apostrophe in between. This cluster of sounds is actually quite rare, but it happens to occur in a few quite common words. Try saying these three words:


ngan’gi word, story
din’girri a dance style
yin’gini raw
Note: When saying these words make sure you put the n at the end of the first syllable and the g at the beginning of the second syllable, like this, ngan ‘ gi and din ‘ girri. You might find it useful to think of this sequence of sounds as like the n + g in English 'on going'.


Now that you've distinguished ng from n'g, it is important to distinguish both these from the sequence of sounds written as ngg. This represents the Tongue Back nasal ng followed by the Tongue Back stop (the same sound sequence as the 'ng' in English 'finger'). This is a very common sequence of sounds, so try saying it in the following words.


wangga a dance style
yenggi fire
yirringgu kidneys
anggirrkimi ribs
yeninggisyi canoe
fungguli sugarbag
Note: All three of these possibilities;  the single sound ng; the sound sequence n’g; the sound sequence ngg are all contrasted in the language name Ngan’gikurunggur. Practise saying this aloud, making sure that the ng, n’g and ngg are each pronounced correctly.


Double sounds in Ngan'gi


In many languages you sometimes find two of the same sounds next to each other within a single word. For example this happens in English when you join up two words like 'night' and 'time' to form the compound word 'nighttime', which has the sound 't' twice (or at least one 't' held closed for longer). In English these double consonants are fairly insignificant, so if you said 'nighttime' with just one 't' (or a short 't'), then its not going to be much of a 'mistake'. However, in Ngan'gi these kinds of double consonants can be more important, and failing to distinguish between them can lead to a different word. In Ngan'gi double consonants occur most frequently within verbs where the same consonant comes at the end of the finite verb, and at the beginning of whatever follows it (the bodypart term menytyi, or the coverb man, in the following examples), like this;


Dangimmenytyiket. He cut through.
Yenimman. He is crawling.


The difference between a single sound and a double sound can be very important as we can see in the meaning change in the example below.


Ngudemfel. I jumped.
Nguddemfel. We jumped.


Dividing Verbs into their Parts


Unlike English where verbs tend to be fairly simple words, in Ngan'gi verbs are built up of parts (what we've been calling 'finite verbs' and ‘coverbs’ plus 'suffixes' and other parts), so verbs can be quite long words, like these examples;


Yenimmiwap. She’s camping with him.
Ngumbudawulnimengini. Lets all go back.
Nginiwurrkiwerrtyeritye. I overheard them two.
Daranititidipagutyeyedi. She was poling herself along this way.


While conventions on how to write Ngan'gi words may still evolve further, we've been managing the visual impact of long verbs by breaking them up into more manageable chunks. By way of example, for the sample sentences in the Ngan'gi Dictionary you'll find that we write;


  • the finite verb and any object markers as one word (see nginiwurrki below)
  • the coverb and any bodypart terms as another word (see miwap and werrtyeri below)
  • other suffixes that go on the end, like pagu, nime, ngini and tye as a separate word
  • serialised finite verbs as a separate word (see yedi below)


So here's how the verbs in the chart above would look after we've broken them up into their constituent parts, just to give you some sense of how we've been doing it.


(Table 6: Writing verbs broken up into their parts)
Yenim miwap. She’s camping with him.
Ngumbuda wul nime ngini. Lets all go back.
Nginiwurrki werrtyeri tye. I overheard them two.
Darani titidi pagu tye yedi. She was poling herself along this way.