Ma! Karri-wokdi Kundjeyhmi!

Ma! Karri-re wanjh, karri-wokdi Kundjeyhmi.

OK, let's go, let's speak Kundjeyhmi.

1. Getting Started

This is the first post for Jabiru students and agency employees learning the Australian languages Kundjeyhmi and Kunwinjku, which are spoken in Kakadu National Park and Western Arnhem Land. Other people who live and work in Western Arnhem Land might also be interested in these lessons. Whilst they are in the form of blog posts in English, there will be some posts from time to time which will be exclusively in Bininj Kunwok dialects. You can ask questions or make comments in response to these lessons and I will attempt to answer your questions.

What does 'Bininj Kunwok' mean? There are a number of Aboriginal languages spoken in Western Arnhem Land today. You will already know the names Kundjeyhmi and Kunwinjku, but in addition  to these two, there are also four other varieties (call them dialects) of the same language. These varieties are Mayali, Kuninjku, Kune and Kundedjnjenghmi. You can find more information about the six Bininj Kunwok dialects here. And you can see the map of their locations here. These are all the same languages, just different dialects. If you speak in one, the people who speak a different dialect will still understand you. Linguists define dialects along the lines of 'mutual intelligibility'. Bininj will have a range of different views on these dialect names.  We need a way to refer to these varieties as one group and so linguists have coined a new name after talking to Bininj (Aboriginal people) about what might be an appropriate collective name. Bininj in some cases use the name of their own language variety to refer to all the other dialects too but this doesn't always go down well with the speakers of another dialect. Some people say that all the dialects are really 'Mayali' and others say that all the varieties should be called 'Kunwinjku'. No collective name is perfect, but Bininj Kunwok is the name we will use to refer to all the varieties mentioned above when we need a collective name. Otherwise, just use the name of the variety you are learning, Kundjeyhmi or Kunwinjku. The learner's guide material presented here is a general course where I have tried to keep the technical grammatical terms to a minimum. If you want to read a more technical grammatical description of Bininj Kunwok see this:

Evans, Nicholas (2003) Bininj Gun-wok: A pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune. [2 volumes] Canberra: Pacific Linguistics

2. The sounds and symbols that represent them.

Vowel Sounds in the English Language

We need to say something about the difference between the sounds of a language and the symbols that represent them (what linguists call phonemes and orthography). Depending on the accent, the English language can have anywhere from 11 to 20 vowel sounds. The English alphabet only has 5 letters that are used exclusively to represent these many vowels.

It is important to understand the difference between the letters and the sounds they represent. In Australian English there are about 20 vowels (includes some diphthongs – combinations of two vowels in one unit), represented by individual or combinations of five roman letters (a,e,i,o,u). Examples of these are in the table above.

But in Kundjeyhmi and Kunwinjku there are 5 vowels represented by 5 letters, a, e, i, o, u.






Bininj Kunwok orthography

Use these letters ONLY:


a, e, i, o, u


iw, ew, aw, ow, ey, ay, oy, uy


b, bb ,d, dd, dj, djdj, h, (g)/k, kk, l, m, n, ng, nj, r, rr, rd, rdd, rl, rn, w, y

There is no letter g except when it appears as part of the digraph symbol ng which is what linguists call a velar nasal. 

Some of these letters have the same sound as they do in English; others do not. As you can see from the list above, some combinations are not found in English, e.g. nj, iw. These may cause problems until you get used to the system.

Note that in writing Aboriginal languages each sound is always written in the same way and letters (single and double) stand for one and only one sound in a given position. This means you can make a reasonable attempt at pronouncing new words once you know the sound that goes with each letter.

Some of the letters are called vowels (a,e,i,o,u). Some are called DIPHTHONGS (aw, ay, ew, ey, iw, oy, ow, uy. The rest are called CONSONANTS. We will discuss the vowels first, then the diphthongs, then the consonants. But first, here is an overview of the whole set of letters together with rough English equivalents.


a as in             about, but

e as in             bed or French e

i as in             bit

o as in            pot or Italian o as in Dio

u as in            put


aw as in  house

ay as in 'ay-ay, captain'

ew (no English equivalent - nearest to the Adelaide pronunciation of 'hell')

ey as in hey, they

iw (no English equivalent - nearest to the Adelaide pronunciation of 'hill')

oy as in boy

ow as in  oak, choke

uy as in  Nhulunbuy


b as in bank

d as in dog

dj as in jump

h as in Cockney wha' for 'what'

k as in get

l same as in English

m as in  mad

n as in nose

ng as in  sing

nj as in  canyon.

r as in  rice

rr as in  Scottish carry, or 'sloppy' pronunciation of 'butter'

rd as in  American pronunciation of 'harder'

rl as in  American pronunciation of Harlem

rn as in  American pronunciation of harness

w as in wait

y as in yell

Long consonants are written double, e.g. bb, dd, djdj. These have no English equivalent.

LONG STOPS (consonants)

short b              k                d            rd              dj

long bb            kk            dd          rdd            djdj

Dialect Differences

What kind of differences are there between Kunwinjku, Kundjeyhmi and some of the other Bininj Kunwok dialects?

The grammatical differences are minor. The vocabulary differences are more noticeable. For example, look at the following:

English:         Why did he go?                He went (for) magpie geese.

Kundjeyhmi: Njanjukken ba-wam? Bamurru ba-wam.

Kunwinjku:  Njaleken wam?              Manimunak wam.

Kuninjku:     Njaleken wam?              Murnubbarr wam.

Don't worry too much about these differences for the time being. You can ask about these kind of differences as comments to this post. If you want to read some more about dialect differences, have a look here.

3. Examples

Vowels- click on the audio link to hear pronunciation.

-Yi-biddjuyme ba yi-wokbekkan.


ngabbard ngabbard father

nga-yawan nga-yawan 'I'm looking for it/him/her'


bedberre bedberre 'theirs, for them'

dedded dedded red-collared lorikeet


mimih mimih rock spirit

bininj bininj man, human being


dolobbo dolobbo bark of stringybark tree

bobo bobo goodbye


bun bun I'll hit you

kukku kukku water


b ba-bidbom 'he/she climbed up'

d doydoy various great grandparents: FFM, FMF, MFF, MMM(B) (where F= father, M= mother, B= brother)

dj ngadjadj 'mother's brother' Note: this sound is not the same as that represented by the English letter 'j'. Linguists call it a voiced palatal plosive. It sounds like this.

h Kundjeyhmi

k kek 'is that so, I see'

l lablab 'spotted nightjar' (bird)

m kun-mim 'eye, seed' 

n nin 'grass wren'

ng ngalelek 'little corella'. This sound often occurs word or syllable initially. It doesn't in English. It sounds like this.

nj  kun-njam. Linguists call this sound a palatal nasal. It sounds like this.

r Rol 'a clan name'

rr barri-wam 'they've gone' birri-wam (Kunwinjku). This sound is an alveolar tap. It sounds like this.

rd 'knee' kun-bard. Remember that 'd' and 'rd' are two different sounds. It sounds like this.

rl kun-karlang (Kunwinjku). Just remember that 'l' and 'rl' are two different sounds. It sounds like this.

rn ka-marnbun. Remember that 'n' and 'rn' are two different sounds. It sounds like this.

w wolewoleh 'afternoon

y yekke 'early dry season'

Ma, bonj. OK that's enough for this first lesson.

Look for a Bininj language teacher to help you with your learning.

Yi-yawa bininj dja daluk nawu ngundi-bidyikarrme kun-wokken.


  1. http://Anja%20Toms says

    Love the audio links as I can listen to them as often as necessary, please keep teh recordings coming!
    Would it be possible though to open links in a new browser window (would make navigation easier, for me at least...)?

    Ma, bobo

    • Hi Anja, you can usually control how new links open depending on what operating system and browser you have. For example on a Mac with Firefox if you hold down the control key when clicking the link you get the option of opening in a new window or new tab. There's plenty more audio coming too and glad to hear it's useful, thanks.

  2. This website and blog are brilliant! I don't have any reason to learn bininj gunwok, unfortunately, but I really hope to one day have the time and opportunity to interact with native speakers to learn some of it. For all the talk of language endangerment and better cultural understanding between indigenous australians and the rest of the population, very little real work is being done to forge closer ties everywhere. Making high quality language and cultural information available for free on the internet is a first step to rectifying this problem. I really think that australian school child everywhere should be learning an aboriginal language for several years, much as the maori language is often taught to non-maoris in New Zealand. What a great excuse for student exchanges and video conferencing with aboriginal school children!

    Like I said, one day I hope to have the opportunity to take more than a casual interest in your material, but in the meantime I plan on trying to spread the word to get more people interested in learning bininj gunwok, now that this material is available.

    One question: any plans to gather all the material from the blog and other resources into an online book format? Just to bring it all together in one easy location. Also, and easy way to get all the audio at once would help those who are trying to get started on their own.

    Great work, and I hope you continue to get the funding you need! Hopefully, more language projects on this model will spring up in aboriginal communities around the country!

    • Thanks for this wonderful encouraging comment. We are so glad you have found these resources useful and we couldn't agree more with your views on all Australian school students learning something about Australian Aboriginal languages. Thanks for promoting the website with your friends and colleagues, it is much appreciated. We can post out audio resources from the website on CD if you need them in that format. We have done this for other interested learners. Don't forget you can download the grammar lectures directly from the website, see For special requests, just send us another contact note and we can arrange that for you. All free of charge. If you still want to keep learning Bininj Gunwok online, in addition to reading the blog posts, you can join the other 330 students who subscribe to Karriborlbme Kunwok and receive a vocabulary lesson about twice a week,

      • One quick question for now - I've tried to download the book "Kunwinjku Kunwok: A Short Introduction to Kunwinjku Language and Society" from sribd, but the website says that it requires premium access. Is this deliberate?

        • No, it's not deliberate. Thanks for pointing out this problem. It is now fixed and you can download the resource for free from the resources page here.

  3. http://Denise%20Lawungkurr%20Goodfellow says

    I'm so pleased to see this website. I wrote a book, 'Fauna of Kakadu and the Top End', back in 1993, and my relatives Mrs. Managku, Mrs. Nganjmirra and Reverend P. Nganjmirra said I must include Kunwinjku names and information - after all Aboriginal names were the original ones. I agreed wholeheartedly. In 2000 we all decided that I must include such information in 'Birds of Australia's Top End'. We hoped this would encourage the acceptance of Aboriginal languages, not only in schools but in the wider society. Unfortunately few non-Indigenous people thought the inclusion of Kunwinjku important, and the latter book was even criticised by some birdwatchers because it contained 'extraneous' information. However 'Fauna' was utilised by the University of NSW as a 'core' text for their summer school for 14 years. We were all really happy about that. Congratulations on such a marvellous site! The family members I mention above are all gone now, but they would have been so proud to see it.

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