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Realisation of Vowel Sounds in Different Australian Languages

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Linguistics
Wordcount: 2282 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Describe how an aspect of grammar (eg. phonology, transitivity, tense, possession, noun classes) is realised in three Australian languages, comparing their similarities and differences.

Aboriginal Australian languages are, at their core, grammatically complex and intricate. Phonology, the linguistic system of speech sounds, is integral to every language of the world as it underpins successful communication between interlocutors. Australian language phonology differs between each language, all exhibiting their own unique phonological features that differentiate themselves from one another. This is made abundantly clear in the three Australian languages of Murrinpatha of Wadeye; Bininj Gun-Wok of Arnhem land, and Gooniyandi of the Kimberleys. While all three languages are entirely separate entities from one another, they do present phonological similarities as well as differences when compared. All three are highly complex languages, with many unique and typologically unusual phonological and phonetic features.

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The realisation of vowel sounds and their contrastive meanings are a vital aspect of Australian Languages. Murrinpatha, Bininj Gun-Wok and Gooniyandi all have simple vowel inventories that exhibit significant allophonic variation; it is the vowel inventories wherein one can find the most similarities between all three languages, and this is particularly evident in the length, places of articulation and openness of the vowels. Murrinpatha has four vowels, as perceived by Walsh (Walsh, 1976), /a, e, u, i/ which are also realised as [ɐ,ɛ, ʊ, ɪ,]. Murrinpatha vowels are often lengthened when a singular open vowel is utilised as an entire lexical item, for example “ku teth” (bush tail possum) which is vocalised as [ˈkuː tɛt], and also when it is a word final vowel, such as “the” which means ‘ear.’ However, vowel length is not contrastive semantically in Murrinpatha. Conversely, Bininj Gun-Wok is one of the five percent of Australian languages which has a five-vowel inventory (Evans, 2003), which consists of predominantly the same cardinal vowels as Murrinpatha, including /I, e, a, o, u/ of which the phonemes [ɪ ʊ ɛ̠ ɔ̟ ɐ] are used, which, like Murrinpatha, have no length distinction. In all dialects, Bininj Gun-Wok’s vowels generally retain their cardinal values, except /e/ and /o/ are realised often as quite open, which ultimately lengthens them, for example in the exclamation “gek,”[gɛːk] translating to “I say.” While there are not strictly any true long vowels present in any Bininj Gun-Wok dialects, there are eight dipthongs, which orthographically are realised as ‘iw,’ ‘ew’ ‘aw’ ‘ow’ ‘ei’ ay’ ‘oy’ and ‘uy.’ According to Evans, (2003) these diphthong combinations “represent all combinations of vowels with a following glide except for that of a high vowel with a glide of equivalent frontness (Evans, 2003.) NeitherMurrinpatha nor Gooniyandi presents any diphthongs that are not loaned from English contact.Gooniyandi’s vowel inventory comprises of many allophones of the cardinal vowels /i, u, a/ and lengthened /aa/. In Gooniyandi, /a/ is the only vowel which presents a length distinction between [a] and [a:]/, such as the word “” which is rare in Australian languages, especially of the Kimberleys.  Any allophonic variation in Gooniyandi that occurs depends mainly on the phonetic environment of the vowel within a word. For example, there is a correlation between the /i/ and /oo/ vowel and the corresponding consonantal features such as a laminal, which affects the articulation of the vowel itself. If a vowel occurs before a velar consonant one hears predominantly back- situated allophones of /a/ such as [ʌ] and a while before palatals more front allophones ( .

In Gooniyandi,/a/ /aa/ and /awa/ alternate in some words, analysed by Mcgregor: jawangari/ and jaangari/, but they do not contrast in regards to meaning. Words beginning with [i] or [u] can generally be phonetically interpreted as beginning with phonetic glides /y/ and /w/ respectively. This means that [i] and [u] can be interpreted as phonetic realisations of /yi/ and /wu./ this is strengthened by Goonyandi, [i:] and : can be realisations of [iyi] and [uwu] and not separate long vowels. In all three languages, sequences of vowels do not usually occur, and words with vowel in an initial position are also rare; some do exist in Gooniyandi, but they are most commonly interjections such as “aga” [aga] ‘oh no!”. The similarities between the vowel sounds in Murrinpatha, Bininj-Gun Wok and Gooniyandi can be potentially contributed to by their language groups proximity to each other.

The first and subsequent syllables of a word often differ in terms of what consonant can occur initially

The consonant realisations and inventories and of Murrinpatha, Binninj Gun-Wok and Goonyandi are generally similar to each other, and there are more resemblances between the languages than differences, on a consonantal level in regards to places of articulation and manner. However, there is diversity in the precise sounds, speed of delivery and voice quality. Murrinpatha consonants have six places of articulation (Street & Mollinjin,1981) which consist of alveolar, post-alveolar, palatal, velar, bilabial, lamino-dental and retroflex consonants. Retroflex consonants, orthographically realised as ‘rt,’ ‘rd’, ‘rn’ and ‘rl’ feature quite heavily intervocalically in Murrinpatha, evident in words such as “warnangat” meaning “many,” and “kardu” (human) (Street, Chester. 1987. An Introduction to the language and Culture of Murrinpatha). Similarly, retroflex consonants present themselves often in Bininj Gun-Wok shares its retroflex realisations with Murrinpatha, including apical retroflex lateral and apico-alveolar, rdd [ʈː], rn, [ɳ] rl  in it’s consonant inventory. Retroflexes typically do not occur in word initial positions in all three of these languages.

Murrinpatha is unusual in that it exhibits voicing distinctions between bilabial consonants /p/ and /b/ or /t/ and /d/, which, even though they are restricted, are not common in Aboriginal Australian languages; this is evident in the initial voicing contrast between the lexemes /pepe/ and /bebe/ which mean ‘down’ and ‘vomit’ respectively. On the contrary, in Gooniyandi, an interlocutor could say [panda] or [banda] using a voiced or voiceless bilabial plosive in the initial position, and be understood to be using the lexeme for ‘ground.’ (McGregor) Therefore, there is no distinction between these allophones, which differentiates Gooniyandi from Murrinpatha. Bininj Gun-Wok, like Gooniyandi, does not present such allophonic contrasts. Bininj Gun-Wok has a consonant inventory of twenty-two consonants, comprising of plosives and nasals at five places of articulation, which include, similar to Murrinpatha and Gooniyandi, bilabial, apico-alveolar, velar, apico retroflex and lamino- palatal. It also has two laterals, two glides and a contrast between a tapped or trilled rhotic.

Murrinpatha is also unusual in that its consonant inventory includes fricatives, a lamino-dental fricative[ð] written orthographically as /dh/, evident n the word “burradhawirdi” ‘record’ and the voiced velar fricative [ɣ] or /g/. As opposed to Murrinpatha, in Gooniyandi and Bininj Gun-Wok, there are no fricatives present in their consonant inventories (McGregor) ; what is evident in both languages, however, is the realisation of the /f/ sound is habitually replaced with the bilabial stop /p/, which separates it from Murrinpatha.

In Murrinpatha, there is usually a distinction between alveolar and retroflex plosives and nasals; however, in word initial positions the distinction is not always made, and it is neutralised. This is the case in Gooniyandi, wherein these sounds are usually always neutralised into an alveolar plosive (McGregor). Retroflex and palatal plosives are voiced in a broader range of phonetic environments than other plosives in Gooniyandi. (McGregor) If a lateral trill or tap occurs within a consonant cluster, it is almost always the first consonant of the cluster, and the second will be a plosive or nasal.

Goonyandi’s glide consonants, the /w/ and /y/ approximants, if occurring in the environment of /u/ and /i/, these phonemes are not perceived in Gooniyandi. This is made evident in the words ‘Yiyili” becomes [ɪiɪli]. This occurrence is also common in

Dental stop and nasal occur before [a] and [u] in Murrinpatha, the corresponding palatals before [i] and[e.]

There are also coronal distinctions between the nasal phonemes

BGW- velar nasal and semi vowels

Laterals are similar in

In regards to rhotics, alveolar taps or trills, all three languages have two rhotics, /r/ and /rr/, and differentiate between a tap and a trill. Bininj Gun-Wok and Murrinpatha have a lenis and fortis consonant contrast which occurs solely in word-medial positions (Butcher, 2004) Bininj Gun-Wok presents long plosives, [p:] and [k:]  and short plosives, also labelled as lenis and fortis, which contrast phonologically due to their duration. Murrinpatha’s fricatives follow the pattern for lenis and fortis, as opposed to the long stops of Bininj Gun-Wok.

Stress, syllables and connected speech process are utilised differently in Aboriginal Australian languages when compared to western languages. When compared to one another, however, they bear more similarities than differences. This is clear in the cases of Murrinpatha, Gooniyandi and Bininj Gun-Wok. Stress placement in Aboriginal languages can be predictable, and usually does not indicate a difference in meaning. (McGregor) it normally falls on the first syllable of the word In Gooniyandi, or, if a suffix is present, the suffixes are usually the stressed syllable. The first and penultimate syllables, if there are more than three in a single word, are generally stressed. This is made clear in words such as “babooroongoo,”

Sequences of phonemes in the three languages allows for some generalisations. In almost all Aboriginal languages, lexemes for the most part have a consonant in the initial position and a vowel in the final position. In Murrinpatha, Bininj Gun-Wok and Gooniyandi, the most common pattern of syllables is /CV/, or consonant vowel, /CVCV/.

Bininj Gun-wok’s dialects can be analysed as stress accent languages, with post-lexically determined pitch events located on strong syllables ( Fletcher and Evans, in press; Bishop and Fletcher, in press) Bininj Gun-wok favours a CV(C) syllable structure according to Evans. (Evans, 2003)

Intonation contours are also an integral aspect of Aboriginal languages. Intonation units for Gooniyandi utterances hold one unit of information. In one intonation unit in Gooniyandi, one syllable will be the most prominent, and is usually stressed. The most important information is in such stressed syllable. The Gooniyandi sentences ‘nganyi baboorroongoo wardngi’ and

 There is often expressive lengthening in Bininj Gun-Wok on verbs, in that a syllable of a word, usually a verb, is stressed to express the duration of an action itself. This is clear in the word “Barriwa:::m” which means “they kept going and going.”

 (Fletcher and Evans, 1998), the narrative dynamics and emphasised important information often repeatedly occurs with an intonational accent in an utterance

Bininj Gun-Wok syllables are predominantly closed (Fletcher and Evans, 1998)

Murrinpatha lexemes are different from a restricted sound pattern in the other Australian languages. Words predominantly have two or more syllables, and what differentiates it from  syllable codas are sonorant and word initial posisition uses a restricted part of the consonant invientory

Bininj Gun Wok  and Murrinpatha have sonorant codas,  has obstruent voicing contrasts at the beginning of words) that can be quite complex, with codas such as /CVCC/.

It is clear, then, that Murrinpatha, Bininj Gun-Wok and Gooniyandi all exhibit a vast amount of similarities as well as differences that show them to be unique Australian Aboriginal languages.


  • Mansfield, J. (2018). Murrinhpatha words. Morphology and phonology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.
  • McGregor, William (1990) A Functional Grammar of Gooniyandi, John Benjamins, Amsterdam.
  • Butcher, A. (1996) Phonetic correlates of contrasting stopseries in Non-Pama-Nyungan languages Course notes for the 3rd Australian Linguistic Institute. ANU Canberr
  • Evans, N. (2003). Bininj Gun-Wok: a pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune. Canberra, Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.
  • Fletcher, J.M. and Butcher, A. R., “Vowel dispersion in two northern Australian languages: Dalabon and Bininj Gun-wok”, in: C. Bow [Ed], Proc. 9th Aust. Internat. Conf. on Speech Sci. a


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