Orthography— how to write words

Baleh ka-yime bu karri-wokbimbun?

News update June 2015:

After language planning and community consultations in Kakadu National Park, the Gundjeihmi speaking community has decided to join up with the other dialects and use the same orthography as that used for Kunwinjku and other Bininj Kunwok dialects. There will now be one single spelling system or orthography for spelling all dialects of Bininj Kunwok. This is a great development for language literacy. It means that "Gundjeihmi" will now be spelt "Kundjeyhmi".

Kunwinjku, Kuninjku, Kundedjnjenghmi, Kune and Kundjeyhmi:

a b d dj rd  e h i k l rl m n ng nj rn o r rr u w y

double stops: bb, dd, djdj, rdd, kk diphthongs: ay, aw, ey, ew, iw, oy, ow, uy

The Kunwinjku spelling system has been in use since the 1960s when it was developed by linguists in consultation with the community, mostly at Gunbalanya (Kunbarlanja). We encourage those of you who need to write Bininj Kunwok to use this community-approved standard orthography.

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 Kunwinjku also uses the Roman alphabet, there are many sounds in one language that uses the roman script, which another language may 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 alphabet does not have these problems because it is a phonemic alphabet. 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.