Goldfields Aboriginal Language Centre

Mirniny Phonology


This phonology is based on recordings and research undertaken by the Goldfields Aboriginal Language Centre Aboriginal Corporation (GALCAC), linguist Jackie Coffin, with Senior Linguist, Sue Hanson.  It is compiled from historical documents, as well as recorded elicitation workshops with Mirniny speakers.  Historical material used in this phonology includes work by; Peter Gifford, Black and White and in Between; M Velichova-Rebelos, Wordlist of the Mirniny Language; Hale and O’Grady’s Mirniny recordings; Dr J Ribi, Research Report on the Mirniny Language; Nicholas Thieberger, Handbook of Western Australian Aboriginal Languages, and Daisy Bates online resource.  For a complete list of these resources, see the reference listing at the end of this document. 

A phonology is a document that catalogues the phonemes of a language, how these phonemes are produced in the mouth and the graphemes, or diagraphs, used to represent each phoneme.  Letters of the Roman alphabet are used to represent the phoneme in this language.  Some of the phonemes found in Mirniny language do not correspond to the English letter phonemes and therefore sometimes two letters are used to represent one phoneme such as ‘ny’ which represents the phoneme found in the English word, onion and the Mirniny word mirninyman.  These are known as digraphs. 

This phonology document explains phonological features found in words of the Mirniny language such as the vowels, consonants, consonant clusters, syllables and stress patterns.

The morphology, sentence structures, suffixes and adverbs will be addressed in a forthcoming sketch grammar of this language.  

Location And Migration Of Speakers

Mirniny country occupies a long thin strip of land, east from Point Culver, along the south coast of Western Australia and South Australia to the head of the Great Australian Bight.  The inhospitable nature of the Nullarbor to the north, meant the Mirniny stayed close to the coastline, never venturing more than 50 or 60 kilometres from the coast (Curr, 1886).  Separate to non-Indigenous naming conventions, Aboriginal groups named themselves and their neighbours by differences in geography, cultural practices and rituals (or lack thereof).  Considering this, it was not unusual for one language group to be known by many different names. Documents held in the GACLAC archives show the Mirninywere also known as: Meening; Minning; Jirkala; Wonunda; Julbara; Ba:duk, Ikala; Irkala; Ngandatha; Ngandada; Wanbiri; Warnabiri; Wonbil; Yirkala-Meening and Yirkla (Thieberger, 1993).   Mirniny people are known to have lived in Balladonia, Eucla, Mundrabilla, Mundrabilla Station, Norseman and Esperance thus, further research around these areas will be undertaken.  

‘Consonant Phonetic Description’ and ‘Minimal Pair’ sections of the paper contain sound files.

This Phonology

1. Orthography

Linguists and language speakers jointly decide which letters best represent the phonemes in a language. This is done through both detailed phonemic analysis of each phoneme and discussion between and with speakers, before speakers make the decision on the orthography or alphabet to use for a language. The phoneme is then best-matched to the Roman alphabet or digraph such as ‘ny’ in the word Mirniny man. This document will explain the choices made and the reasons for making them.

One of the features of this language is that every phoneme is not found in every place in a word. Some phonemes are only found at the start of a word or middle of a word and some are only found in the middle or the end of a word.

Some phonemes are more voiced at the start of a word and less voiced in the middle or end of a word. The voiceless grapheme set /k/, /p/ and /t have been chosen to represent the phonemes that vary from the voiced /g/, /b/ and /d/, which are unused graphemes in this alphabet.  In English, these phonemes are heard as a voiced and unvoiced phoneme pair, i.e. /b/ and /p/ and are expressed and heard as separate phonemes. However, in Mirniny they are heard and used as single phonemes with more or less voicing depending on the place in a word. The amount of voicing is, generally, stronger at the start of the word and therefore they are heard similar to the voiced English phonemes /g/, /b/ and /d/ whereas less voicing is used word central or word final and they are heard as the unvoiced English /k/, /p/ and /t/.

Voiced And Unvoiced Phonemes

This selection of words, collected from historical recordings held by GALCAC, have been used to calculate the percentage of voiced and unvoiced /p/, /t/, /k/ phonemes.

The percentage of voiced versus unvoiced phoneme use is detailed below.

            Table 1: Example phonemes


1.     paparnu set alight

2.     yatu good

3.     ngarrka cliff

4.     panyili already

5.     yurlka grass

6.     kutjarra two

7.     maka no

8.     puuna– blow

9.     puya smoke

10.  pirlaya the sea

11.  yarlku blood

12.  purrku ash

13.  putja later

14.  parrku bark

15.  katji spear

16.  kukurl throat

17.  kuya no

18.  ngukarra armpit

19.  nyuntu you  

20.  makarlu big

21.  kampirti stomach

22.  pingkirli skin

23.  kurila south

24.  winaka wind

25.  karli boomerang

26.  parran light

27.  napa ashes, cold

28.  paarti grub


29.  kartaya black

30.  purntangu rock

31.  ngarnturiny what

32.  pakurri where

33.  muti small fish

34.  ngalparrangu died

35.  panartu that one

36.  tjurntal fog

37.  warnti small boy

38.  purtu small

39.  kari arm

40.  tjangkarn mouth

41.  kuwarna listen

42.  kunminya (REFLEX)

43.  karlaru (fire+ERG)

44.  patjaku use mouth

45.  yulparra south

46.  kurturtu heart

47.  wintu hair

48.  warlpi water

49.  nakurtu this one

50.  puparr hungry

51.  pirriku (nails+INSTR)

52.  yakin moon

53.  purra scrub

54.  kaarlta west

55.  kakarra east

56.  kurrartu short

57.  warlku- hail, to

58.  kamarna- melt, to


59.  pungu hit (PAST)

60.  puwa hit! (IMP)

61.  parlka head 

62.  kurrima- laugh, to

63.  yuparla thigh

64.  ngarlti liver

65.  kurntu breast

66.  ngalkun eating (PRES)

67.  piyurra frighten

68.  wiparu snake

69.  karla fire

70.  yarruku left hand

71.  yurntarn nape of neck

72.  ngarntany sick

73.  kurlpirr kangaroo

74.  kuliya ear

75.  kampu bone

76.  ngarnkurr beard

77.  pirri fingernail

78.  nanka neck

79.  kularn horn

80.  pirlta opossum

81.  kakalangu cockatoo

82.  karlaya emu

83.  kararra thin

84.  pinkirl star

85.  purlpa dust

86.  puri stone


Table 2: Percentages of voiced versus unvoiced phoneme use in Mirniny

Bilabial Plosive

(voiced b, unvoiced p)

Dental Stop

(voiced d, unvoiced t)


(voiced g, unvoiced k)




























V+ 54

 V- 1












V+ 51

V- 1



Final or more



Final or more



Final or more
















105 V+

   2 V-




The outcomes of the comparison of unvoiced and voiced phonemes use are:

  1. Of the 86 lexemes analysed above, 28 have bilabial stop /p/ in initial position and 27 have the velar stop /k/ in initial position. All of these, with the exception of the initial /k/ in kurntu are voiced.  Therefore, 98.08% of (eligible) initial phonemes are voiced (V+). While only 1.82% is unvoiced (V-). The alveolar stop /t/ does not appear in word-initial position.
  2. Of the 86 lexemes analysed above, there are 12 bilabial stops in medial position, 14 alveolar stops in medial position and 26 velar stops in medial position. Of these, 98.08% are voiced and 1.92% are unvoiced.
  3. Neither /p/, /t/, or /k/ are permitted to take final position in this language, therefore none of final phonemes are voiced.
  4. Neither /p/, /t/, or /k/ are permitted to take final position in this language, therefore none of final phonemes are unvoiced.
  5. Overall, 98.13% of all /p/, /t/ and /k/ phones in the above table are voiced, while 1.87% are unvoiced.

2. Vowels

This language has three short vowel phonemes /a/, /i/, /u/ and three long vowel phonemes /aa/, /ii/, /uu/. The vowel phonemes do not change place or manner of articulation and remain constant.

The language is rhotic and therefore vowels are rhotacized.

The phonemes represented by /y/ and /w/ are semi-vowels. These are pronounced the same as in English. However, in some circumstances the /y/ operates as a glide.

2.1 Vowel Table

/a/        as in English cut  

/aa/      as in English father

/i/         as in English pin

/ii/        as in English been

/u/        as in English put

/uu/      as in English boot

Table 3: Mirniny vowel inventory 






i, ii

u, uu




a, aa

2.2 Short Vowels

Short vowels may appear in any syllable of a word. Initial analysis indicates some restrictions on which vowels may appear next to which consonant.  These restrictions are discussed below in section 3.2.  

Mirniny has no rules preventing vowel-initial words.  GALCAC linguists have noted examples of vowel-initial lexemes such as;

2.2.1 alinytjirra           north

2.2.2 alyirti                 shrub, type of

2.2.3 angapirla            star

2.2.4 umpara               fly (insect)

2.2.5 irralu-                 to pull

2.2.6 itja-                    to void  

2.2.7 ikarnu                 wild dog

2.2.8 umiya                 nothing

2.3 Long Vowels

A phonology must be based on recordings of speech produced in a natural setting however, the vowels analysed in this paper were recorded in an artificial setting.  This is not ideal, but all that is currently available for this language.

Long vowels occur in seven of the 1595 headwords in the 2022 wordlist. All are positioned within the initial syllable.

As of December 2022, no audio recordings of long vowel /i:/ have been made.  However, audio and written records indicate the use of /a:/ and /u:/.  These are as follows:

2.3.1 puuna                 blow

2.3.2 tjaalany              tongue

2.3.3 maatu                 on top of

2.3.4 maarra               cloud, type of

2.3.5 kaarlta                west

2.3.6 paarti                 grub

2.3.7 miil                     eye

There is one written example of /i:/, miil eye. At first this lexeme was believed to be a borrowing from Noongar, but it has since been confirmed by a Mirniny elder as being from his language. 

2.4 Vowel Harmony

Long vowels account for 0.44% of vowel use. All appear in the first syllable. In Australian Languages, stress falls on the first syllable (Dixon, 2002). Long vowels are distinguished from short vowels thanks to stress pattern rules (Sharp, 2004). These stress patterns rules are predictable, which allows us to disregard the occurrence of a long vowel in the second syllable, if presented in historical documentation.

In the GALCAC examples,

2.4.1 /a:/ appears in initial syllable position: after lamino-dental /tj/; voiced labial stop /p/; bilabial nasal /m/ and voiced velar stop /k/. Long /a/ is followed by: retroflex stop /rt/; alveolar lateral /l/; alveolar stop /t/; retroflex lateral /rl/ and the alveolar rhotic /rr/.  

2.4.2 In the first syllable /u:/ appears after voiced bilabial stop /p/ and before alveolar nasal /n/. 

2.4.3 Long /i/appears in the first syllable after the bilabial nasal /m/ and before the alveolar lateral /l/. 

3. Consonants

The graphemes of the English alphabet have been used to represent each consonant phoneme in this language. Digraphs are used to represent phonemes not found or, not found commonly, in Standard Australian English (SAE). For example, the retroflex lateral /rl/ found in the word karla fire and the velar nasal /ng/ used in the word ngamu food.  

These phonemes remain constant, as for the vowels.

Some consonant clusters can be found in these words and these are discussed with each consonant section in this phonology document. 

This language has two rhotic or /r/ like sounds; a retroflex rhotic /r/ such as found in American English (AmE) /r/ and an alveolar rhotic /rr/ which is found in Scottish English.  

The initial retroflex rhotic consonant /rl/, /rt/ and /rn/ is pronounced as rhotic, but not written this way, because speakers know to do this automatically.  To write the consonants in this manner would only confuse readers and learners. 

Allophones of /t/: /th/ and /tj/, appear to be in free variation in a number of morphemes.  Handwritten wordlists, found in historical documents, contain multiple examples of the dental stop /th/ where we might expect to find the lamino-dental stop /tj/.  Naessan (2013), goes so far as to list both phonemes in variations of the same lexeme (i.e. thuwi and tjuwi meat)  However, analysis of elicited language recordings have revealed the use of the lamino-dental stop /tj/ by speakers.

See the following examples:

Table 4: /th/ or /tj/

Written Record

Audio Record


GALCAC Orthography
























towards/ that way






Looking at the data supplied in the above table, it would appear /th/ has been used in written records where speakers are heard to use /tj/.  Across the border of Mirniny country, western neighbours the Ngadju, used /dj/ in the spelling of ‘man’ in historical material but contemporary analysis discounts the phoneme in the language. 

One example in a recording of /t/ in place of /th/, that being tukapu/thukapu.  In this recording, the non-Aboriginal speaker has used an alveolar stop.

Historically, field linguists have used a variety of symbols to represent the lamino-dental stop, including: /dy/, /ty/ /dh/ and /dj/ (Dixon, 2011). As stated above, /d/, /b/ and /g/ are not used in GALCAC orthographies, and so /tj/ will be used to represent the lamino-dental stop.

In a similar manner, O’Grady & O’Grady (in Velichova-Rebelos, 2005) have used /c/ to represent /tj/ in their Mirniny Language Wordlist. 

            Table 5: /c/ or /tj/

Written Record

Audio Record


GALCACAC Orthography











thigh or leg


It would appear that O’Grady & O’Grady(in Velichova-Rebelos, 2005) used the /c/ grapheme to differentiate between the lamino-dental stop and the dental stop in their notes. The GALCAC orthography will use /tj/ to represent the lamino-dental stop. 

3.1 Consonants Table

            Table 6: Mirniny consonant chart














































3.2 Consonant Phonemic Description

3.2.1 Bilabial Stop p

Bilabial stop /p/ as in Standard Australian English (SAE) pin. The bilabial stop may appear word-initially or medially but not finally. This phoneme is more voiced in word initial position, and may be voiced or unvoiced in word medial. Within a consonant cluster (CC) it takes the second position only (C2).

pungu hit (PAST).

Concerning consonant vowel restrictions (as mentioned in section 2.2) the GALCAC toolbox has examples of all three short vowels following the bilabial stop. This means there are no restrictions on vocalic environments for word-initial /p/. patja                use mouth pirri                 fingernail puparr              hungry


3.2.2 Bilabial Nasal m

Bilabial nasal /m/ as in SAE mouse.  

This consonant appears in first and medial word positioning.  Within a CC it may appear in either C1 or C2. 

muni    lip

Concerning consonant vowel restrictions (as mentioned in section 2.2) the GALCAC toolbox has examples of all three short vowels following the bilabial nasal. This means there are no restrictions on vocalic environments for word-initial /m/. makuru            wind minya                          DEM muni                lip

3.2.3 Bilabial Approximate w

Bilabial approximate /w/ as in SAE won. These glides or semivowels are phonetically similar to vowels, but function as consonants. The bilabial approximate appears word-initially or medially, but not in word-final position.  It does not appear within a CC.

puwa   hit! (IMP)

Concerning consonant vowel restrictions (as mentioned in section 2.2) the GALCAC toolbox has examples of all three short vowels following the bilabial approximate. This means there are no restrictions on vocalic environments for word-initial /w/. walyi               bad wintu               hair wula-               cry, to

3.2.4 Alveolar Stop t

Alveolar stop /t/ as in SAE top. This phoneme does not appear in word-initial or word-final positions. Where it occurs medially, it may be voiced or unvoiced.

Within the CC, the alveolar stop takes C2. 

wintu   hair

In his 2013 Mirniny Sketch Analysis, Naessan argues against word-initial /t/, however the GALCAC Mirniny toolbox contains two examples of this phone taking initial position. tanpi                    lobster tarri-tarrilukin             no gloss

Concerning consonant vowel restrictions (as mentioned in section 2.2), and despite the assertion this phone cannot appear word-initially, the GALCAC database contains two examples of short /a/ following /t/. Unfortunately, these written records, are not backed up with audio records, so GALCAC linguists are unable to analyse them further. Despite the lack of available data, these lexemes will remain in the toolbox until more information becomes available. 

3.2.5 Alveolar Nasal n

Alveolar nasal /n/ as in SAE net.

The alveolar nasal is quite productive and appears in word initial, medial and final position. Within the CC it takes C1 position.

nanka neck

Concerning consonant vowel restrictions (as mentioned in section 2.2) the GALCAC toolbox has examples of short /a/ and /u/ following the alveolar nasal. This suggests vocalic environments for word-initial /n/ are restricted to /a/ and /u/ only. nanka              neck nurrku             face

3.2.6 Alveolar Lateral l

Alveolar lateral /l/ as in SAE light.

The alveolar lateral may appear word-initially, medially or finally.  Within the CC it takes C1. 

There is only one example of this phone in word-initial position, larra really?  All other examples are as suffixes.

tjaalany, tongue

Concerning consonant vowel restrictions (as mentioned in section 2.2) the GALCAC toolbox does not have examples of short /i/ or short /u/ following the alveolar lateral.  This means vocalic environments for word-initial /l/ is restricted to /a/ only.

   larra                 really

3.2.7 Alveolar Rhotic rr

Alveolar rhotic /rr/ as in Scottish English bairn.

This phone has two allophones, depending on whether it appears in word-medial or word-final position. Where it appears medially, speakers produce a tap.  In word-final position this phone becomes a trill.  Within the CC this phone takes C1. 

yarruku  left hand.

As seen above, yarruku left hand the /rr/ is articulated as a tap

ngukarra, armpit

A trill in word final position, ngukarra armpit

As mentioned above, the alveolar rhotic does not appear in word-initial position.  This precludes it from any discussion regarding vocalic environments in this position.

3.2.8 Retroflex Stop rt

The retroflex stop /rt/ sounds like American English cart. This phone appears in word-medial position only. Where it appears within the CC the retroflex stop takes C2 only. 

wartu  eye

As mentioned above, the retroflex stop does not appear in word-initial position.  This precludes it from any discussion regarding vocalic environments in word-initial position.

3.2.9 Retroflex Nasal rn

Retroflex nasal /rn/as in American English barn. This phoneme appears word-medially or word-finally. Within the CC, the retroflex nasal takes C1. 

kurntu             breast.

In this example, the speaker has pronounced the initial velar stop so softly as to be almost imperceptible. 

As mentioned above, the retroflex nasal does not appear in word-initial position.  This precludes it from any discussion regarding vocalic environments in word-initial position.

3.2.10 Retroflex Lateral rl

Retroflex lateral /rl/, as heard in American English curl. This phoneme appears word-medially and finally.

makurlu          big

When it appears in a CC, the retroflex lateral takes C1.

As mentioned above, the retroflex lateral does not appear in word-initial position.  This precludes it from any discussion regarding vocalic environments in word-initial position.

3.2.11 Retroflex Rhotic r

Retroflex rhotic /r/ as in American English car. This phoneme is always rhoticised.