The title of today’s post means ‘They wrote letters’. It consists of:
- thanali which is made up of thana ‘they’ (used when referring to three or more people, for ‘they two’ we have pula) and the ending -li which indicates the agent who does an action
- pipa comes from English ‘paper’ and is used in Dieri to mean ‘paper, book, letter’
- dakarna which means ‘stab, pierce, peck’. Its meaning has been extended to cover ‘write’ (like stabbing, writing involves using a pointed instrument)
- wanthiyi which indicates ‘action done long ago’. Dieri has several words like this (called auxiliaries) that go together with the verb to show when something happened — another one is warrayi ‘action done earlier today’, and we also have wirriyi ‘action done yesterday’
Notice the order of the words in the Dieri sentence: the actor (subject) comes first followed by the thing affected (object) followed by the action (verb), literally ‘They letters wrote’.
The Dieri language has a long history of being used in writing for communications between people who spoke the language. Literacy and writing in Dieri was introduced by Lutheran missionaries in the 19th century at the Bethesda mission settlement at Killalpaninna on Cooper Creek. The missionaries translated part of the Bible into Dieri, along with hymns and prayers, as well as producing books for use in the mission school, where Dieri was taught.
Some examples of writing by Dieri people have been preserved, and three are two collections that we know about so far, though perhaps others will be found. One is a set of postcards that were written by Rebecca Maltilina to Dorothea (Dora) Ruediger at Bethesda mission between 1907 and 1914. Rebecca had been taken south in 1904 to assist the Lutheran pastor Loehe and his family when they moved to Natimuk in western Victoria. She never returned to Dieri country and died in Adelaide in 1942.
The second collection are letters written by Dieri people who had been at Killalpaninna and were resettled to various stations in northern South Australia when the mission was closed by the South Australian government in 1915. People associated with the missionaries who were living in Adelaide and other places kept in contact with the Dieri over many subsequent years, especially Theodor (Ted) Vogelsang, who was the son of lay mission helper Hermann Vogelsang. In the 1940s and 1950s Dieri people wrote to Vogelsang about their daily lives, sharing news about what was going on among the community. Ted spoke Dieri fluently as he had grown up on the mission. Copies of their letters were given to Peter Austin by the late Ronald Bernd, who had collected them from Ted Vogelsang when he was working in the South Australian Museum. We do not know if copies of Vogelsang’s letters survive, but it is possible that they are held in private collections (the Dieri letters mention people having received letters from Vogelsang).
Here is an example. It is a two page letter dated 22nd May 1954 and written from Roxby Downs Station by Katharina, Lorna and Alick Edwards. The handwriting is very clear, and uses the old missionary spelling which does not represent Dieri sounds well but is still readable.
We can translate the beginning of the letter as follows:
Dear Friend Ted Vogelsang,
You might have heard from me and got my letter. Well, friend, how are you? Are you still alive? We are all alive and are very sad about you and your wife and children. We haven’t heard from you all any more. How are you all? We praise God that he has kept you alive until today. …
During the 1970s when Peter Austin started learning Dieri, some older people like the late Ben Murray continued to speak and read and write the language. Today we have the chance to do so again through activities like the Dieri Yawarra resource book and the DAC Workshops. We can also use modern media like CDs, mobile phones and blogs to continue writing the Dieri language.
Note: The 1910 photograph of Killalpaninna comes from the State Library of South Australia.