Languages of Australia – Arrernte (Upper Arrernte)

Our first dive into the indigenous languages of Australia takes us into the Northern Territory, home of the Arrernte, Alyawarre, Anmatyerre, Ayerrereng and Yuruwinga peoples. Although these people groups are indeed diverse, they speak various dialects of a language, or dialect cluster, of a language known as Arrernte. With a total of 4 537 native speakers as of 2016, this language is still alive, although with several dialects classified as extinct, such as the Argadargada, Andegerebinha and Ayerrerenge dialects. In fact, most Arrernte speakers today belong to two main dialect groups, namely the Eastern/Central Arrernte and Alyawarra dialects. These two dialect groups account for over three quarters of Arrernte speakers. However, as the Eastern/Central Arrernte dialects appear to be more well documented by linguists, this post shall focus on this dialect group, in terms of sounds, words and grammar.

Given the large number of dialects and a rather continuum-like classification of the language, some dialects of Arrernte are often classified as their own separate languages, subject to much debate by linguists. Here, we present Arrernte as a dialect cluster, with most speakers belonging to the Eastern/Central Arrernte or Alyawarra branches. Threatened dialects like Pertame are classified as their own languages under the Arandic group of languages, but this is where the classification gets quite hazy.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating features of Arrernte is the presence of only two vowel sounds, especially in the Eastern/Central Arrernte dialects. Thought to be rare and unusual, many languages with this feature are found in the Caucuses mountains, in the Northwest Caucasian languages such as the now-extinct Ubykh, and the still-thriving Abkhaz and Adyghe languages. Consisting of only /a/ and /ə/, linguists think that more vowels had existed in the past, but with the rise of labialised consonants such as /kÊ·/ around vowels like /u/ or /o/, the vowels merged, giving the two we see today. However, in orthography, we still see Arrernte being written with vowels “u” and “i”, such as in the sentence “Urreke aretyenhenge” (See you later). So how is this possible?

It turns out that the vowel /ə/ could be pronounced as [ɪ ~ e ~ ə ~ ʊ] in any context. This effect is best explained by different articulations in free variation, where two or more sounds appear in the same environment without changing the meaning, and still generally accepted as correct by native speakers. This made some vowel sounds sound like a “u”, while some sound like an “i”.

Another interesting point about Arrernte is the addition of the letter “e” to the end of every word, while there is generally no word-initial /ə/ being denoted. In speech, there is no abrupt break between the words, leading to a rather liaison-like smoothening in speech. The final vowel sound is dropped if the next word begins with a vowel to facilitate such a smooth flow. For instance, the sentence:

Arelhe anyente apmere ikwerenhele aneme (One woman is at her home)

would be pronounced as:

Arelh anyent apmer ikwerenhel aneme

With this, linguists propose that the typical syllable structure of Arrernte is VC(C), meaning that there always is a consonant at the end of a syllable, while there is never a starting consonant in a syllable. This is undoubtedly markedly different from the syllable structures we are so often used to, such as a (C)3V(C)5 structure in English. Phrases, as shown in the sentence above, may also carry a final /ə/ corresponding to no underlying segment.

There are dozens of consonants in Eastern/Central Arrernte, although this number varies by dialect. Generally, however, there are six different places of articulation, where the consonant sounds are produced. Bilabial, velar, palatal, dental, alveolar and retroflex are the names of these places of articulation. These consonants usually come as pairs of labialised and unlabialised consonants, meaning that you would almost always find consonant pairs like /p/ and /pʷ/. It is also interesting to note that this language, at least for Eastern/Central Arrernte, that there is the use of a retroflex approximant /ɻ/ and /ɻʷ/, much similar to its counterparts in Tamil, Kannada, and some variants of English and Mandarin Chinese.

In terms of grammar, Arrernte word order is generally quite free, although some have noted a preference for subject-object-verb word order. It comes with a rather rich set of suffixes to enrich the meaning of the sentence, adding depth such as emphasis (and degrees of stronger emphasis), association and reason (including bad consequences). Pronouns may be marked by duality, and skin group. This skin group is a section determined by the skin of a person’s parents, and is passed down by the parents to their children. This forms a kinship system that defines which two individuals are allowed to marry. This kinship system is reflected in the language, with different pronouns used to mark skin group and non-skin group members.

This language, like several other Australian languages, has its own highly developed sign language, called Iltyeme-iltyeme. It may have been developed from the use of avoidance speech, which made it taboo for some people to interact with one another, or mention some people like the deceased, or direct relatives of the deceased. Such avoidance relationships are often viewed as a mark of respect, and some customs are still active in parts of Australia today.

If you want to learn Arrernte, the Apmere angkentye-kenhe project is one of the most well-known projects encouraging the use of Eastern/Central Arrernte. They have an app called Awemele Itelaretyeke – Listen and Understand, to hope to garner interest in Arrernte and knowledge in Mparntwe, Alice Springs. With a neat interface and app design, users and learners can be introduced to the words and sounds of Arrernte. There are also several grammar sketches or textbooks for the language, although you would have to do some deep searching to find them. The Alice Springs Language Centre also delivers language teaching in Arrernte. Courses on Memrise also provide a nice introduction to the Arrernte language, although the main focus is still on Eastern/Central Arrernte, rather than including the lesser-spoken dialects. Nevertheless, the ongoing language revival efforts appear to be keeping the language alive well into the digital age, and continues to garner public interest. In time, we would also see the revival of dying or extinct dialects in the community, like Southern Arrernte.


I came across a copy of A Learner’s Guide to Eastern and Central Arrernte by Jenny Green some years back, which gave a nice, concise introduction to how the language works and sounds like. This experience was my first one in the world of Australian languages, which later formed an inspiration for me to write a little introduction to this language.

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