Placed here 6 January 1998. The text is identical to and unrevised from the 1983 publication
TESL and Warlpiri Children. N.T. Bilingual Education Newsletter No. 1,6-24; 2,47.

Understanding Warlpiri children's problems in learning to speak English1

David Nash
Department of Education, Yuendumu

* TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language.


The Warlpiri child (i.e. whose first language is Warlpiri) learns English as a second language. At Yuendumu, the learning of English begins in earnest soon after the child starts school. For the first three school years the child learns English orally, and does not begin writing or reading English until about Grade 4.

To understand something of the task facing a Warlpiri child beginning to learn English, we need to view English through Warlpiri-coloured glasses: we need to contrast the language structures of Warlpiri and English. This paper contrasts just the sound systems of the two languages. Other topics, such as the different word structures, syntax (how words are put together to make a proper sentence), and semantics (structures of meaning) are equally relevant, but are not dealt with here.

How the Warlpiri sound system accommodates a foreign word, such as one borrowed from English, illustrates the contrasts between the Warlpiri sound system and the foreign one. To understand the principles which govern the adaptation of a foreign word to make it "Warlpiri-sounding" is to appreciate how to hear foreign words with "Warlpiri ears", and in turn to appreciate the knowledge that the Warlpiri child brings to learning a second language. Hence many examples in this paper are drawn from the loan vocabulary of Warlpiri -- the words Warlpiri has borrowed from English.

Pronunciation mistakes made by a Warlpiri learning English are accommodations of the English word to the Warlpiri sound system. To understand what is behind these "mistakes" one must understand the contrasts between the two sound systems. Three levels of contrast are involved:

  1. single sounds: consonants and vowels
  2. combinations of sounds: syllable structure
  3. word stress
At each level, English words can be graded according to the difficulties they present for a Warlpiri learner of English. The following sections consider these levels in turn.


Since it is oral English that the child is learning first, we need to contrast the sound systems of Warlpiri and English, not the spelling systems. Readers can readily understand any of the examples given here, provided they focus on the sounds not the choice of spelling. As an aid in this direction, it helps to say the examples aloud to oneself. For example, 'phone' is pronounced [fon] with no [p] or [h] sound, and 'laugh' is pronounced [laf] with no [g] sound. English can be written in a consistent phonetic alphabet, such as the one given in the chart in the Appendix.2

Warlpiri examples are given in the standard Warlpiri orthography (spelling system), and thus can be looked up in the Warlpiri dictionary and noticed in other Warlpiri language materials. Similarly, English examples are given in standard English orthography.

The Warlpiri language has the sounds represented by the symbols in the following table.3 (It is repeated in the Appendix along side of the English system for comparison.)


             p        t        rt         j         k
m n rn ny ng
l rl ly
rr rd
w r y

(word-initially, rt,rn,rl are written t, n, l )


             i,  u,  a

ii, uu, aa
A word from any other language will be perceived by a monolingual Warlpiri according to the above sound system. He makes sense of the foreign word in terms of his own language's sound system. When he says the foreign word, he does so according to the Warlpiri sound system -- he speaks with a "Warlpiri accent". Consider what makes a Warlpiri accent different from a French accent or a Japanese accent, for instance.

Examples of how English words are perceived by a Warlpiri speaker, and how they are spoken with a strong Warlpiri accent, are readily provided by the terms Warlpiri has borrowed from English, such as in the following list.4 If you say the English word to yourself while looking at the Warlpiri word, you will get an idea of how English sounds are perceived by the ear attuned to Warlpiri, and of what is meant by a "Warlpiri accent".


kalinta calendar
tala dollar
mijirnirri missionary
piipi baby
kuwana goanna
jawa shower
jangari shanghai
Jantiyi Sunday
Mantiyi Monday
Jarritiyi Saturday
Janyuwarri ) January
Janyuwari )
Pipuwarri ) February
Pipuwari )
Julayi July
Nupampa ) November
Napimpa )
Tijampa ) December
Tijima )
Some of the sound correspondences between English and Warlpiri are evident from the above list.

1.1. Sounds that cause no problem.

The following sounds, at least when they occur between vowels, provide no problem for a Warlpiri speaker. The first column shows the equivalent symbol in the Warlpiri spelling system.
m m
n, rn n
ny [n] some n before u, i, e.g. in onion
ng [n] some ng; n before k; e.g. in lung
l, rl l
w w
y y
r r
In other words, Warlpiri has an almost identical sound corresponding to all the English nasals, laterals and glides. These 8 are the extent of the consonants in common between the 18 of Warlpiri and the 23 of English. Even these do not correspond in all phonetic details, but, as Capp 1977:9 says of the varieties of English [l] (compare the two occurrences in little), they are the new learner's least worry." They are a minor contribution to an "accent".

1.2. Voiced/voiceless distinction is a problem.

Warlpiri has a ready equivalent for English stop (plosive) consonants, and affricates, but makes no distinction between the voiced and voiceless ones. Thus the Warlpiri speaker has to learn this distinction, which takes considerable practice.
voiced voiceless
p b p
t, rt d t
k g [k] k, c
j [dz] j,g [t ] ch
See Tate 1976:46-54.

1.3. Fricatives are a problem.

English has a number of distinctive sounds called fricatives, in which there is a continuous flow of air through a narrow opening making a hissing or buzzing sound. Consider the difference between English pan and fan, or between ban and van. Pan and ban each begin with a stop consonant, while fan and van each begin with a fricative.

Warlpiri has no distinctive fricative sounds. In an English word with a fricative, the Warlpiri "accent" replaces the fricative with a stop consonant: the Warlpiri sound most closely corresponding to each of the English fricatives is a stop in roughly the same place of articulation. Just as for stops (2.), the English distinction between voiced and voiceless is not made in Warlpiri. The sounds of English listed in the right-hand columns below do not occur in Warlpiri, and they are difficult for a Warlpiri speaker to learn to say. The nearest Warlpiri equivalent is the sound whose symbol occurs in the left-hand column:

voiced voiceless

p v [f] f, ph

( z [s] s, c
j ( [dz] j,g ch
( azure sheep
( mother thirty
See Tate 1976:54-67.

Note especially the large number of distinct English sounds which Warlpiri "collapses" into j (i.e. the sound in Jampijinpa). These distinctions are all the more hard for a Warlpiri child to learn because of their number, leaving aside any difficulty with one particular sound.

There is another fricative sound in English, h. Warlpiri has no equivalent sound, and speakers either leave it out completely, or approximate it with y or w . Capp, working with Pitjantjatjara speakers, found that "effective grounding in the production and correct usage of this sound is a basis for teaching the aspiration of word-initial stop sounds... Learners sometimes try to produce the sound breathing in." (1977:10)

1.4. English vowels.

The many vowel sounds of English (many more than just the five vowel letters) correspond to the 3 Warlpiri vowels (and to some vowel-glide-vowel combinations). The correspondences are not straightforward, and depend partly on the neighbouring consonants and on stress, which is why certain English vowel sounds appear more than once in the following rough guide:
i bit, bet, beat
u boot, put, pot
a bat, Bart, but, bare

ii beat
uu boot, bought
aa Bert

ayi bait, bite, Bert
awu bout
uwa bought, bore
iyi beat
iya beer, bare
uwu boat, boot
uwi )
uya ) boy (?)
uyu )
The English interdeterminate vowel (schwa, [] ) is taken by a Warlpiri to be variously i, u or a depending on the neighbouring sounds.

The Warlpiri child will have trouble distinguishing between English words which differ solely by vowels which correspond to the one Warlpiri vowel. For example, "bait" and "bite" would probably be pronounced the same, like a possible Warlpiri word payiti. Similarly, "buy" and "pay" are collapsed.

Tate 1976:14 notes tendencies in English vowel mispronunciations. However, as Capp found for Pitjantjatjarra, "the vowel glides (diphthongs) of English are no real articulatory problem. The difficulties lie with the consonants." (1977:2)5


A syllable is generally a short (small) unit of sound in a language. Usually it can be uttered (said) by itself, and consists of a vowel (V) and some consonants (C). It is useful to classify syllables by their consonant-vowel (C-V) pattern. Thus the simplest type of syllable is CV, i.e. a single consonant followed by a single vowel. For example, the word "dollar" [dol ] has two simple CV syllables: [do], [l ]. The Warlpiri equivalent, "tala", also has two simple syllables with CV pattern: [ta], [la]. Warlpiri has only two types of syllable: CV and CVC. As well as these two types, English has in addition syllables with several consonants: CCV, CCVC, CCVCC, CCCVC, CCCVCC, CCCVCCC, etc. Furthermore, English has syllables beginning with a vowel (i.e. without an initial consonant): V, VC, VCC, VCCC, while Warlpiri has none of this type.

A Warlpiri speaker uses Warlpiri syllable patterns when saying a foreign word. If the syllable pattern of the foreign word involves just the Warlpiri syllable types, CV and CVC, then the word is relatively easy for the Warlpiri speaker to pronounce, as in the examples already given in section 1. They are shown again here with the syllable pattern given in the middle column.


kalinta CV-CVC-CV calendar
tala CV-CV dollar
mijirnirri CV-CV-CV-CV missionary
piipi CV-CV baby
kuwana CV-CV-CV goanna
jawa CV-CV shower
jangari CV-CV(-CV) shanghai
panji CVC-CV fancy
Jantiyi CVC-CV(-CV) Sunday
Mantiyi CVC-CV(-CV) Monday
Jarritiyi CV-CV-CV(-CV) Saturday
Janyuwari CV-CV-CV-CV January
Pipuwari CV-CV-CV-CV February
Julayi CV-CV(-CV) July
Napimpa CV-CVC-CV November
Tijimpa CV-CVC-CV December
There are further restrictions on Warlpiri syllables:6
  1. the last syllable of a word must be CV -- it cannot be CVC;
  2. the final C in a CVC syllable must be m, n, rn, ny, ng (nasals), l, rl, ly (laterals), or rr . (All these consonants are of the type called sonorants -- these are pronounced with a resonance inside the mouth, and can usually be held indefinitely.) A final C in a CVC syllable cannot be a p, t, rt, j, k (stops), w, y, r (glides), or rd.

2.1 Problem with consonants at the end of a word.

In accordance with the first restrictions just mentioned, an English word ending in a consonant has a vowel added at the end by a Warlpiri speaker. (Usually the vowel is i, unless the preceding vowel is u in which case the added vowel is also u.)

kantini canteen
majini machine
kanjurlu council
karrijini kerosene
nanikutu nanny goat
kamulu camel
puluku bullock
rapiji rubbish
tawunu town
tawurlu towel
tayipurlu table
piniji(-mani) finish
jiminti cement
jipini seven
rapuranti wrap-around
Note that the added final vowel also can break up an English word-final pair of consonants, as in "ji-min-ti" cement.

2.2 Certain clusters of consonants broken with extra vowel

In accordance with the second restriction mentioned above (disallowing certain consonant clusters), a Warlpiri speaker sometimes inserts (adds in) a vowel between two consonants of an English word, so that the Warlpiri pronunciation has extra syllables. In the following examples, the additional inserted vowel is underlined:

pilayi play CCV
jiriyi three CCV
pakuju box CVCC
jumuku smoke CCVC
jinayiki snake CCVC
turaki truck CCVC
pilangkiti blanket CCVC-CVC
pulakani flagon CCV-CVC
Puratiyi Friday CCV-CV
Jipitimpa September CVC-CVC-CV
The particular initial pair of consonants [my], found in some English words beginning "mu-", can be pronounced by a close Warlpiri equivalent, ny. Alternatively, a vowel may be inserted between the two consonants.
nyujiki music
nyujiyimi museum
miyurlu mule

2.3 Certain consonant clusters only partly pronounced.

Another strategy available to the Warlpiri speaker is to ignore one or more of a sequence of English consonants. This happens especially to prevent a pair of stop consonants occurring in the Warlpiri pronunciation, such as school [skul] being pronounced as kuurlu (in preference to *jukurlu, say). In the following examples, each consonant in the English word which is ignored in the Warlpiri word is underlined. Some examples also show an inserted vowel in the Warlpiri -- as above in 2.2, such a vowel is also underlined.

pija picture CVC-CV
jakumanu stockman CCVC-CVC
Juujiyi Tuesday CVC-CV
Winijiyi Wednesday CVCC-CV
Jayijiyi Thursday CVC-CV
pirdi-pulawa pretty flower CCV-CV-CCV-CV
kuurlu school CCVC
puunu spoon CCVC
makiti musket CVC-CVC
yapukaji half-caste CVC-CVCC
yajilitiki athletics VC-CV-CVCC
Yalijipiringi Alice Springs V-CVC-CCCVCC

Sometimes the Warlpiri speaker changes the pronunciation of an English consonant into the corresponding Warlpiri nasal or lateral, thereby enabling the consonant to occur in syllable-final position (i.e. the last C in a CVC syllable):

walypali white fella CVC-CV-CV

2.4 Problem with vowels at the beginning of a word.

Since Warlpiri has just CV and CVC syllables, every Warlpiri word begins with a single consonant before the first vowel.

An English word beginning with a vowel when pronounced by a Warlpiri speaker has a consonant added to the beginning of the word. The consonant is one of the glides, usually y or w, depending on the following vowel. Furthermore, an English word beginning with h is treated the same as English words beginning with a vowel. It is difficult for a Warlpiri speaker to say these words without adding a consonant before the first vowel.


Wukuju August
Wukutupa ) October
Wukutuwupa )
wijipirtirli hospital
wupurlu oval
Yingkirliji English
yayirti eight
yiniwayi anyway

Yapirili ) April
Yapurulu )
yapukaji half-caste
yajilitiki athletics
Yalijipiringi Alice Springs
yaripilayini aeroplane
yalikapita helicopter

yurapiti rabbit
yurutu road
Young children say some Warlpiri words with an initial vowel (e.g. "ampiya" for yampiya 'leave it'). It may be possible to introduce English vowel-initial words through mimicry of this type of "baby talk".

Further, some Warlpiri speakers may be familiar with Pitjantjatjarra, and be aware of words in that language which begin with a vowel. (Pitjantjatjarra has V and VC syllables as well as the CV and CVC types in Warlpiri.)

2.5 Problem with words of a single syllable.

Another restriction on a well-formed Warlpiri word is that it has a minimum of two syllables. This basic restriction has many consequences for the pronunciation of English by a Warlpiri speaker, particularly since most simple and common English words consist of just one syllable, which is often a syllable type that is not found in Warlpiri, or cannot come at the end of a Warlpiri word. Many common English words have a syllable pattern type such as CVC or CCVC, i.e. one other than the two simple Warlpiri types (CV and CVC).

A Warlpiri speaker pronounces an English monosyllable (word consisting of a single syllable) as a word of two syllables, or sometimes more.


Mayi May
waya wire
nuwu no
jayi chair
tuwa door
puwa four
tuwu two
tiyi tea
payi(-mani) buy

wani one
nayini nine
tini ten
Jurnu June
rumu room

Some final consonants are easier to pronounce than others, as Warlpiri does have CVC syllables ending in a nasal (m, n, rn, ny, ng), lateral (l, rl, ly), or rr. Words ending in t, d, p, b, k, g, s, z, sh, ch, f, v, th are much harder for a Warlpiri to master. Examples of difficult English words include those in the right-hand column below:

jupa soap
jupu soup
jipi sheep
Maaji March
japu shop
puku book
paaki park
pipa paper
jaaji church, judge
tapi tap
kiyiti gate
payipi five
pinji fence
layiti light
waji(-mani) wash
jatimapi(-mani) shut up

2.6 Summary: initial consonant clusters.

A Warlpiri speaker has trouble accurately pronouncing any English word beginning with more than one consonant before the first vowel, i.e. beginning with a consonant cluster. Different initial consonant clusters present different degrees of difficulty:

(i) initial clusters of an English consonant followed by l, r; i.e.

p, b, f, k, g, s             followed by   l
p, b, f, th, t, d, sh, k, g followed by r

Examples: please, bleed, fling, clear, glass, sleep, pray, bring, Friday, throw, tread, dress, shrug, crane, green.

With some drilling, the Warlpiri pupil should manage these CC clusters without too much trouble.

(ii) initial clusters beginning with English s, and followed by a single consonant:

s    followed by    p, t, k, w, m

Examples: spoon, still, skin, swim, smoke The sound s is among the most difficult English sounds for a Warlpiri speaker to learn, even when not combined with another consonant. Having to pronounce another consonant immediately after an s is doubly difficult for a Warlpiri speaker. There are two common treatments of these clusters: either the s is dropped (as spoon and school become puunu and kuurlu), or a high vowel (i or u) is inserted to separate the two consonants (as smoke becomes jumuku).

(iii) initial clusters beginning with English s, and followed by two consonants:

s    followed by    pl, pr, py, tr, ty, kr, kw, ky

s t
Examples: splash, sprint, spew, street, stew, scream, squall, skew

The comments in (ii) above about clusters beginning with s apply from (ii) above. These clusters of three consonants are even harder. Ability to pronounce them correctly assumes the ability to correctly pronounce the simpler clusters described in (ii).

2.7 Summary: Problems with consonants at the end of a word.

The following problems are associated with final consonants and consonant clusters:

(i) English words ending in a consonant will tend to have a vowel added.

Examples: canteen, machine, council, goat, camel, bullock, rubbish, town, towel, finish, cement, seven.

(ii) English words ending in more than one consonant will tend to have the consonant cluster (group) simplified: a vowel might be added at the end of the word, and put between the consonants, or one or more of the consonants may be dropped (not pronounced).

Examples: table, athletics, springs

The dropping of the last consonant from a group is particularly troublesome in English, because of two very common inflectional suffixes (endings) which can get ignored this way. These two endings are the 3rd-person singular verb ending and noun plural "s", and the past tense "ed". Thus "milk" and "milks", or "kill" and "killed", get pronounced the same way. This also applies to the "'d" of shortened "had", as in "I'd better go home."

To begin with, it would probably be better to use verbs which have a different vowel in the past tense, such as "ran -- run", "go -- went", "sing -- sang", which the Warlpiri child can easily catch. Similarly, it would be an idea to use irregular plurals, such as "child -- children", "man -- men", and plurals of words ending in a vowel, such as "kangaroo -- kangaroos". Later, introduce the final clusters in "dog -- dogs", "talk -- talked".

2.8 Further comments on consonant clusters.

The following commentary is taken from Capp 1977:
The existing books on English pronunciation tend to concern themselves with the total spectrum of English speech as if it was all hard... Although "Sound and Sense" [Tate 1976] does consider many of the differences between Australian languages and English, 22 pages are devoted to vowel exercises, 55 pages to consonants and consonant production... Incidental examples of the clusters do occur; but not in such a way as to really alert teachers to their importance.

The same criticism is applicable to [Pearson 1972]. Both books are good as far as they go. They could have expended less effort on known sounds and the vowels and concentrated more on the problems of clusters of consonants.

Capp 1977:2 recommends "Situational English for Newcomers to Australia. Part 1 Teacher's Book (London: Longman, 1970) as "the best source book available", on teaching consonant clusters. Anon. n.d.:5 says this is available from Language Teaching Centre, P.O. Box 39, Woden ACT 2606.


The following examples are English words borrowed into Warlpiri. Each involve a number of changes to the English word. For each one, figure out the extent to which the principles discussed above are involved. Are any additional principles needed?

pajingkirli bicycle CV-CV-CVC
warrki(-jarrimi) work CVC
wurlkumanu old woman VCC-CV-CVC
parnpiya family CVC-CV
pirnpaji breakfast CCVC-CVCC


In Warlpiri the first syllable of every word is always stressed, i.e. is pronounced louder than the following syllables of the word. Warlpiri has initial stress.

There is a useful way of marking which syllable of a word is stressed, namely writing an apostrophe (') immediately before the syllable. So, for example, there are English words with initial stress, such as 'children, 'water, e'ssential, 'carrying, but this is not so for other English words: re'cording, in'vestigate, insu'rrection.

It is possible for more than one syllable in a word to be stressed. In a word with more than one stressed syllable, it is still true that one of the stressed syllables is more prominent than the others. The syllable with the most stress is said to have primary stress, and it is this that the apostrophe ' indicates -- the apostrophe immediately preceds the syllable that has the primary stress. The other stressed syllables have secondary stress, which may be marked with a double apostrophe " before each secondary stressed syllable. Thus, in English we have words like 'indus"try, "consti'tution, "capita"li'sation.

In English it is possible to have a word of two syllables, both stressed, such as "can'teen, 'foot"ball. This is not possible in Warlpiri. Also, some English words have stress on the last syllable, such as in'vite, re'cord, a'broad, re'ceive, a'llow, "Tenne'ssee, but this is not a possibility in Warlpiri. Warlpiri words are never stressed on the final syllable. Words with final stress are consequently difficult for a Warlpiri to say with accurate English stress, and hence need lots of drilling.

In Warlpiri, the root of every word has a stress on its first syllable, as does every suffix (ending) of two or more syllables: 'kirrirdi, 'Japal"jarri, 'Ngaliyi"kirlangu, 'pirli"manu, 'Yurntumu"wardingki. The stress pattern of a Warlpiri word reflects its composition, its morphological structure. And in a Warlpiri sentence, the beginning of each word is signalled by a primary stress -- the stress has a demarcative function.

In English, stress functions differently from in Warlpiri. For instance, there are some English words which are a noun or a verb depending on the stress pattern, such as record, convict, permit, protest, conduct, torment, insert. Such pairs are probably difficult for the Warlpiri child to distinguish.

Those English words which have stress patterns similar to Warlpiri words are not so difficult for Warlpiri speakers to learn to say correctly. However, English words with an unstressed initial syllable are difficult. A Warlpiri speaker learning English tends to pick out the first stressed syllable as the beginning of the word. For example, ba'nana will be said as 'nana. The ear more attuned to English will change the stress pattern of the English word so as to include the initial syllable, and pronounce the word as 'pinana. Similar Warlpiri loans from English are:

It is changes such as these which are behind the un-English accent of many Warlpiri speakers. Right from the beginning, attention should be given to correct placement of stress.

For example, the following words have non-initial stress (indicated by apostrophe before the stressed syllable) in English, but when borrowed into Warlpiri have initial stress:


'lipini e'leven
'tiriyali ma'terial
'Julayi Ju'ly
'Jipi"timpa Sep'tember
'Napimpa No'vember
'Tijimpa De'cember

It is probably easier for the Warlpiri child to begin with words with initial stress (most words of Germanic origin in English), e.g. water, teacher, mirror etc., and then move on to words with non-initial stress, such as banana, tomato, potato.


Aboriginal children learning English acquire at least some of the features of "Aboriginal English" creole. The situation children find themselves involves two poles of adult English models: (1) "Creole" (the Aboriginal English of older Warlpiris, say) and (2) "Standard" (the English of native speakers, and of some younger Aboriginal adults). Their growing English competence is really along a continuum between the two poles.

There is much in common with similar situations elsewhere in the world. For example, a study in the West Indies

confirmed a basic principle that directed the teaching methodology... was that, as far as the learner was concerned, the continuum between Creole and Standard consisted of four hierarchical strata of linguistic structures as follows:

A those common to both Standard and non-Standard speech and therefore within the production repertoire of the learner;

B those not usually produced in the informal, non-Standard speech of the learner, but known to him and produced under stress in prestige social situations;

C those which the learner would recognise and comprehend if used by other speakers (especially in a meaningful context), but which the learner would be unable to produce;

D those totally unknown to the learner.

(Craig 1979:180)

With respect to pronunciation of sounds, the different degrees of strength of a "Warlpiri accent" would conform to the above four levels. For instance, the pronunciation an "h" at the beginning of an English is commonly at level "B" above: when speaking informally, the young Warlpiri may say happy without the initial h , yet pronounce it when conscious of showing his command of English.


This paper has been concerned with the tasks of English speaking and listening as approached by someone who knows Warlpiri. Here I make one preliminary observation about English reading and writing from the viewpoint of someone who is literate in Warlpiri.

Warlpiri spelling uses the following letters:

a i j k l m n p r t u w y
and, as second letter of a digraph only,
d  (in rd),  g  (in ng)
Presumably, then, introductory English material, at least the words that are not sight words, would best be confined as much as possible to words using just the Warlpiri letters. Then the new letters would be introduced. The following letters are new to a literate Warlpiri beginning English writing:
b c e f h o q s v x z
Thus the child has to learn to form and to recognise 11 new letters, in both upper and lower case. Also, the letters a, d, g, i, u do not occur at the beginning of a Warlpiri word, so Warlpiri children beginning English reading would also have to learn the capital letters A, D, G, I, U as they would not be used to seeing them as initial capitals.

Those new symbols which correspond to a non-Warlpiri sound (such as f, v, h, s, z) would presumably be better introduced before those known symbols which have a different value in English from Warlpiri (such as u, g other than in ng, vocalic y). These observations about letters need to be integrated with the grading of sounds set out in sections 1 and 2.



from the beginning of Hale's 1974 Warlpiri vocabulary, including the technical names for the various types of sounds.
          bilabial  apico-    apico-    lamino-   velar
alveolar domal alveolar
stops p t rt j k
nasals m n rn ny ng
laterals l rl ly
flaps rr rd
glides w r y

Word-initially, rt,rn,rl are written t, n, l.
           front  back
high i u Long vowels are written as
low a geminates: ii, uu, aa


          labial    apico-   dental palatal       velar
stops p t k
b d g
fricatives f s th sh
v z dh zh
affricates ch
nasals m n (ny) ng
lateral l (ly)

glides w y r
VOWELS: (as in the following words)
           front    central       back

high beat boot
bit put
mid bait about boat
bet Bert pot
low bat Bart bought

diphthongs bite boy bout


These are some of the more technical terms used in this paper. Please add to this list any others you need to have explained.
C              consonant
V vowel

affricate a mixture of a fricative and a stop
alveolar involving the ridge behind the upper teeth
apico- pronunciation using the tongue tip
bilabial pronunciation using both lips
continuum continuous variation, not just a small number
of types
domal pronunciation involving the hard palate behind the
fricative hissing or buzzing type of sound
glide type of sound intermediate between consonant type
and vowel type, sometimes called semi-vowel
lamino- pronounciation using the blade of the tongue (the part behind the tip)
lateral pronunciation with coming out the sides of the
monolingual knowing only one language
nasal pronunciation with air coming out the nose
sonorant pronounced with a resonance inside the mouth, and
can usually be held indefinitely
stop type of consonant sound involving release of
pent up air (sometimes called plosive)
syllable see beginning of section 2
velar pronunciation involves the velum (soft palate)


1. This paper was requested by Pam Harris (Teacher/Linguist, Yuendumu) and is intended for teachers in the Warlpiri bilingual programme. I have incorporated most of a 3p. typescript "English-Warlpiri comparison" prepared in 1977 by Mary Laughren (Linguist, Yuendumu). Valuable assistance was also given by Timothy Shopen. The notes of Anon. n.d. and the similar study by Capp 1977 provided some further suggestions. On the difficulties of phonics instruction in English, see Smith 1973.

2. Ideally, this paper would use a uniform phonetic alphabet for writing both Warlpiri and English example words, and indeed some examples are given in the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). IPA examples are usually given in square brackets. However, to make it easier for non-linguists to read, I have used a "common sense" kind of phonetic alphabet such as used by some English dictionaries.

3. For further details of the pronunciation of Warlpiri, refer to the IAD Warlpiri Language Course, and Hale 1977.

4. The loanwords cited in this paper have been taken from Hale 1974, 1977, from the IAD Warlpiri Language Course materials, from various issues of Junga Yimi, and from the 1981 and 1982 Yuendumu calendars.

5. Capp 1977:6 also suggests a technique for helping with the English vowel sounds which are very similar. His suggestion amounts to exploiting the different ways that one Warlpiri vowel gets pronounced according to the consonants next to it, particularly the consonant that follows the vowel. Thus the first vowel in the two Warlpiri words pili 'digging scoop' and pingi 'ant' are really the same vowel, i, but it is pronounced a little bit different in pili (a bit higher) than in pingi. The phonetic (sound) difference is a bit like the difference between the two different English vowels in bit and bet. Capp does not describe the technique in any detail, and it may well be more appropriate to Warlpiri linguistic training rather than oral English for children.

6. For a more detailed statement of Warlpiri phonotactics (what sounds may be adjacent) and stress, see Hale 1977 and Nash 1980 (Chapter 3).


Anonymous. n.d. Teaching English as a Second Language. 5pp. mimeo. [Previous Yuendumu teacher's notes from a TESL course]

Capp, Robert. 1977. Pitjantjatjarra and English sound systems: assumptions for teaching English pronunciation. 21/10/77. 15pp. typescript.

Craig, Dennis R. 1979. Bilingual Education: Creole and Standard in the West Indies, pp. 164-184 in Sociolinguistic Aspects of Language Learning and Teaching, ed. by J. B. Pride. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (xix+248 pp. $16.50) First published in International Journal of the Sociology of Language 8 (1976).

Hale, Kenneth L. 1974. An elementary dictionary of the Warlpiri language. Mimeo., 97pp. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Re-issued by Institute for Aboriginal Development, Alice Springs, 1977, as part of course materials for their Warlpiri Language Course.

— 1975. Gaps in grammar and culture, 295-315 in Linguistics and Anthropology, in Honor of C.F. Voegelin, ed. by M.D. Kinkade et al. Lisse: Peter de Ridder Press.

— 1977. Elementary remarks on Walbiri orthography, phonology and allomorphy. 34pp. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T.

Nash, David. 1980. Topics in Warlpiri Grammar. M.I.T. dissertation.

Pearson, L.A. 1972. Pronunciation Drills for Primary Classes. N.T.A.

Smith, Frank. 1973. "The Efficiency of Phonics", chapter 7 in his Psycholinguistics and Reading. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Tate, Gloria M. 1976. Sound and Sense: A Speech Handbook. 104pp. Darwin: Department of Education. (Reprinted from 1967 edition published by Welfare Branch, N.T.A.)

Reference added 2011:

Geytenbeek, Brian B. 1977. Looking at English through Nyangumarda-coloured spectacles, pp.34-44 in Language problems and Aboriginal education, ed. by Ed Brumby and Eric G Vászolyi. Perth: Mt Lawley CAE

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© 1983 David Nash