A diphthong is a sound made by combining two vowels in the same syllable, specifically when it starts as one vowel sound and goes to another.

English examples include the vowel sounds in boy, owe, eye, safe, how

Diphthongs refer to vowel sounds, not letters (combinations of two letters are called digraphs). Don’t be confused by spelling – some English words have two vowel letters which don’t represent a diphthong (eg head, four), while others have a single vowel representing a diphthong.

Many Aboriginal languages have diphthongs, which may be represented in spelling by a vowel with either y or w.

e.g., Kunwinjku: ruy (cooked), rowk (all)

Yolngu matha: yow (yes), bäy’ (leave behind)


While many languages distinguish between singular (for one) and plural (more than one), some languages also use a specific form for ‘two and only two.’

When a noun or pronoun appears in dual form, it is interpreted as referring to precisely two of the objects or persons identified by the noun or pronoun. Verbs can also have dual forms in these languages.


A consonant sound made by bringing two places of articulation close together but not closed, so that the passing air through this space creates enough turbulence (friction) to create sound.

Some examples in English are z, f, th, sh, and h.

Indigenous Australian languages typically have no fricatives, though some contact languages (such as Kriol) may use them in words borrowed from English


Some languages make a distinction based on gender when classifying nouns.

For example in English there are masculine, feminine and neutral gender pronouns – he (MASC), she (FEM) and it (NEUTRAL).

Other languages such as Spanish use gender for all nouns – for example in Spanish a woman is feminine, but so is a hen and a table.

This is grammatical gender, and has nothing to do with with natural sex distinctions.

Indigenous languages vary in their use of gender, so you need to learn the rules specific to the language you are learning.

In Kunwinjku, masculine and feminine are used for people and other nouns, and there are other noun classes for other groups of nouns.

glottal stop

The glottis is the space between the vocal cords, and when this is blocked (or stopped), a glottal stop is produced.

It can be hard for English speakers to identify this sound, despite the fact that it is quite common in English, often used to replace a ‘t’ sound in words like ‘football’ or ‘not yet’. It is stereotypically characteristic of Cockney English words like ‘bottle’. It is also used in expressions like ‘uh oh!’

While in English this sound doesn’t change the meaning of any words, in many languages it does. For example in Kunwinjku (where this sound is spelled ‘h’) it can change aspects of the verb:

ngare = I go, I will go
ngahre = I am going


The imperative mood refers to the use of verb structures to create a command or instruction or request.

It is often used when signalling to another person a directive, a dangerous situation, or an emotional expression, e.g., aggression.

In English the imperative is often signalled in writing with the use of an exclamation mark, e.g., Come here! Stop! Don’t do that! 


The imperfective is used in language to describe ongoing, habitual, repeated, or similar semantic roles, whether that situation occurs in the past, present, or future. A verb form or aspect which  expresses action as incomplete or without reference to completion or as reiterated — compare perfective.


In English, if you hear someone say “We’re going to a party,” how do you know if you are going to the party or not? In English you would have to add something like:

“We’re going to a party. Would you like to come?”
“We’re going to a party. Are you bringing a present?”

In many languages, a different form of the ‘we’ pronoun can be used to indicate if the person being spoken to (the addressee, or the ‘you’ implicit in the sentence) is included or excluded.

The inclusive form of the pronoun means the speaker and the addressee(s). The exclusive form of the pronoun means the speaker and someone else but not the addressee(s).

In the above example, the first ‘we’ would be exclusive, and the second would be inclusive.

This is a really useful grammatical distinction (which would probably be very helpful in English!), but might take some time to learn how to understand and use it correctly.

Some languages also distinguish how many people are involved in the ‘we’, with different words for dual, trial and plural.


LEFT: Inclusive                   RIGHT: Exclusive


Intonation uses changes in the pitch of the voice to convey meaning.

Intonation carries information that is not provided by the stream of consonants and vowels. It might tell the listener whether the sentence is a question or a statement, or whether more will follow. Intonation may also signal differences in meaning or in attitude.

More technically, it is the part of the sound system of a language which involves the use of pitch to convey information. It consists of both accent (concerns individual words) and sentence melody (concerns word groups).


Verbs which can never have an object are called INTRANSITIVE – in these cases, the action of the verb doesn’t affect anyone, it just happens.

Examples in English include

  • I sleep
  • He cries
  • We go
  • It died
  • They fell

In English some verbs can either take an object (e.g., she ate meat) or not (she ate), but in many languages, you couldn’t just say she ate, you would have to specify what she ate. So don’t assume that transitivity works the same way in the language you’re learning as it does in English.

Compare transitive