Like many other Australian Aboriginal languages, Dieri, as community members spell it (or Diyari, as linguists spell it), has just three vowel sounds: i, u, a. These are pronounced short and clear as in Italian.
There are 23 consonants, some of which are written with two letters together:
d, k, l, lh, ly, m, n, ng, nh, ny, p, r, rr, r, rd, rl, rn, rt, t, th, ty, w, y.
The sounds written with two letters have the following values:
- for lh, nh and th the h indicates that the tip of the tongue is placed between the teeth, so pronounce lh like l but with the tongue tip between the teeth, the same for nh and th — do not pronounce th like English ‘th’ in ‘thing’ or in ‘this’. The Dieri sound does not have the noisy friction of the English sound
- for ly, ny and ty the y indicates that the body of the tongue is raised towards the hard palate, adding a palatal ‘y’ to the consonant. Dieri ny sounds similar to Italian gn in signora ‘Mrs’ or gnocchi ‘a kind of stuffed pasta’, or like Spanish ñ as in señor ‘Mr.
- for rd, rl, rn and rt the r indicates that the tip of the tongue is raised and curled backwards to produce what are called ‘retroflex’ sounds. You can approximate this by producing an American English ‘r’ plus ‘d’ or ‘l’ or ‘n’ or ‘t’
- the combination ng represents a single sound, like English ‘ng’ at the end of ‘sing’. In Dieri it can also occur at the beginning of words, as in nganhi ‘I’, which can be difficult for English speakers to master. Do not pronounce ng at the beginning of a word like plain ‘n’ as this will be incorrect and cause confusion, eg. between nganhi ‘I’ and nhani ‘she’
Dieri has three r-sounds: a glide r with the tongue tip turned back, similar to an American ‘r’, a short flap r (pronounced very quickly, like the ‘d’ in the middle of Australian English words — Dieri kiri ‘clever’ sounds like English ‘kiddy’), and a strongly rolled rr pronounced like a Scottish ‘r’. The difference between the ‘r’s’ is important for meaning: compare thararna ‘to go up’, thara ‘thigh’, and tharrarna ‘to fly’.
Dieri has five n-sounds: n, nh, ny, ng and rn, and four l-sounds: l, lh, ly, and rl. Again, the differences between these sounds are important for meaning, as in: nganha ‘me’, ngana ‘to be’, and nganya ‘to muck around’.
The sounds written as n and nh, and l and lh can be optionally preceded by d when they occur as the second consonant of a word — speakers sometimes pronounce the d and sometimes omit it. Both pronunciations are correct. Some examples are: widlha or wilha ‘woman’, and thidna or thina ‘foot’.
All words in Dieri must end in a vowel, and all words begin with a consonant. In general stress (emphasis) falls on the first vowel of a word. So, for example, we have tyukurru pronounced as tyu-ku-ru with stress on the first tyu. Do not put emphasis on later syllables as this sounds very unnatural in Dieri (in English the word ‘kangaroo’ has stress on ‘roo’ but if you pronounce the Dieri word as tyu-ku-ru it would sound very strange to Dieri ears).