Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi
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Notes on Spelling and Pronunciation

All Kaurna words used to be written exactly as they appear in Teichelmann & Schürmann (1840) or Teichelmann (1857). By retaining these spellings, it was easy to find the words in the original sources. There were some shortcomings with these spellings, but on the whole they were reasonably consistent in the way in which they wrote Kaurna words. In 2010 KWP decided to revise the spelling to make it more consistent and easier for language learners. A new dictionary of the Kaurna language is currently being developed which will use the revised spellings. The following is a description of the sounds of Kaurna and with information about how they were spelt in the original sources.


Kaurna has just three distinctive vowels, which may be long or short when they occur in the first syllable. They are:

i is usually pronounced [ı] as in pit; or sometimes [i] as in ski

      (remember, i in never pronounced [ai] as  in I or mine)

a pronounced [Λ] as in but; or [a] as in Bart or father

      (remember, a in never pronounced [æ] as  in apple)

u pronounced [ω] as in put

      (remember, u in never pronounced [Λ] as in but. This sound is always written as a)

ai is pronounced [ai] as in I, high, lie, or by.

au is pronounced [au] as I n cow, house or bough

ui is pronounced [ui], a combination of u in put and i in pit

Vowels written as e should be pronounced [ı] at the end of words, and as [ı]  or occasionally as [i] as in me in the middle of words. However, if it occurs after y it should be pronounced [Λ] as in but. Note that Kaurna yerta corresponds to Nukunu and Adnyamathanha yarta ‘land’. Similarly, vowels written as o should be pronounced [ω] as in put, except after w when it is pronounced [Λ] as in but or [a] as in Bart.


The pronunciation of some Kaurna consonants, such as m, w and y is straightforward. They are pronounced much the same as they are in English. The letters ng usually represent the sound [Å‹] as in singer, but sometimes ng is used to write the [Å‹g] sound as in finger. In the middle of words English uses the digraph ng more often to write the latter [Å‹g] cluster. In Kaurna ng [Å‹] often occurs at the beginning of words and syllables whereas in English it often occurs at the end of words.

Stops (p-b, t-d, k-g)

Like Pitjantjatjara and many other Australian languages, Kaurna does not make a distinction between p and b; t and d; or k and g. That is, there is no voicing contrast. T&S wrote most words with an initial p, t or k, though they did write some words with an initial b or g. Sometimes they wrote the same word with both; for instance they usually wrote pa ‘he; she; it’ but sometimes they wrote it as ba.p and b (an unaspirated voiceless stop).

Rhotics (r sounds)

However, there is more guesswork in relation to the r sounds. It appears that there are three different rhotics (or r sounds) in Kaurna. There is a contrast between the r in wirri ‘shoulder blade’ (pronounced [wiri] in Nukunu with a glide r as in Australian English) and the rr in wirri ‘club’(pronounced [wirri] in Nukunu with a rolled r as in Scottish English, Indonesian or Italian). In addition, there is a short tapped r, which occurs in words like kari ‘emu’ or pari ‘maggot; rice’. It is pronounced much like the tt in ‘butter’.

Interdental, alveolar and retroflex consonants (t, n and l sounds).

Kaurna makes a distinction between interdental sounds (where the tongue is placed between the teeth), alveolar sounds (where the tongue touches the alveolar ridge behind the top teeth) and retroflex sounds (where the tongue tip is curled back). T&S did not distinguish adequately between these three classes of sounds. When T&S write the letter t, it could be an interdental [th]; alveolar [t] or retroflex [rt]. For instance, puti ‘hairy’ is equivalent to puthi in Nukunu, where the t is an interdental [th], whilst wito ‘reed’ is witu in Nukunu with an alveolar [t]. Milte ‘red’ has an interdental [lh] and [th]  (the word is milthi [milhthi] in Nukunu), kalta ‘sleepy lizard] has an alveolar [l] and [t] , whilst in pilta ‘possum’ they are retroflex [rl] and [rt] as Nukunu has pirlta [pirlrta].

Similarly, the letter n could represent an interdental [nh] as in munto ‘belly’ (munthu [munhthu] in Nukunu); and alveolar as in mena ;eye’ (miina in Nukunu) or a retroflex as in minno ‘wattle gum’ (mirnu in Nukunu).

Comparisons with Nukunu indicate that when t or n are written at the beginning of words, most likely the sounds are actually interdentals [th] and [nh] pronounced with the tongue between the teeth.


English spelling combines some letters to represent certain sounds. Think of the combinations ph, ch, sh, ur, ough etc. Similarly, in Kaurna some sounds are represented by a digraph or combination of two letters. The letters ty represent a sound similar to the ch in church or j and dg in judge, except that the tongue is further forward, pressed flat behind the top and bottom teeth. When r occurs before t, n or l it is probably part of a digraph rt, rn or rl used sometimes by T&S to represent retroflex sounds.

Consonant Clusters

When r occurs before k (as in murki ‘face’ or birkibirki  ‘peas’) and p (as in ngarpadla ‘aunt’), it is an r sound in its own right. Remember to pronounce the vowels in these words as explained above, not as in slur or sir as we are tempted to do as English speakers.