Learning the basics of Australian Aboriginal languages is fundamental to be able to understand the ‘classical-sound’ of the didgeridoo. This page provides an overview for those who would like to learn about how language affects the traditional didgeridoo playing styles.

Overview of the linguistic diversity of Arnhem Land – drawing parallel between languages and traditional didgeridoo playing styles.

At the time of colonisation in the late 18th century, Aboriginal people of Australia spoke hundreds of distinctive languages. Even though many of these languages are lost since, there are still hundreds of them spoken throughout the continent today. Across the country, here has been a significant effort made to restore some of the lost languages, revitalise those that are considered endangered, and record spoken languages in order to teach the future generations.

Similar to spoken language, the traditional didgeridoo playing techniques use lip and tongue movements to form different sounds, many of these sounds are unique to Aboriginal languages. Since Indigenous didgeridoo players use the same tongue movements as they use in spoken language, it make sense to look into how languages affect the sound of the didgeridoo. A good example for how traditional players in Northeast Arnhem Land think about this, is the Yolŋu word waŋa that has multiple meanings: its primarily meaning is to speak, but – depending on the context -, it can also mean to play a didgeridoo: dhuwal ŋayi ga yiḏaki waŋa – there he is playing the didgeridoo. To be able to grasp the very basics of the traditional playing styles, it is vital to learn some of the foundations of Aboriginal languages, especially orthography (the study of pronunciation of a particular language), phonetics (the study and classification of speech sounds) and linguistics (study of a language and its structure).

Before colonisation the use of the traditional didgeridoo was restricted to the northernmost part of the continent, so below we focus on languages that are spoken in this region. We will look at how we can use the basics of the language to better understand traditional playing styles. As mentioned above, still today, Aboriginal people of Northern Australia speak hundreds of languages, most of them are linguistically different to each other. From the early 20th century different methods were developed by Australian linguists and native Indigenous speakers to understand, analyse and write down these languages. Aboriginal languages across the continent use sounds that are different from the sounds in English language – therefore, to be able to develop a written language, phonemes were introduced. The phoneme is the smallest unit of speech, distinguishing one word, or word element from another (as the element p in “tap,” which separates that word from “tab,” “tag,” and “tan”). Each phoneme has a written form, made up by one or two letters (see below). Even though different Aboriginal languages use different written structures and phonemes, there are some similarities in pronunciation. While learning about the traditional playing styles, it is vital to understand some of these phonemes and be able to make a distinction between some of the sounds in languages of Northern Australia, and other foreign languages, like English.

To discuss the correlation between the traditional didgeridoo and languages, we will culturally, linguistically and musically distinguish East Arnhem Land and West Arnhem Land by drawing a vertical line on the map (see the map to the right/below). The languages spoken across Northeast Arnhem Land belong to a large group, called Yolŋu Matha (Yolŋu means people or person, Matha means tongue). There are several different Yolŋu languages are spoken by many related clan groups, each of them have their own cultural and ceremonial traditions. As we discussed elsewhere, modern musicology defines the traditional didgeridoo playing style of this region as ‘type b‘, or, in informal-language, ‘yiḏaki-style‘. On the other hand, to the west, People speak distinctively different languages and play different didgeridoos in particularly different styles – these playing styles are referred to as ‘type a‘, or ‘mago-style‘. The West Arnhem Land region, and other regions further to the west all the way to the Kimberly’s in Western Australia, are one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world. We do not want to discuss in-depth the different languages of the areas concerned, instead, only highlight the cultural and musical diversity, but also some of the similarities that affect and define the traditional sounds of the didgeridoo.

The connection between language and didgeridoo-playing has been under-researched and under-estimated; didgeridoo players could learn a lot from studying linguistics, that would give them a better understanding of the sound itself, but also the pre-colonial history of playing the didgeridoo. As one of the most prominent Australian musicologist, Dr Alice Moyle highlighted in her paper (The Australian didjeridu: a late musical intrusion), merely listening to the different playing styles and looking at the linguistics at a surface level can leave us with some very interesting observations. If we look at the above mentioned two main types of playing styles, we can see one significant difference: type-a style is overtone absent (no trumpet or toot played), while type-b style uses the trumpet sound, played either long or short (‘dups’ as we know it). This difference seems to in-line with the two main language types spoken across the region: while type-a players speak pre-fixing languages (non-Pama-Nyungan) and play overtone-absent style, type-b players speak suffixing languages (Pama-Nyungan) and play trumpet notes an toots. It sounds like mosts linguists agree, that Pama-Nyungan languages (in our case, Yolŋu Matha speakers of Northeast Arnhem Land) were introduced to the area in a later stage – perhaps a few thousand years ago -, while non-Pama-Nyungan speakers occupy the region longer. Even though these observations won’t lead us to any conclusions until the intricate connection between didreridoo-playing and languages researched in-depth, but we can assume that the difference between the two playing styles are cultural-ceremonial, and linguistics can only inform the historical background of the instrument.

The map indicates some of the Indigenous languages in the Top-End of the Northern Territory
The map above indicates some of the Indigenous languages in the Top-End of the Northern Territory, and draws parallel with the two main traditional didgeridoo playing styles as definded by musicologist Dr Alice Moyle. Note that this map does not reflect the actual linguistic diversity of the region, the location of the languages is indication only.

Alphabet of Indigenous languages

The English alphabet consists of 26 letters, and so an average native English speaker uses 44 sounds; some of these sounds are unique to English languages.

Aboriginal languages have different sounds systems, and use sounds that are unknown to an English speaker. For example, the Yolŋu Matha alphabet consist of 31 letters, and the language uses 46 sounds, some of them are distinctive in European languages.

Yolŋu Matha alphabet: a ä b d ḏ dh dj e g i k l ḻ m n ṉ nh ny ŋ o p r rr t ṯ th tj u w y ‘

Other Aboriginal languages use different written forms of the same sounds; this is the result of different linguistic approach and the introduction of different phonemes. Fore example, here is the alphabet used in several languages in the West Arnhem Land region (see reference here).

Kunwinjku, Kuninjku, Kundedjnjenghmi, Kune and Kundjeyhmi alpabet: a b d dj rd  e h i k l rl m n ng nj rn o r rr u w y

Overview of the languages in Arnhem Land

Language map of Northern-Australia – the yellow highlights the suffixing or Pama-Nyungan languages; see the differences in the Arnhem region, and compare with the map of the types of playing styles above.

Source: Wikipedia

Yolŋu Matha tongue position chart acquired from Yirrkala school
Yolŋu Matha tongue position chart acquired from the Yirrkala School

If you would like to learn more about phonetics, pronunciation and tongue positions, watch this introductory video below. Even though the video focuses on English language, it still gives a good explanation of the different tongue positions and how it affects the different sounds of spoken language. All these information is relevant when you are learning about traditional didgeridoo playing.

The following list explains the pronunciation only of those Yolŋu letters and sounds that are useful for a learner of the yiḏaki playing style.

Vowel sounds

Ä ä – long `a`, similar to the `a` in the English `star` or `father`. Example: bäpurru – clan group or funeral.

Consonant sounds

Interdental sounds – because of the tongue movements involved while pronouncing these sounds, all interdental sounds are important in playing yiḏaki; the tip of the tongue is between the front teeth, and the `h` is silent, not pronounced.

Dh dh – ‘h’ it is a silent letter as you are saying the English word`do`. Example: dhäwu – story

Nh, nh – Example: wanha – where.

Th th –  Example: matha – tongue.

Retroflexed sounds – similar to the interdentals, the retroflexed sounds are important to learn while you are learning to play yiḏaki. While pronouncing this sound, the tip of the tongue turned back upwards, and its bottom touches the roof of the mouth. You might hear an `r` sound before the main consonant because of the similar tongue position between the two sounds, but do not roll the sound.

Ḏ ḏ – voiced retroflexed sound with a `d`,  you might hear an `r` sound before the `d` but do not roll the sound. Example: yiḏaki – didgeridoo, maḏayin` – sacred.

Ḻ  ḻ – you might hear an `r` sound before the `l`  but do not roll the sound. Example: biḻma – clapstick.

Ṉ ṉ you might hear an `r` sound before the `n` but do not roll the sound. Example: ŋäṉḏi – mother.

Ṯ ṯ – you might hear an `r` sound before the `t` but do not roll the sound. Example: gurruṯu – kin or kinship.

Lamio-alveolar sounds – a vital tongue movement to learn in order to understand traditional rhythms and didgeridoo sounds. While saying this sound, the blade of the tongue pushed forward up, the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth

Dj dj – Example: djäma – work.

Ny ny – similar to `n` in the English word `new. Example:  manymak – good, ok, right.

Tj tj – Example: miny`tji – colour, design.

Velar sounds

Ŋ ŋ – the tailed `n`, sometimes written as `ng`, sound similar to the `ng` in `sing`, `song`, long `..etc. `

Flapped sounds:

Rr rr – rolled `r`. Example: rrupiya – money.

Other sounds:

– glottal stop. It is a voiceless sound, although as important as any other sounds in the Yolŋu languages. The airflow from the mouth is stopped by closing of the vocal cords. One of the best ways to try this sound is saying “m’m” when you are indicating “no”. The glottal stop can change the meaning of a word. Example:  goḏarr’ – morning.

For the full list of phonemes see our Resources link.

Playing the didgeridoo: the tongue movements, mouth sounds and beyond

As we pointed out above, playing the didgeridoo traditional-style requires the basic understanding of the tongue positions and tongue movements used in Indigenous languages from Arnhem Land. While contemporary didgeridoo players overly focus on the diaphragm, the lips and cheeks, and use the tongue as an alternative style-specific option to blow classy rhythms, tongue movements – with often strong strikes – used in spoken language is the foundation of traditional didgeridoo playing styles. We can say: instead of blowing the didgeridoo, traditional players speaking it – this distinction clearly highlights the very basics of the sound. Consciously practicing tongue movements is a common practice while learning to play the didgeridoo, and training the tongue, lip and check muscles accordingly is vital for anyone who wish to practice traditional playing styles. Furthermore, building up rhythms by using those phonemes that are present in Indigenous languages is part of the training; these rhythm-segments vocalised through spoken words – without speaking them into a didgeridoo – are called mouth-sounds.

Different didgeridoo playing styles use different mouth-sounds and these sounds are pronounced in different ways, depends on the given style and the player himself who is vocalising it. The mouth-sounds also define the breathing itself and mark the place and length of breathing within the rhythm.

Example of a mouth sound in type-a playing style: audio extract, track 13, Didjeridu Solos, Didjeridu player Dick (Majali) Borroloola, N.T. – Moyle, A. M. (Collector). (1978). Aboriginal sound instruments [CD]. Australia: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies

Example of a mouth sound in type-b playing style: track 8, Brolga i-ii Didjeridu Only, Mouth Sounds by Magun (Numbulwar 1963) – Moyle, A. M. (Collector). (1997). Songs from the Northern Territory 2: Music from Eastern Arnhem Land [CD]. Australia: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

It is important to mention, that the constant use of the vocal cord and the voice while playing/talking the instrument creates the real characteristic of the traditional sound. An interesting observation, that even though the didgeridoo classified as a blown instrument (the sound is created by the air blown through the vibrating lips), all traditional playing styles also use the human voice to richen the sound with overtones. This important aspect is often ignored or underestimated either by players or experts while examining the traditional sound of the didgeridoo.

Even though the mouth sounds are the foundation of the didgeridoo playing in terms of the rhythm, there are other technical aspects that define the sound. One important feature to mention is the correct use of diaphragm and the lower muscles of the abdomen: as a Yolŋu master-player highlighted, the air needs to be pushed and supported from the very bottom of the abdomen – as opposed to the over-use of the diaphragm, that creates ‘airy’, soft rhythms. The correct sound comes from deep down the body, the air pushed out from the lungs by using strong muscles below, amplified and enriched by the vocal cords, and shaped by the tongue and lips.

Learning to play the traditional didgeridoo requires a significant effort, that reaches well beyond pure technical problems and solutions. This is even more important when we are going through a cross-cultural learning process with a desire to get access to practices foreign to us. We need to have a complete toolbox and our approach needs to be holistic: playing technique, language and other aspects of culture need to be examined to better understand what the traditional didgeridoo is, and how we can define and produce its sound within our own skillset, language and worldview.

Demonstration videos to further explain tongue positions, movements, and the right breathing

Vernon Gurruwiwi, son of the renowned yiḏaki master Djalu’ Gurruwiwiu, talks about the importance of the right tongue positions and movements: strong back and forth tongue movements, while using interdental and retroflexed positions within the rhythm. Listen carefully to his mouth-sounds, these tongue positions are clearly demonstrated.

Young yiḏaki player Mikey Guyaŋa Gurruwiwi demonstrates his own free-style yiḏaki through mouth-sounds; as he points out, it is important to lay down a strong foundation to be able to play yiḏaki, and then, it is up to the individual to master his own style. Watch carefully how these young boys use mouth-sounds to communicate with each other and express their talent.

Yolŋu player Luke Bukulatjpi talks about the special skillsets needed to play the didgeridoo: “When you first learn, your tongue is not really goo. So keep it trying, make the tongue really hard…so get the rhythm good. Good tongue, good mind, so your mind and heart really good, playing with the rhythm, and the beat, flowing…keep it flowing. I can change to different style, I can use different tongue when I’m playing didgeridoo.” As several yiḏaki players pointed out to us  over the years, keeping the body healthy and strong, the mind clear and in sync with the tongue are the important skills that a yiḏaki-djambatj (skilled yiḏaki player) needs to practice in the everyday life.

Mago master Darryl Dikarrnga Brown (deceased) demonstrates the rhythm called muk-muk (owl).