Pinarru nhawuya yaruka yatharna wanthiyi

Like most other languages, Dieri can be spoken quickly in ordinary conversation, or more slowly, such as when speaking to someone who does not know the language or understand it very well. For people who want to learn a language it is often good to start with slower expressions and then build up to being able to use faster speech. Often in faster speech words get squashed together or some parts get left out, and these can be more clearly heard in slower speech.

The tapes recorded by Luise Hercus and Alec Edwards in 1971-1972 are very useful because when Luise asks how to translate something from English to Dieri Alec first says it at quickly as in ordinary conversation and then repeats the sentence slowly for Luise who is the language learner and he is the language teacher.

Here are some examples. First, we have the sentence nganhi yathalha nganayi thanangu ‘I will speak to them’, which Alec says as:

Notice that yathalha ‘speak’ and nganayi ‘will’ sound squashed together. He then repeats this slowly so the words are clearer:

Here is another example. Luise asks Alec to translate ‘Don’t make a noise!’ and he gives the Dieri sentence as wata mirtya nganka and then repeats this twice, more slowly each time:

Finally, we have the command ‘Listen to me!’ which Alec translates as nganha ngara and then repeats with the slower form nganha ngaramayi (we discussed the forms and uses of commands in this blog post).

We are fortunate that Alec gave both the faster and slower ways of speaking when he was teaching Luise how to speak Dieri.

Note: the title of this post is pinarru nhawuya yarka yatharna wanthiyi meaning ‘That is how this old man talked’. It is made up of:

pinarru ‘old man’
nhawuya ‘this’ (comprised of nhawu ‘he, this’ and the ending -ya ‘near the speaker’)
yaruka ‘like that’ (comprised of the base yaru ‘like that’ and the ending -ka ‘particular’)
yatharna ‘speak’
wanthiyi ‘did long ago’

Kupa wakawaka thurathurarayi

In the Dieri language words can be doubled in order to express a range of meanings, depending on what type of word it is.

The doubling process is straightforward and applies in the same way to all words. If the base of the word is made up of two syllables then we simply repeat the word base (to work out how many syllables a word has then count the number of vowels, where the vowel sounds are a and i and u, as we saw in pinarru Donaldaya pamanhi). So:

kupa ‘child’ becomes kupakupa ‘little child, baby’
waka ‘small’ becomes wakawaka ‘very small, tiny’
wapa ‘go!’ becomes wapawapa ‘keep on going!’

If the word starts with ka then the second repeat of k is usually left out in ordinary pronunciation:

kanku ‘boy’ becomes kankukanku ‘little boy’ which sounds like kankuanku
kaka ‘mother’s brother, uncle’ becomes kakakaka ‘little uncle’ which sounds like kakaaka

For longer word bases of three or four syllables we double only the first two syllables, not the whole base, as in:

mankarra ‘girl’ becomes mankamankarra ‘little girl’
kadnhini ‘mother’s mother, grandmother’ becomes kadnhikadnhini ‘little grandmother, grannie’
pinarru ‘old man’ becomes pinapinarru ‘little old man’
tyapura ‘ball made of gypsum’ becomes tyaputyapura ‘little ball’
widlhapina ‘old woman’ becomes widlhawidlhapina ‘little old woman’

Notice that some Dieri words, especially names of birds, are always doubled and there is no undoubled base. Examples are:

thindrithindri ‘willy wagtail’
kilankila ‘galah’
kurdakurda ‘night-hawk’
kutyikutyi ‘blue long-tailed wren’

The meaning of doubling depends on what sort of word the base is. For words used to talk about people or things (noun bases) the effect is to indicate a small example of that person or thing, as in:

kinthakinthala ‘little dog, puppy’ (from kinthala ‘dog’)
mardamarda ‘little stone, pebble’ (from marda ‘stone, rock’)

For quality words (adjective bases) the effect is to strengthen or emphasise the quality:

wakawaka ‘very small, tiny’ (from waka ‘little’)
kurndikurndi ‘crooked’ (from kurndi ‘bent’)
partiparti ‘mad, crazy’ (from parti ‘silly’)

For action words (verb bases) the effect is to repeat the action or keep on doing the action, as in:

dama ‘to cut repeatedly’ (from dama ‘to cut’)
kurlkukurlkunga ‘to jump up and down’ (from kurlkunga ‘to jump’)
wakawakari ‘to smash to pieces’ (from wakari ‘to break’)

yathayatha ‘to converse, talk to one another’ (from yatha ‘to speak’)
nhayinhayi ‘to watch’ (from nhayi ‘to see’)
ngamangama ‘to keep on sitting’ (from ngama ‘to sit)

Notice that some action words (verb bases) are inherently repeated and they are completely separate words from the unrepeated base. Some examples are:

kungkakungka ‘to grunt’ (compare this to kungka ‘to limp’)
karrakarra ‘to feel’ (compare karra ‘to tie up’)
karkakarka ‘to invite’ (compare karka ‘to shout, yell out’)

In these cases, if we wish to express the repeated action or keep on doing action for the unrepeated base we have to repeat the base and also add the ending -tharri, as in the following examples:

kungkakungkatharri ‘to keep on limping’
karrakarratharri ‘to keep on tying up, tie up repeatedly’
karkakarkatharri ‘to keep on shouting’

Note: the title of this blog uses two doubled words, wakawaka ‘very small’ is a quality word (adjective) and thurathurara ‘to keep on sleeping’ is an action word (verb). The title means ‘The babies are keeping on sleeping’.

Wata diyari yawarra nhaririyi!

Many people around the world rely on the Ethnologue, published by SIL International, for up-to-date information on the world’s languages. This is a listing of more than 7,000 languages spoken on every continent, giving information about where the languages are spoken, the number of speakers, and what languages are related to one another.

The 2013 edition of Ethnologue has just appeared and unfortunately it contains grossly inaccurate information about the Dieri language. Ethnologue uses the international standards office (ISO-639) codes for languages, and for Dieri this is DIF. Here is what it says:


Notice that Dieri is listed as extinct, that is, no-one speaks it. In the main information section of the 2013 edition here is what it says about Dieri:


Each language is now classified on a scale of Language Status from 1 (alive and kicking) to 10 (dead and gone). So Dieri is classified as 9 “dormant” (asleep). The authors explain what these language status terms mean:

9 Dormant – The language serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency.

10 Extinct – The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language.

Well the 600 members of the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation would certainly object to being told that “no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language”! They would also object to the idea that “no one has more than symbolic proficiency”. A number of the Elders can speak Dieri, and Nanna Renie Warren in particular, is completely fluent. The voices of these speakers can be heard on the Dieri Yawarra CD-ROM, and in the recordings made as part of the Ngayana Dieri Yawarra Yathayilha project and the current ILS-funded language revitalisation project.

Notice also that the Ethnologue says there are “no known L1 speakers” — what this means to say is that there is no-one who grew up speaking Dieri as their first language. Again, this is grossly inaccurate as quite a number of the Elders spoke Dieri as children, and continue to speak it to each other as adults.

It is a shame that this kind of misinformation is published by what is supposed to be a major international reference source.

Note: the title of this blog means ‘The Dieri language is not dying’. It is made up of these words:

wata ‘not’

diyari ‘Dieri’

yawarra ‘language’

nhaririyi ‘is dying, is becoming dead’ which is made up of nhari ‘dead’ and the endings ri ‘become’ and -yi ‘is happening now, present tense’

Waru pula warapamalirna wanthiyi

Luise Anna Hercus

Luise Anna Hercus

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Luise Hercus (now a Research Associate at the Australian National University in Canberra) began recording and studying the Aboriginal languages spoken to the west of Lake Eyre, especially Arabana and Wangkanguru.

At Umeewara Old People’s home on Davenport Reserve just outside Port Augusta in 1968 Luise met Alec Edwards, a Dieri man who was born in the 19th century and had lived on the Bethesda Mission at Killalpaninna. He retired to Port Augusta with his wife Catharina Edwards, and when he saw Luise interviewing speakers of Arabana and Wangkanguru he asked her to record his language too, starting in 1971. The result of this is about 12 hours interviews and conversations between Luise Hercus and Alec Edwards recorded on reel-to-reel tapes. Alec Edwards passed away before Peter Austin began his studies of Dieri in 1974.


With the help of Paul Sidwell of the University Phonetics Laboratory we have now digitised all these recordings and Luise Hercus has made them available for the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation members to use in their language revitalisation project. This is a very valuable addition to the sound recordings of the Dieri language we now have available, especially as they come from the last generation of people to have lived at Bethesda and spoken Dieri as their main daily language.

Note: The title of this blog means ‘They told one another things long ago’. It is made up of the following words:

waru means ‘long ago’

pula means ‘they two’ (for three or more we use thana)

warapamalirna means ‘told one another things’. It consists of the action word (verb) root warapa ‘tell someone a story’ and the endings -mali ‘one another’ and -rna ‘to do’

wanthiyi means ‘did long ago’. It is a helping word (auxiliary) that follows the verb to indicate action done in the distant past.

Minha yundru ngarayi?

The Dieri language has a rich vocabulary for talking about the environment. One interesting feature is that there are quite a few words for talking about different kinds of sounds. It is hard to translate many of these into a single word in English and they often require a detailed explanation to get across the Dieri meaning.

We have already seen one of these words in last month’s post about kudnarri wima sung by Leslie Russell. This is the word karta which refers to a short sharp cracking sound. Leslie described the call of wirlu ‘curlew’ as marna karta ‘mouth cracking sound’. We can add the ending -nga to make an action word (verb) meaning ‘to make a cracking sound’. An example is: thurru kartangayi ‘The fire is making a crackling sound’

Other Dieri words for sounds  are:

kanpu ‘booming sound’, mara kanpu ‘hand boom’ is how we describe handclaps. We also use kanpu to describe the sound an emu makes. Again, we can add -nga to make an action word (verb). Examples are: warrukathi kanpungarna ngamayi ‘The emu is sitting down making a booming sound’ and kupa-kupa mara kanpungayi ‘The children are clapping hands’ 

daltyi ‘rattling or jangling sound’, as in thurru wilpara daltyingarna parlkayi ‘The train makes a rattling sound as it goes along’

kandru ‘snoring sound’, as in pinarru kandrungayi ‘The old man is snoring’

kaldra ‘sound of human voices in the distance’ (when the sound is from far away and you cannot tell who is talking’)

ngayarla ‘sound of human voices in the vicinity’ (when the sound is close by but you cannot tell who is talking)

ngaru ‘sound of an identifiable human voice nearby, echo’, An example is: ngathu yinha ngaru ngararna warayi ‘I heard the sound of your voice nearby’

kunngara ‘sound of something moving in the distance’, for example: ngathu puluka kunngara ngarayi ‘I hear the sound of cattle moving in the distance’.

So, while English needs lots of words to describe the sounds we hear, in Dieri there are separate words for each of these kinds of sounds.

Note: The title of this post means ‘What do you hear?’

Folsom Prisonanhi

Dakota Warren (on ukelele) and Chris Dodd (on guitar) lead the singing on Sunday

Dakota Warren (on ukelele) and Chris Dodd (on guitar) accompany singing in Dieri

At the language workshop last weekend (16th and 17th March) for part of the time we worked on singing a Dieri version of the Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues”. Greg Wilson and the Port Augusta group had translated the whole song into Dieri last year, and Peter Austin had checked the translation, so we were ready to call on Chris Dodd to accompany the 45 attendees in singing it.

The song is a bit challenging because it contains some quite complex grammatical constructions (and long words) so we looked at the words and their meanings and then how these could be fitted to the tune. We practised several times and in the end made a good recording of the first verse. Here it is:

Here are the words in Dieri:

Ngathu traina ngarayi yara wakararnanhi

Ngathu wata dityi nhayirna warayi

Jailanhi nganha kurrarna Folsom Prisonanhi

Ya traina wapayilha San Antonaya

Translated into English this means:

I hear a train coming this way
I didn’t see the sun
(They) put me in Folsom Prison jail
And the train is now going to San Antone

Notice this is not exactly the same as the original Johnny Cash song as it had to be adjusted it to fit the Dieri words to the tune.

The words and their meanings are the following:

ngathu means ‘I’ when it is used with an action that affects someone or something else (used with a ‘transitive verb’)

traina means ‘train’ and comes from English (remember Dieri words need to end in a vowel so we add a here. Also, Dieri does not indicate ‘the’ or ‘a’ like English does.)

ngarayi means ‘hear’ — it consists of the verb root ngara ‘to hear’ and the ending -yi which marks something happening now (the ‘present tense’)

yara means ‘towards the speaker, this way’ (discussed here)

wakararnanhi means ‘coming’ — it consists of the verb root wakara ‘to come’ and the ending -rnanhi which means ‘something happening at the same time as another event but with a different subject’. We use this form because the person who hears (in this case ‘I’) is different from the one who comes (in this case ‘train’).

wata means ‘not’

dityi means ‘sun’ (and also ‘day, daylight’)

nhayirna warayi means ‘saw’ and refers to an action that took place earlier in the day

Jailanhi means ‘in jail’ and consists of jaila from English ‘jail’ (with the necessary final a) and the ending -nhi which means ‘in or at a place’

nganha means ‘me’ and is the object of an action (transitive verb)

kurrarna means ‘put’ — this is the dictionary form and would normally be followed by a word showing the time when the action took place. Here it is left out as it is clear from the context, but if we wanted to we could include wanthiyi ‘action which happened a long time ago’, to give us kurrarna wanthiyi. (Notice also that the people who put me in jail are not mentioned — in Dieri we don’t have to include the agent who does an action if it is clear from the context, or if it is an unspecified person like English ‘they’ (‘they put me in jail’, ‘they say he is sick’). In English we might use what is called a ‘passive verb’ when we don’t want to mention the agent, as in ‘I was put in jail’. Dieri has no passive of this type, so an unclear agent is simply left out and the rest of the sentence stays the same.)

Folsom Prisonanhi is the English ‘Folsom Prison’ (with the required final vowel a added) plus the Dieri -nhi ending signalling ‘in or at a place’

ya means ‘and’

wapayilha means ‘is going now’ and consists of the verb root wapa ‘to go’ plus the endings -yi ‘action happening now, present tense’ and -lha ‘new information that the speaker thinks the hearer does not know’

San Antonaya is English ‘San Antone’ plus final a and the ending -ya which indicates ‘direction towards a place’, so ‘to San Antone’

We will discuss the translations of other verses of this song in later posts.

Ngayana kirririrna warayi Dieri yawarra yathalha


The second ILS-funded Dieri Aboriginal Corporation language revival workshop was held in Port Augusta on 16th and 17th March. About 40 Dieri community members attended from Broken Hill, Lyndhurst, Whyalla and Port Augusta. Peter Austin flew over from Canberra and he and Greg Wilson drove up from Adelaide to help with the two-day workshop.

Greg Wilson explaining Dieri songs

Greg Wilson explaining Dieri songs

There were several activities carried out at this workshop, including:

  • language learning sessions, where we learnt words and how to use them in sentences in context
  • translation and performance of songs, including some for children as well as the Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues”
  • curriculum and materials planning and development for a Dieri language programme that will begin at Wilsden Primary School in April. Four weeks of lessons for the programme were mapped out and materials developed


A feature of this workshop was the participation of four generations of Dieri, from great grandmothers to small children. The primary school children were especially keen participants.

The older boys had a great time. Some of them recorded videos of the song performances and uploaded them to Facebook before the workshop was over.

Using mobile phones to video singing

Using mobile phones to video singing

The next ILS workshop is planned for Adelaide in early April.