Tongue twisters in Australian languages

A lively thread has been unwinding over on the RNLD email list recently, in response to a request for examples of Australian tongue twisters.

So many great phrases have come out of the woodwork that it behooves us to set them down here for posterity. Thanks to John Hobson for starting the discussion, and to all those who contributed examples.

It’s interesting that quite a few of these seem to be about drilling the word-initial velar nasal [ŋ-], one of the perenniel challenges for mother-tongue speakers of English but less ‘twisty’ for speakers of Australian Aboriginal languages, or indeed for anyone who lives in the vicinity of these red dots.


Intelyapelyape yepeyepe-kenhe lyepelyepele anepaneme
‘The butterfly is sitting on the sheep’s intestines’

(thanks: Jenny Green)

Arrernte (Western)

Kwerrekwerre kweke kakeke kaltye.
‘Little owl recognises big brother.’

(thanks: John Hobson, per John Henderson)


Ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo.
‘They were kindling a fire ‘

(thanks: Claire Bowern)

Bininj Kunwok (Kuninjku dialect)

nganganghnganga ʼngehngehʼ yimeng
[ŋaŋaŋʔŋaŋa ŋɛʔŋɛʔ yimeŋ]
‘The grey-crowned babbler said nge’ nge’.’

Dabborrabbolk birribidbom bembem birribimbom.
[dabːorabːolk bɪrɪbitbom bembem bɪrɪbɪmbom]
‘The old people climbed up and painted a sole fish.

(thanks: Murray Garde)


rrugurrgurda jin-digigirrnga
‘the crab crawls around’

(thanks: Margaret Carew)

Iltyem-iltyem Central Australian Sign Language

‘Mum eats cake’, a finger-twister that has to be seen to be appreciated.

(thanks: Eileen Campbell and Margaret Carew)


‘(We) intend to talk to one another’

[wangka- ‘to speak'; -irarri ‘reciprocal'; -irarringu ‘intentive’]

(thanks: Peter Austin)


(thurruburduyuburdu in practical orthography)


(thanks: Nick Evans)


Dubuduburr durathur dulbiribiriwu burururu.
[ɖubudubur ɖuɹaðuɹ ɖulbiɹibiɹiwu buɹuɹuɹu]
‘The tiger mullet will tickle the rain bird with a (species of bush used for firedrill)’

Burbur bana buribur bana burdu.
[buɹbuɹ bana buɹibuɹ bana buɖu]
‘Both the feather and the gun are short’

Dulbiribiri dulburri burrurri.
[ɖulbiɹibiɹi ɖulburi bururi]
‘The rain bird picked seaweed up off the ground’

(thanks: Norvin Richards)


ngunungam-ngem ngarra Kungarlbarl
‘I’m going to Kungarlbarl’.

(thanks: Rachel Nordlinger)

Nganga ngalla
big green frog’

(thanks: John Mansfield)


Awafilfilimuy wannimfifilirrmuy.
‘the restless ones are staggering around’

(thanks: Nicholas Reid)


‘mud wasp’ (onomatopoeic) –

(thanks: Mark Clendon)


‘swarm of hornets’
murrururruru (Variant: murruru).
‘hornet, wasp, insect sp.’

(thanks: David Nash)

Malikirli ka mardarni kartirdi kardirri kirrirdi
The dog has long white teeth’

(thanks: Barry Alpher)

Western Desert Language

Nguuurrnguur ngayuku ngurrangka ngarringu.
‘My pig lay in camp.’

(thanks: John Hobson)


(thanks: Greg Wilson)


Ngaandi nginda ngarray ngaarrima?

‘Who did you see over there?’

Ngaya nginunha ngarraldanha.

‘I am looking at you.’

(thanks: John Giacon)





Translation in language documentation and revitalisation: LIP discussion

Alan Ray recaps June’s Linguistics in the Pub.

The June Melbourne LIP discussed the vexed topic of translation, particularly in the context of endangered languages. The context for the discussion was provided by Evans and Sasse (2007) and Hellwig (2010). Present were linguists from Monash, Melbourne and La Trobe universities.

The first observation, supported by personal experience and the above references, was that the longer a linguist works with a language and its speakers, the greater appreciation there is for the complexities and subtleties of that language. The challenge is how to show that complexity. In a standard three line example of text, gloss and free translation, the last is where idiom and other complexity can be shown. Of course the free translation can also mislead as it does not directly reflect the exact text and there is frequently no transparency as to how the free translation was arrived at. There was support in the group that the process should be more transparent. For example, at times a fourth line should be added before the free translation; a literal translation which most accurately reflected the base text.

There was considerable discussion on the question of context; how to show it and how important it was. Various aspects of context such as discourse information, cultural knowledge, gesture and physical landscape could all be important in establishing meaning.
Continue reading ‘Translation in language documentation and revitalisation: LIP discussion’ »

Literacy in the field: how do the communities we work with use vernacular literacy?: LIP discussion

Harriet Sheppard recaps the May Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

The May LIP brought together linguists from La Trobe, Monash and the University of Melbourne to discuss vernacular literacy in the communities we work with. The place of vernacular literacy in language documentation programs is a recurring topic that many of us who work with traditionally oral languages come across and must consider as a matter of course throughout our work. As developing an orthography for a language entails a level of standardisation that may not have existed previously for a language, some linguists, such as Ameka (2011), have suggested that we could bypass literacy, replacing written documentation with audiovisual documentation products. However, the reality is that most linguists need to develop our own literacy in the target language in order to conduct research. Frequently communities expect us to produce language resources such as dictionaries and storybooks for the community. In this month’s LIP gathering we discussed how the communities we work with participate in literacy activities in vernacular languages and how outputs of language documentation projects can potentially be better designed for the community. Continue reading ‘Literacy in the field: how do the communities we work with use vernacular literacy?: LIP discussion’ »

Generating word forms

Have you ever wanted to create a list of possible words in a language you are working on? Have you started creating a dictionary but now need to find words that are not yet recorded? This could be the app for you. Word Generator is a free web service that lets you upload a list of words that you know, together with a list of consonants and vowels, like this:

Consonants: b, rd, d, k, g, j, rl, l, lh, ly, m, n, nh, ng, ny, rn, yh, r, rr, n, ng, y, th, w
Vowels: a, aa, i, ii, u, uu

[ … ]

Word Generator will generate a list of possible words based on this information. It has a number of settings you can alter to adjust the degree of probability, the number and the length of words you want to produce. You can then ask speakers to look through the list to help them think of words that are not already in the dictionary, and it could provoke useful discussion about other forms and meanings.

Please try Word Generator and post any feedback here or by email to me.

Word Generator is being written by Andreas Scherbakov as part of a project funded by ARC Future Fellowship FT140100214

Elicitation Methods

Jonathan Schlossberg recaps the April Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Topic: Elicitation Methods

In 2011, LIP ran a discussion on techniques and activities used in the field by linguists to elicit particular grammatical phenomena, compare cognition across languages or simply record naturalistic talk-in-interaction. What is new today? We would like to follow on the same idea and give the opportunity to present activities which were successful or unsuccessful in the field. Of particular interest would be activities using grammaticality judgments or aimed at analysing semantic functions, such as aspect.

A small but dedicated cohort representing linguists from Melbourne’s three linguistics departments showed up at April’s LIP to discuss elicitation methodologies, moderated by Giordana Santosuosso.

Continue reading ‘Elicitation Methods’ »

PARADISEC activity update

PARADISEC continues to grow! In the last year 63 new collections have been added and the archive has grown to 9.04TB with 12,489 items (made up of 73,496 files). We are currently reworking the catalog to make it easier to use.

We have added more items from Stephen Wurm’s (collection SAW4) and Don Laycock’s (DL2) papers.

Added collections include Gavan Breen’s written materials, transcripts and notes of vocabulary and grammar on 49 Australian languages and dialects, mainly from far north Queensland and the central Northern Territory (collections GB01-50). Almost all the languages described are now no longer spoken.
Continue reading ‘PARADISEC activity update’ »

Where have all the AusE sociolinguists gone?

Harriet Sheppard and Jonathan Schlossberg recap the March Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.


Topic: Is the study of Australian languages at the expense of the study of Australian English variation?

Australian linguists are world renowned for their work on the description and documentation of indigenous languages. It is remarkable (to this outsider), given such a febrile research environment, that so little descriptive work seems to be being done on dialects of Australian English compared to the study of English variation in other nations. Can it really be true that Masterchef Australia has more to contribute to the analysis and documentation of Australian English than Australian linguistics does? I’d be interested in hearing from local (socio) linguists whether they think a focus on indigenous languages will necessarily be at the expense of the regional varieties of English in Australia.


A large contingent turned out for the March LIP, with representatives from Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe Universities, including many sociolinguists. The discussion was led by special guest Prof Miriam Meyerhoff (Victoria University of Wellington).
Continue reading ‘Where have all the AusE sociolinguists gone?’ »

Seeking your help with tool development

We are in the process of identifying gaps in tools for fieldwork and data analysis that can be filled as part of the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. I’d like to ask for your input into the requirements for a metadata entry tool. In part, this analysis asks for your opinions on the value of existing tools (listed below) and their relative strengths and weaknesses, and asks if it may be worth putting effort into developing any of them further, rather than starting from scratch.

The high-level requirement of this tool is to make it easy to describe files created in fieldwork, to be available both off- and on-line and to deliver the description as a text file for upload to an archive. This includes capturing as much metadata from the files themselves; providing controlled vocabularies of terms to select from (preferably via drag-and-drop rather than keyboard entry); allowing the metadata to be exported in a range of formats to suit whichever archive will host the collection; allowing the metadata to be imported to the tool for use by collaborative team members; allowing controlled vocabularies to be amended to suit the local situation. This tool could also allow users to visualise the state of a collection: which media files have been transcribed, which have been interlinearised, have text files been scanned, OCRed …. what other processes have been applied, which have been archived, what the rights are for each file, also allowing the user to specify what these criteria are for their own type of collection.

These are the currently available tools, please let us know of any others (especially those created for different disciplinary fieldwork):
CMDI Maker

You can either add comments below, or else write to me separately (thien [at] with your ideas that can contribute to how we develop this tool.

Grammar writing: where are we now?

Ruth Singer recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Linguistics in the Pub on Tuesday the 24th of February, 2015 centred around the theme: grammar writing. Harriet Sheppard (Monash University) led the discussion. The announcement and short background reading are here.

The descriptive grammar although often reported to be dead is a form of scholarship that is still very much alive. And although e-grammars are said to be the way of the future, most grammars still take the form of a hard copy, whether it is a PhD thesis or published book. The discussion in this session of linguistics in the pub was kicked off with a discussion of the article by Ulrike Mosel cited below, part of a special publication of LDC on grammar writing.
Continue reading ‘Grammar writing: where are we now?’ »

IML Day – and mother tongue/script monuments

It’s International Mother Language Day, and Canberra’s celebrations can be seen here from the ABC.

So.. the mother language whose defence led to the choice of 21 February for the day:
and the second Shaheed Minar monument in Dhaka:

And the Afrikaans Language monument:

And a mother script – image from Armenians celebrating IML Day:

Seeking more examples of public commemoration of speech communities and their ways of talking and writing….