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)





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