Dieri museumanhi


A visit to Acton in Canberra today revealed that there is Dieri language on display in the National Museum of Australia.

In a display about changing climate in Australia there is a graphic on one wall that gives various Dieri words relating to drought and rain, taken from the Dieri dictionary compiled by Rev. Reuther in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the Museum does not seem to have consulted Dieri people, or linguists who know the language like Greg Wilson, Luise Hercus or Peter Austin, and so all the materials on display are misspelled and badly translated.


Dieri contains several sounds that do not exist in English (or in Reuther’s native German) and so these tend not to be represented correctly in older records of the language. Alongside t that occurs on words like wata ‘no, not’ Diyari has rt in words like warta ‘butt, base’ (e.g. pathara warta ‘butt of a box tree’), which sounds to an English speaker like a t with the tip of the tongue turned back. This is different from rd in words like warda which means ‘type of head-dress’. It is important to distinguish rt from rd as it can make a meaning difference, as in these words and also pirta ‘tree’ and pirda ‘navel’. Notice that Dieri also has th which is like a t pronounced with the tip of the tongue between the teeth (eg. mitha ‘ground, earth’).

Now, Reuther did not record the difference between these four sounds (t, th, rt and rd) so when he writes “t” we don’t know which sound he was trying to spell. Also, Dieri has three r-sounds (as we have mentioned before) and they make a meaning difference (remember yara ‘this way, towards me’ versus yarra ‘that way, away from me’), but again Reuther wrote them all as “r”.

So, in the display we have the word “pitaru” several times — this represents pirdarru meaning ‘drought’. Here are some of the other expressions, showing not only that the spelling is incorrect but also that the meaning is sometimes wrong as well:

display: “ngapa pidarurina for water to become increasingly scare”

should be:

ngapa pirdarrurirna meaning ‘water it becomes drought’

display: “talara-tandra markingana for rain to pour down”

should be:

thalara thandra markingarna

which is made up of of three words:

thalara ‘rain’

thandra ‘seed, round part’ (so thalara thandra means ‘rain drops’)

markingarna, which is made up of marka ‘crawl’ and the endings -inga meaning ‘action carried out while going past something else’ and -rna meaning ‘to’ (the form of the verb listed in the dictionary).

So, together this means ‘for rain drops to be crawling past’

(If we want to say ‘rain is pouring down’ we would usually say thalara pirna kurdayi, like in the translation of the chorus of the song ‘The Cooper’s coming down’, described in a previous post.)

Probably the most inaccurate information given in the Museum display is:

display: “ngarimatala birds which give warning of a flood”

This is actually the Dieri word ngarrimathalha which is made up of ngarrimatha ‘flood’ and the ending -lha indicating ‘new information that the speaker assumes the hearer does not know’. All together this means ‘(there is) a flood now’. Nothing to do with birds at all!

It is great that the Dieri language is being presented in the National Museum of Australia in the nation’s capital city. It is a pity, however, that the material is so inaccurate, especially as there are Dieri speakers and other language experts who could have corrected the mistakes easily.

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