Folsom Prison mandru

In a previous post we looked at the first verse of the Dieri translation of the Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues”. In this post we will look at how Greg Wilson and the Dieri Elders based in Port Augusta have translated the second verse of the song (we had a go at singing it at the third workshop in Adelaide on 4th April but have not yet made a proper recording).

Nganhi kupa nganarnanhi, ngandri yatharna wanthiyi
“Kanku ngumu ngamamayi, wata makitanhi pirkirna”
Renonhi mathari palirnanhi ngathu nhayiyi
Ngathu traina ngararna nganhi matya yindrayi

Translated into English this means:

When I was a child (my) mother said
“Be a good boy, without playing with guns”
In Reno I saw a man die
When I hear the train I just cry

As mentioned for Verse 1, 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:

nganhi means ‘I’ when it is used with a situation that only involves a single participant (used with an ‘intransitive verb’ — for this grammatical distinction review this post)

kupa means ‘child’

nganarnanhi consists of the verb root ngana ‘to be’ plus the ending -rnanhi which is used to link together two events that occur at the same time and involve different subjects — here ‘I’ and ‘mother’

ngandri means ‘mother’

yatharna wanthiyi means ‘said long ago’ and consists of the root yatha-rna ‘to say, tell’ and the element wanthiyi that means ‘action done a long time ago’

kanku means ‘boy’

ngumu means ‘good’

ngamamayi is the order form of the verb ngama-rna ‘to sit’ so it means ‘(you) sit down!’

wata means ‘not’

makitanhi consists of makita meaning ‘gun’ (it comes from the English word “musket”) plus the ending -nhi meaning ‘with’

pirkirna means ‘play’ and includes the ending -rna which is used to link together two events that occur at the same time and involve the same subject — here ‘you sit down and you don’t play with guns’

Renonhi consists of Reno plus the ending -nhi meaning ‘in, at’

mathari means ‘young man’

palirnanhi consists of the root pali ‘to die’ plus the ending -rnanhi which is used to link together two events that occur at the same time and involve the different subjects — here ‘a young man dies and I see it’

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

nhayiyi consists of the root nhayi ‘to see’ plus the ending -yi which indicates something happening now (‘present tense’)

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.)

ngararna means ‘hearing’ — it consists of the verb root ngara ‘to hear’ and the ending -rnanhi which is used to link together two events that occur at the same time and involve the different subjects — here ‘the train comes and I hear it’

nganhi means ‘I’ when it is used with a situation that only involves a single participant (used with an ‘intransitive verb’)

matya means ‘already, just’

yindrayi means ‘cry’ — it consists of the verb root yindra and the ending -yi which indicates something happening now (‘present tense’)

In later posts we will discuss Verse 3 and Verse 4 of this song.

Yawarra marra

On the 4th April the third ILS-funded language revitalisation workshop was held in Adelaide and attended by 35 members of the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation. In the morning Peter Austin and Greg Wilson ran parallel sessions, with Greg’s group working on materials for the Dieri language school programme and Peter’s group revising previous workshop materials and learning new words and expressions with a focus on everyday language use. In the afternoon Peter worked with the whole group on Dieri songs, and extending and practising everyday conversation, with an emphasis on functional language use.

During the day yawarra marra ‘new words’ (yawarra means ‘word, sentence, language’ and marra means ‘new’ — remember that modifying words follow the thing they modify in Dieri) of two types came up. Some were terms that Peter had not learnt before and so were not yet in the dictionary, and the others were terms that we discussed as being appropriate new expressions to add to the Dieri language.

An example of the first type of words that Peter had not heard before came up when we were discussing how to instruct or order people to do things, like ‘sit down!’, ‘be quiet!’, ‘go away!’ and so on. Some of the karna from Broken Hill remembered their Nanna calling out kurrakani! when she wanted them to leave her alone. With the help of the Elders we were able to work out that this is a command form based on the word base kurraka which means ‘to gallop, run quickly’ plus the ending -ni meaning ‘you all’, so it means ‘you all run away quickly!’. We also learnt that you could say nhanthu kurrakayi ‘The horse is galloping’.

The second type of new words are terms for things we use every day that did not exist previously, so have no traditional names. An example of this is mobile phone. We discussed what to call it in Dieri during the last session of the workshop. Languages generally follow two patterns when they want to make up new words. The first is borrowing a word from another language, and adapting it in pronunciation (English has done this with words from lots of languages, including Dieri — for example English ‘mulga’ comes from Dieri malka). So, we could, for example, say pana for ‘phone’ in Dieri (remember Dieri does not have f or o and all words must end in a vowel). The second pattern for creating new words is to use existing materials and combine them in new ways. Chinese tends to do this so their word for ‘telephone’, for example, means “electric speech”.

For ‘mobile phone’ it was suggested that we could use tharlpa ‘ear’ and combine it with daltyi ‘rattling noise’ (see the previous discussion of words for sounds). This gives us tharlpa daltyi for ‘mobile phone’. Next we discussed ‘video game’ — the Dieri word for ‘game’ is pirkini (based on the verb pirki-rna ‘to play). We combined this with paratyi ‘lightning’ (and hence ‘electric’) to give paratyi pirkini for ‘video game’. The last word we discussed was ‘computer’. Again, we decided to use paratyi ‘lightning’ and combine it with puwa ‘matter, soft insides’ (as in muku puwa ‘marrow’, where muku means ‘bone’, and tyuru puwa ‘brain’, where tyuru means ‘intelligence’). This gives us paratyi puwa for ‘computer’.


In the future, new words can be added to Dieri in this way to express new terms and concepts.

Nganhi walkarrali nganayi

Most situations that describe the visible external quality of a person, animal or thing (like ‘It is big’ or ‘You are small’) in Dieri are expressed as a noun or pronoun in the intransitive subject form (recall from the previous blog post that this is the basic form we find in the dictionary) followed by an adjective that gives the quality, as in these examples:

kinthala pirna ‘The dog is big’
kupa wakawaka ‘The child is very small’
karirri marru ‘The river is wide’
palthu wuldru ‘The path is narrow’
pirta payirri ‘The stick is long’
yinka wardu ‘The string is short’

nganhi payirri ‘I am tall’
yini wardu ‘You are short’
nhawu partiparti ‘He is mad’
nhani pirna ‘She is big’

In contrast, situations that refer to internal or emotional qualities are expressed in a different way in Dieri. These qualities are nouns in Dieri, not adjectives, and they are used a special type of sentence which consists of:

  • a noun or pronoun in intransitive subject form
  • the internal/emotional noun in transitive subject form (taking the ending -yali or -li)
  • the connecting word ngana ‘to be’ which takes endings that show the time of the situation being described

Some examples are:

kupa mawali nganayi ‘The child is hungry’
kinthala thardiyali nganayi? ‘Is the dog thirsty?’
wilhapina yapali nganarna wanthiyi ‘The old lady was afraid long ago’

nganhi mawali nganayi ‘I am hungry’
yini thardiyali nganayi? ‘Are you thirsty?’
nhawu walkarrali nganarna warayi ‘He was sad (earlier today)’
nhani nhinthali nganarna wanthiyi ‘She was shy long ago’

For mawa ‘hunger’ and thardi ‘thirst’ the thing that someone or something is hungry or thirsty for can be expressed as a noun with the ending -ya, as in:


nganhi mawali nganayi nganthiya ‘I am hungry for meat’
pinarru thardiyali nganayi kupulaya ‘The old man is thirsty for grog’

For the other feelings or emotions the cause or reason for them can be expressed with a noun taking the ending -nhi that we usually use to show a location ‘in, at, on’. Examples are:


mankarra yapali nganayi marankarranhi ‘The girl is afraid of spiders’
kupa walkarrali nganalha nganayi ngandrinhi ‘The child will be sad for his mother’

These roots have another special characteristic in Dieri. They can take the ending -kantyi to refer to a person or animal that shows this quality all the time. Examples are:

mawa-kantyi ‘someone who is always hungry’
yapa-kantyi ‘someone who is always afraid’
nhintha-kantyi ‘someone who is always shy’
walkarra-kantyi ‘someone who is always sad’

Examples of their use are:

nhawuya kupa mawakantyi ‘This child is one who is always hungry’
nhani mankarra yapakantyi ‘This girl is one who is always afraid’

Nganhi wapayi ya ngathu yinha nandrayi

The Dieri language makes a fundamental distinction between situations involving two participants and those that involve just one. Some situations involve a person or thing carrying out an action and another person or thing being affected by that action. We call sentences in Dieri that express such two-participant situations transitive sentences, and an example would be ngathu yinha nandrayi ‘I hit you’. Other situations only involve just a person or thing and are expressed as intransitive sentences, as in nganhi wapayi ‘I am going’.

For words that describe people and things in Dieri (called ‘nouns’) there is one form for the single participant of an intransitive sentence (called the ‘intransitive subject’, or IS for short) and for the affected participant in a transitive sentence (called the ‘transitive object’, or TO for short). This form is the one that appears in wordlists and dictionaries, for example, kupa ‘child’, kanku ‘boy’, thari ‘young man’, kinthala ‘dog’ and pirta ‘tree’. For the active participant in a transitive sentence (the ‘transitive subject’, or TS for short) there is a separate form which involves adding an ending to the basic root form:

-yali added to roots of two syllables ending in i or u (remember that counting the vowel sounds a and i and u will tell you how many syllables a word has). Here are some examples (notice that the action word (the ‘verb’) comes at the end in Dieri):

kanku-yali kinthala nandrayi ‘The boy hits the dog’
thari-yali kanku nhayiyi ‘The young man sees the boy’

-li added to other roots, that is roots of two syllables ending in a and roots of three or more syllables. Here are some examples:

kupa-li kinthala nandrayi ‘The child hits the dog’
kinthala-li kupa nhayiyi ‘The dog sees the child’

Notice, that if a root is three syllables and it ends in i or u then this vowel changes to a before -li is added. Examples are:

kadnhina-li kupa nhayiyi ‘Grandmother sees the boy’
pinarra-li kupa nhayiyi ‘The old man sees the boy’

For words use for talking about the speaker ‘I’, the hearer ‘you’ and a third person ‘he,she, it’ (called ‘pronouns’) there are three separate forms for IS, TS and TO, as the following examples show:

nganhi wapayi ‘I am going’
yini wapayi ‘You (one person) are going’
nhawu wapayi ‘He is going’
nhani wapayi ‘She is going’

ngathu kinthala nhayiyi ‘I see the dog’
yundru kinthala nhayiyi ‘You see the dog’
nhulu kinthala nhayiyi ‘He sees the dog’
nhandru kinthala nhayiyi ‘She sees the dog’

kinthalali nganha nhayiyi ‘The dog sees me’
kinthalali yinha nhayiyi ‘The dog sees you’
kinthalali nhinha nhayiyi ‘The dog sees him’
kinthalali nhanha nhayiyi ‘The dog sees her’

Of course, if we have both pronoun transitive subject and pronoun transitive object then the separate forms are clear:

ngathu yinha nhayiyi ‘I see you’
yundru nganha nhayiyi ‘You see me’
nhulu nhanha nhayiyi ‘He sees her’
nhandru nhinha nhayiyi ‘She sees him’

The following table summarises all the various forms we have discussed:

root IS TS TO
boy kanku kankuyali kanku
young man thari thariyali thari
child kupa kupali kupa
old man pinarru pinarrali pinarru
grandmother kadnhini kadnhinali kadnhini
I nganhi ngathu nganha
you yini yundru yinha
he nhawu nhulu nhinha
she nhani nhandru nhanha

There are a few other complications involving people’s names and pronouns referring to two or more people (‘we two’, ‘you all’ and so on) — we will discuss these is a later post.