Voicing is determined by vibration of the vocal cords during the production of a single sound. If the vocal cords are vibrating, that sound is considered voiced. If they’re not vibrating, that sound is considered voiceless.

To feel this, put your hand on your throat and touch your Adam’s apple, and make the sounds [sssss] and [zzzzz]. You should feel vibration of your vocal cords during [z] but not during [s].

All sounds are either voiced or voiceless, and some pairs of sounds are identical in how they’re produced except for the voicing (such as [s] and [z] but also [f] and [v] and many other pairs). If the contrast in voicing is enough to change the meaning of the word, then these sounds are considered to be separate phonemes (see phonology)

In many Aboriginal languages, there is no voicing contrast. This means that speakers of these languages consider pairs of sounds as the same phoneme. For example, in Kunwinjku, [k] and [g] don’t change the meaning of any word, so they’re considered the same sound (which is why there’s a k but no g in the Kunwinjku alphabet), however the different sounds do tend to occur in different positions in the word.


Vowels are speech sounds made with no closure or constriction of the air flowing through the vocal tract. In contrast to consonants, in vowels the tongue does not touch the lips, teeth, or roof of the mouth. Different vowel sounds can be made by moving the tongue up, down, front or back within the vowel space (without touching anywhere) and rounding or spreading the lips.

Vowel sounds are often represented in a language’s orthography in an alphabetic system by the letters A, E, I, O, U and combinations of these.

While English uses these 5 letters, there are around 20 different vowel sounds in Australian English. Many languages (including Kunwinjku) only have 5 vowel sounds.

word order

In English, word order is an important way of showing who did what to who. For example, compare these two sentences:

a) the dog bit the man
b) the man bit the dog

Changing the order of the words changes the meaning drastically. English uses the word order SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT, which means that in sentence a) ‘the dog’ is the subject and ‘the man’ is the object, and we know that the dog is the one doing something (in this case, biting) to the man. In sentence b) the fact that ‘the man’ comes before the verb means it’s the subject of the sentence, and is the one doing the action to the one after the verb.

In many Aboriginal languages, word order doesn’t have the same function. Instead, there may be something attached to a word to show who is the subject, or who is the object.  While no language has completely ‘free’ word order, languages differ in how word order affects meaning.

In Kunwinjku, word order doesn’t matter in the same way as in English.

    • Duruk bibayeng bininj 
    • Bininj bibayeng duruk  

Both these sentences mean “the dog bit the man” despite word order. In Kunwinjku a prefix on the verb specifies who did it to whom. So regardless of word order, we know who did the biting. Duruk is still the subject, whether it’s before or after the verb, and bininj is still the object, no matter where it is in the sentence.