Table 1: Consonants and their spelling for Australian languages

Labial Apical: alveolar Apical:
postalveolar (retroflex)
Lips Tongue tip at upper gums Tongue tip behind upper gums Humped tongue at front teeth Humped tongue at top of mouth Back of tongue at back of mouth roof
Voiceless w t rt th ty k
Voiced b d rd dh dy g
Nasal m n rn nh ny ng
Lateral l rl lh ly
Tap/Trill rr, rrh
Glide w r y

Table 1 illustrates the consonants. They are arranged from left to right according to where in the mouth the sounds are produced—sounds produced further to the front of the mouth are shown on the left side of the table, as if the speaker is facing west, so to speak. The top row gives technical terms describing their “place of articulation”; the second row describes this in a less technical way.

The sounds are arranged from top to bottom according to how much the air coming out of the lungs is blocked off in the mouth by the lips and tongue.

  • In the first row of sounds the air is totally blocked and there is no sound generated at the vocal cords. These are called voiceless stops—stops because they stop the airflow, and voiceless because there is no buzz at the vocal cords in the voicebox (larynx).
  • In the second row of sounds the air is also totally blocked in the mouth but before the air current gets totally blocked it creates a buzz when it vibrates the vocal cords in the voicebox (larynx). These sounds are called voiced stops. In most Australian languages it doesn’t matter whether the stops are voiced or voiceless; in this case we spell them with the letters for voiceless stops—p, t, k, etc. rather than b, d, g.
  • For the sounds called nasals the air flow is fully blocked in the mouth, and the vocal cords are buzzing, but air escapes through the nose.
  • The lateral sounds involve the tongue touching the roof of the mouth but placed in such a way that air escapes over the sides of the tongue.
  • The tap involves the tip of the tongue quickly touching the top of the mouth—it sounds like a very short d (as in English body). For a trill the tip of the tongue is held in the same position as a tap and vibrates a few times in the passing air. In many Australian languages these two sounds (tap and trill) can be used interchangeably, and are spelled rr. But in languages where they must be kept separate rr is used for the tap and rrh for the trill.
  • Glides are sounds that do not block the airflow at all. The single letter r is used for a sound very much like English r in red or carry, as well as in car in the Irish or American accent. W is as in English wet and y as in English yes.
  • A few languages have a glottal stop (not shown in Table 1), which is a short catch made at the voicebox (larynx), like the sound in the middle of English oh-oh. It is spelled with an apostrophe ’.

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