Bininj Kunwok language

Kunwinjku (Gunwinggu or Gunwinjgu), also known by the cover term Bininj Gunwok[4] or Mayali, is an Australian Aboriginal language in northern Australia. The Bininj people live primarily in western Arnhem Land. There are perhaps two thousand fluent speakers in an area roughly bounded by Kakadu National Park to the west, the Arafura Sea to the north, the Blyth River to the east, and the Katherine region to the south.

Bininj Kunwok (Gun-wok)
Native toAustralia
RegionNorthern Territory
EthnicityBininj Kunwok people (Gunwinggu etc.)
Native speakers
1,702 (2016 census)[1]
  • Kune
  • Mayali
  • Kunwinjku
  • Kuninjku
  • Kundjeyhmi
  • Kundedjnjenghmi
Language codes
ISO 639-3gup
AIATSIS[3]N186 Bininj Gun-wok


Kunwinjku is spoken in the largest population centre, the township of Gunbalanya and is the most widespread, with an ethnic population of around 900, almost all of whom speak Kunwinjku in spite of increasing exposure to English.

Evans (2003) identifies six dialects: Kunwinjku, Kuninjku, Gundjeihmi, Manyallaluk Mayali, Kundedjnjenghmi, and two varieties of Kune most commonly known as Kune Dulerayek and Kune Narayek; based on the fact that

  • the phonology, grammar and lexicon of these dialects share significant clusterings of properties
  • these distinctions are recognised, at least by the relevant group and its neighbours, by the use of distinct language names.[5]

He introduced the cover term Bininj Gunwok for all dialects. Today, the shorter Kunwok is gaining ground.

As of June 2015, the Gundjeihmi dialect group officially adopted standard Kunwinjku orthography, meaning it will now be spelt "Kundjeyhmi".[6]


Kunwinjku is typical of the languages of central Arnhem Land (and contrasts with most other Australian languages) in having a phonemic glottal stop, two stop series (short and long), five vowels without a length contrast, relatively complex consonant clusters in codas (though only single-consonant onsets) and no essential distinction between word and syllable phonotactics.[7]

Consonant inventory

Peripheral Laminal Apical Glottal
Bilabial Velar Postalveolar Alveolar Retroflex
Lenis stop p k c t ʈ ʔ
Fortis stop ʈː
Nasal m ŋ ɲ n ɳ
Lateral l ɭ
Rhotic r ɹ
Approximant w j

Vowel inventory



Kunwinjku is polysynthetic, with grammatical relations largely encoded within the complex verb. The verb carries obligatory polypersonal agreement, a number of derivational affixes (including benefactive, comitative, reflexive/reciprocal and TAM-morphology) and has an impressive potential for incorporation of both nouns and verbs.

Nominals seem to have a lesser role in the language's grammar. Kunwinjku dialect preserved four noun classes but lost the core case marking on the nouns, and a handful of semantic cases are optional. Kune and Manyallaluk Mayali dialects have an optional ergative marker -yih. Nominals have extensive derivational morphology and compounding.


Morphology is mainly agglutinating, with fusion zones at the edges of the word.


Kunwinjku shows syntactic patterns characteristic of 'non-configurational' languages: nominal modifiers can appear without the N head (typical of many Australian languages), there is no rigid order within the 'nominal group', and the distinction between predicative and argumental use of nominals is hard to make.[8]


  1. "North-West Arnhem: 2016 Quick-Stats". Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Bininj Kun-Wok". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. N186 Bininj Gun-wok at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. Evans 2003
  5. Evans 2003
  6. "Orthography— how to write words". Bininj Gunwok. Kunwinjku Language Project. Retrieved 1 October 2015.
  7. Evans 2003, chapter 2
  8. Evans 2003, chapter 6

Further reading

  • Evans, Nicholas (2003). Bininj Gun-wok: a pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune. Pacific Linguistics 541. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. hdl:1885/53188., 2 volumes
  • Carroll, P.J. (1976). Kunwinjku: a language of Western Arnhem Land' (MA thesis). Australian National University: Canberra.
  • Etherington, S.; Etherington, N. (1996). Kunwinjku Kunwok: a short introduction to Kunwinjku language and society (2nd ed.). Kunwinjku Language Centre.
  • Oates, Lyn F. (1964), A tentative description of the Gunwinggu language (of western Arnhem Land), Sydney: Oceania Linguistic Monographs

See also

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