Skip to main content

Reviving local languages in the region

17 January 2019

The Bininj Kunwok Regional Language Centre (or BKRLC) continues their work maintaining, teaching and reviving local Bininj languages in the region where they are spoken.
The Centre has programs to support vernacular literacy in the Bininj and Balanda communities of the region. The language centre will post a series of lessons about writing Bininj Kunwok in The Wire over coming months. If you want to learn how to read and write in languages like Kunwinjku, Kundjeyhmi or Kuninjku (all of which are referred to as Bininj Kunwok ‘The People’s Language’) you need to learn about the sounds of the language and the special alphabet that has been designed to write down words in this language.
The Bininj Kunwok (Kunwinjku, Kundjeyhmi, Kuninjku etc) alphabet has 22 sounds. Here are the letters used to write words in the language. 
a, b, d, dj, rd, e, h, i, k, l, rl, m, n, ng, nj, rn, o, r, rr, u, w, y
Out of these 22 sounds, there are five vowel sounds a, e, i, o, u
A set of two vowels can be combined into ‘diphthongs’. Four of the five vowels can be combined with ‘w’ and ‘y’ like this: aw, ew, iw, ow/ ay, ey, oy, uy
Some consonant sounds can be doubled and pronounced as ‘long stops’ like this: bb, dd, djdj, rdd, kk
Some sounds in the alphabet have two letters to represent them like 'dj', 'rd', 'rl', 'rn', 'ng', 'nj'. Some of the letters you will know from English, but they don't always have the same sound as they do in English. The best example is 'h' which is a cut off sound called a 'glottal stop'. It is not a puff of air or extended vowel sound like it is in English. It's a bit like the cut off sound in that word in English we say when something has just gone wrong— o'oh — the cutting off of the first syllable is where the glottal stop is and I have represented this 'cut off' with the apostrophe in this particular instance. But in Bininj Kunwok we don't use an apostrophe (but Yolngu languages do). Instead we use the letter 'h'.
One common mistake people who are unfamiliar with the official Bininj Kunwok spelling system make is the spelling of the word for 'goodbye' which is spelt 'bobo' and NOT boh boh. It is one word not two, and there is no glottal stop or cut off sound in it, so it should not have a letter 'h' anywhere in the word. Bobo 'goodbye'. We write Bininj language words with the official alphabet and not with the English spelling system. It's the same for alphabets for other languages too. We don't expect to pronounce German or French written words using the English alphabet sounds so the same goes for the specially designed Bininj Kunwok alphabet. The alphabet used for Bininj Kunwok was developed in the 1960s and it is the officially community approved way to write words in Bininj languages like Kunwinjku and Kundjeyhmi and Kuninjku. 
The same goes for the word 'okay' or 'do it now' which is spelt 'ma'. There is a variant pronunciation which does have a cut off sound at the end. This variation of the word is said just before some expected action is about to happen, right now. That's when you cut off the final vowel sound and say 'mah' (cut off the final 'a'). But usually for the 'okay' meaning, it is pronounced 'ma'. So if you want to say 'okay, goodbye' you would write 'Ma, bobo'. MA BOBO 'okay then, goodbye'.
You can hear how some of these sounds are pronounced on our Facebook page and on our Twitter feed. Search Bininj Kunwok Regional Language Centre on Facebook or @BininjKunwok on Twitter.