classes of nouns

Classes of nouns in Bininj Kunwok

This is another lesson for those studying Bininj Kunwok in Jabiru, Kunbarlanja, Maningrida and other parts of Western Arnhem Land.

Did you ever learn French, Italian or German at school? If you did, you will remember having to learn that nouns have gender assignment. Some language such as French, Italian and Spanish have two classes, masculine and feminine. German has a third gender, neuter. Bininj Kunwok dilaects have four classes— masculine, feminine, vegetal and other. The assignment of a noun to a particular gender class is most obvious when the noun has a prefix (a part that attaches to the front of the word) which denotes gender. The four noun class prefixes in Bininj Kunwok are:

Kundjeyhmi= •na- ‘masculine’ •al- ‘feminine’ •kun- ‘other’ •an- ‘vegetal’

Kunwinjku= •na- ‘masculine’ •ngal- ‘feminine’ •kun- ‘other’ •man- ‘vegetal’

nabeywurd na-beywurd 'male child of patriline (man's son or a woman's brother's son)'

ngalkohbanj ngal-kohbanj 'old woman'

kunbolk kun-bolk 'place'

mandjewk man-djewk 'rain'

Whilst these four genders in Bininj Kunwok can sometimes be organised based on the meanings of words, we can also organise nouns into classes based on the kind of prefixes the noun normally takes. Noun class prefixes appear on both nouns (but not all nouns) and the adjectives which qualify these nouns. Other kinds of word classes such as demonstratives (‘this one’, ‘that one’, ‘those’, ‘these’, ‘this one here’, ‘those over there’ etc) are also marked for gender.





The prefixes which appear on nouns are referred to by linguists as ‘head class’ prefixes. The prefix on the adjective must agree (i.e. have the correct prefix) with the noun class of the noun, but as always in language learning, there are exceptions. Sometimes the prefix on the noun will be different to that on the adjective qualifying this noun but this is still considered grammatically correct. When this happens linguists call this 'agreement class'. This means that a noun can be associated with a particular gender, but be in a different agreement class. An example is the word kun-dulk ‘tree’ which is in the vegetal class, but it does not have a vegetal class prefix man-.

kun-dulk man-kimuk 'a big tree' (notice it is wrong to say kun-dulk kun-kimuk)

There is quite a bit of difference amongst the various Bininj Kunwok dialects as to the strictness of agreement with gender prefixes. Kunwinjku would seem to be the strictest and in Kune the system is breaking down (i.e. in Kune you can use the masculine prefix on an adjective qualifying a noun in the feminine class e.g. daluk na-wern 'many women'. That would be grammatically incorrect in Kunwinjku or Kundjeyhmi) . Some nouns have a noun class prefix and others do not. For example in Kundjeyhmi:

namekke bininj na-kimuk ‘that big man’

(ng)alekke al-daluk al-wernwarre ‘that girl is the eldest [in a line of siblings]’

karrbarda an-wern ‘lots of long yams Diascorea transversa

kun-wok kun-wern ‘many languages’

Notice that in the first example there is no masculine gender prefix na- on bininj but there is on the following adjective –kimuk ‘big’. In the next sentence, the demonstrative ngalekke ‘that female referent’ is marked with a ngal- prefix as is the word ngal-daluk ‘girl, sister, female’. In the third example the word for yam you would expect to be in the vegetal class and it certainly is, but a vegetal class prefix only appears on the adjective an-wern ‘many (vegetal class things)’. In the fourth example both the noun and the adjective have neuter gender prefixes which are the same on both the noun kun-wok 'language' and the adjective kun-wern 'many (neuter class) (kun- + kun-).

Number is another consideration. When referring to people, adjectives have a noun class prefix in the singular but pronoun prefixes in the plural as in the following Kundjeyhmi examples:

daluk al-kudji ‘one woman’(-kudji means 'one')

daluk barri-wern ‘many women’ (barri- is a pronoun prefix that means 'they [past tense or referential]')

(You can also use reduplication to mark plural but the last consonant is replaced by a glottal stop daluhdaluk ‘women’)

If you are not sure of the gender of a noun and there are no obvious clues, then you can usually get away with using masculine as the default gender in many cases, but not always. Many birds and other animals use female gender as the default. For example emus and magpie geese are referred to as feminine nouns:

al-wern bamurru barri-mey ‘they got a lot of magpie geese’

Alwanjdjuk korrogo al-kohbanj ba-rri ba-yimi. ‘Long ago the emu was an old woman’.

You should be aware that in a number of other dialects of Bininj Kunwok (like Kune, Kuninjku and Kundedjnjenghmi), the noun class prefixes on part nouns (things which are parts of some other whole) are optional  and can be dropped off and the suffix –no added (which originally meant 'its' e.g. bidno 'its hand', otherwise kun-bid) Other languages such as Dalabon and Rembarrnga have this same feature (but they do not have gender prefixes). There are examples of when this is acceptable in k but to find out more about this, you should consult the native speakers of Kundjeyhmi who are assisting with this course. Some examples:

kun-mim > mimno ‘eyes, seeds, bullets’

kun-kodj > kodjno ‘head’

an-nguy > nguyno ‘flower’

Gender and meaning.

Some nouns can have a gender prefix that can change, which means that the meaning of the word will also change. Some examples are:

na-ngordo ‘man with crippling or disfiguring illness’

al-ngordo ‘woman with crippling or disfiguring illness’

kun-ngordo ‘crippling or disfiguring illness’

Some words change their meaning in significant ways that you cannot always predict:

kun-karre ‘calf, shin and lower leg’ an-karre ‘culture, law, way of life’ an-karre ‘traditional song’

Other changes have specialised meanings:

na-Badmardi ‘male member of the Badmardi clan’

al-Badmardi ‘female member of the Badmardi clan’

kun-Badmardi ‘someone whose mother’s clan is Badmardi’

kundjeyhmi ‘Kundjeyhmi language’

na-Djeyhmi ‘Kundjeyhmi man/person or people’

Many kin terms change when noun class prefixes are added:

daluk ‘woman’

al-daluk ‘female, sister’

yabok ‘sister’

al-yabok ‘my child, your sister [parent talking to their child about the child’s sister]’ Note: this is a special way of referring to people called kun-dembuy.

Changing the noun class prefix can also change the word class.

na-mak ‘a good man/boy’ (adjective)

al-mak ‘a good woman/girl’ (adjective)

kun-mak ‘goodness, satisfaction, righteousness’ (noun)

Some words are the same except for the presence of a noun class prefix and the change in meaning, but there is sometimes a logic to how the meaning was derived as in the following examples:

djak 'meat ant'

kun-djak 'sickness, pain'

mok bush fly

kun-mok sore, skin infection

Some common adjectives that can take gender prefixes:

good -mak [na-mak, al-mak, an-mak, kun-mak]

bad -warre

big -kimuk

small -yahwurd

many -wern

few -kudji, -kudjihkudji

Whilst there are four noun class prefixes you will encounter on nouns and adjectives that agree with them, as mentioned above, not all nouns have prefixes and in fact there are a great number of nouns which do not have an obvious gender assignment. These nouns might be grouped into a residual fifth class, but there are no general principles for why these nouns belong in this ‘left-over’ class. However, when you use an adjective with these nouns without gender prefixes, there is often a correct ‘agreement class’ reflecting the words association with a gender which must be known although there is some variation amongst the dialects.

Some principles

Basic principles for noun class organisation in Kundjeyhmi look like this:

Class 1 (na-) higher male animates some lower animates some kinds of honey [e.g. na-biwo]

Class 2 (al-) higher female animates some lower animates other things such as a few meteorological terms alkokkarrng ‘stars’, aldjurlum ‘willy-willy’

Class 3 (an-) plants, plant parts and products, sexual and excretory body parts, song, ceremony and custom, bushfire, food (not meat), some kinds of honey, some landscape features (with water or plant features). Things like motor vehicles, boats and aircraft are also in this class. This is probably an extention from the fact that canoes are in the vegetal class because they are made from trees. Other modern forms of transport are likewise placed in the (m)an- class. E.g. man-kerrnge muddika 'a new car'.

Class 4 (kun-) human/animal body parts some common plant form terms [e.g. kun-dulk ‘tree’, kun-dalk ‘grass’ kun-kod ‘paperbark’, kun-ngobarn ‘new leaf sheath of pandanus trees’] some objects made form plants [e.g. kun-yarl ‘string’] fire [used for domestic purposes] weather and sea, time measurement, languages (Kunwinjku, Kundjeyhmi) and speech some social categories [kun-mokurrkurr ‘clan’] abstract nouns [e.g. kun-njilng ‘feelings, emotions’, kun-mak ‘goodness’]

Bonj that is all.


  1. http://Anja%20Toms says

    Thank you so much!
    The fog is slowly lifting and I'm beginning to understand a bit more...

    Boh boh!

  2. http://Mats says

    Is the 'old woman' recording really the right one?


  1. [...] set are body parts and so mim ‘eye(s)’ is acceptable. Note that when this happens, nouns with noun class prefixes drop the prefix when incorporated. Normally the word for eye would be kun-mim.

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