Orthography— how to write words
Baleh ka-yime bu karri-wokbimbun?
a b d rd e g h i k l rl m n ng nj rn o r rr u w y
double stops: bb, dd, rdd, kk dipthongs: ai, au, ei, eu, iu, oi, ou, ui
n.g to distinguish a syllable ending in n followed by the next commencing with g. In Kunwinjku this would be written nk
a b d rd e h i k l rl m n ng nj rn o r rr u w y
double stops: bb, dd, rdd, kk dipthongs: ay, aw, ey, ew, iw, oy, ow, uy
A spelling system or orthography was first developed for Kunwinjku from the late 1960s. In the late 1980s, the linguist Nicholas Evans was engaged as a consultant to Kakadu National Park to work on the Gundjeihmi language which is spoken there. He originally used the Kunwinjku orthography for Gundjeihmi as both dialects have exactly the same sound systems. However, some Gundjeihmi speakers wanted to have a separate identity to Kunwinjku which reflects the very different social histories of these two groups. As a result (and for better or worse), a variant orthography was designed for Gundjeihmi which now distinguishes it from Kunwinjku. In most cases the words in both dialects will be pronounced exactly the same but the words will be spelt differently because of the different orthographic rules.
When learning a new language it is important to commence by learning the language’s own alphabet (if one exists). It is not appropriate to expect the letters of the English alphabet to always have the same sound values in the alphabet of the language being learned. Although both English and Kunwinjku/Gundjeihmi use the Roman alphabet, there are many sounds in one language, which the other does not have and the same letters or symbols may represent different sounds in each of the languages.
Linguists identify the inventory of individual sounds in a language and call these sounds phonemes. Each phoneme in an ideal alphabet would be consistently represented by the same symbol. Such an orthographic system is called a ‘phonemic alphabet’. The English alphabet is no longer phonemic because changes in pronunciation over time have not been paralleled by spelling reform. So today in English, we have many different sounds represented by the same spellings. English is frequently no longer pronounced the way it is written:
e.g. rough, cough, bough, through
There are other inconsistencies which must be learnt such as the voiced and unvoiced values of the letter ‘s’ as in ‘poise’ [z] and ‘sing’ [s], or ‘th’ as [ð] in ‘this’ but [θ] in ‘thing’.
Then there is the confusion of the same sounds with different spellings. Consider the [ai] sound in the following words all spelt differently:
light, site, die, fry, eye
And the many silent sounds:
knight, pneumonia, wrap, thorough, should etc.
The Kunwinjku and Gundjeihmi alphabets do not have these problems. Every time an orthographic symbol is used in a word, it always has the same pronunciation (excluding minor differences that linguists would call ‘allophonic variation’). In other words, the language is written as it sounds. But you have to first learn the sound values of each letter or combinations of letters.