In the past Aboriginal languages were not written down. Ways of writing developed through the work of linguists and anthropologists who came to Arnhem Land to study the language, and missionaries who came to teach people about the bible and to translate it into local languages. When bilingual education started in the 1970s, it became important to produce books and literacy materials so that children could learn to read and write in their first languages. This led to further development of writing, and the rise of consistent orthographies. An orthography is an alphabet of letters and other symbols, and spelling rules for a language.
The orthographies for Arnhem Land languages are based on the Roman alphabet, which is also used to write English. However, the sound systems in Aboriginal languages are quite different to English and so when it comes to reading and writing they follow different rules of spelling and pronunciation. While the sounds of the different Maningrida languages are similar, there are still differences in how these languages combine these sounds into words, phrases and sentences.
If you are learning a language – even just a few words – it can be very helpful to learn some basic phonetics.
This will teach you the different parts of the mouth that are used to produce sounds. It will tune your ear in and the spelling of words will make more sense.
This website also shows how sounds are produced in some different languages. And, they have an awesome app. Lots of fun to be had there.
The Burarra and Gun-nartpa writing system was developed by David and Kathy Glasgow in the 1960s. They developed an orthography that stayed as close as possible to English, to help people who were learning to read and write at school. Quite a few Burarra and Gun-nartpa people learned to read and write, passing this skill along through family groups, and some of them became active in the bible translation project. Later on when the Burarra bilingual program started at the school, many of them transferred these skills to become literacy workers. They wrote stories that were printed into books for teaching and learning in class.
When the Ndjébbana bilingual program started, the Kunibídji people chose a different way of spelling, preferring a Western style used by Kunwinjku and other western languages. Kunibídji people worked with linguist Graham McKay to develop their orthography.
Over the years there have been a few different orthographies used to spell the different Bininj Kun-wok dialects, with different groups choosing their spelling at different times and in different places. Recently there has been a move towards one spelling system for all of the dialects, which does make it easier to transfer written materials produced in one place and use them somewhere else.
Na-kara and Gurr-goni have their own systems, which combine aspects of the Ndjébbana and Burarra styles. Rembarrnga is different again, as this orthography was developed in southern Arnhem Land for schools at Barunga and Beswick. Djinaŋ and Wurlaki are spelt using the Eastern Yolngu orthography, following the system developed at Milingimbi and used for Djambarrpuyŋu, Ganalpiŋu and other Yolŋu Matha dialects. All of these different spellings are visual reminders of the differences between languages and the social affiliations of their speakers.