Ngapuriyamayi ngathu yinha nandrayathi

The Dieri language has a very useful ending -yathi which can be added to verbs to indicate a situation that is bad and undesirable. It is often used to warn someone that something bad might happen. For example, if I see a nasty looking dog coming towards you I could say:

nhulu kinthalali yinanha mathayathi ‘This dog might bite you’

which consists of nhulu ‘he, this’, the transitive subject, kinthalali ‘dog’, also the transitive subject (indicated by the ending -li), yinanha ‘you (one), the transitive object, and mathayathi which is made up of the verb root matha ‘bite’ and the ending -yathi.

If it’s clear from the context, for example, we are both looking at the dog, I can also just say:

nhulu yinanha mathayathi ‘He might bite you’

or simply:

yinanha mathayathi ‘(He) might bite you’

Note that yinanha can be reduced to yinha in fast speech, so the quickest warning would be:

yinha mathayathi ‘(He) might bite you’

We also often find this -yathi form used with commands, telling someone to do or not do something, in case something bad might happen. Recall from this blog post that commands are made up of just the verb root if it ends in a, or the ending -ya is added if it ends in i or u. We can also add the emphasis ending -mayi after this if we want to. Here are some examples:

  • ngamamayi yini puriyathi ‘Sit down or you’ll fall over’

this is: ngamamayi the order form of ngama ‘sit’, yini ‘you (one)’ intransitive subject, puriyathi ‘might fall’ based on puri ‘fall over, fall down’

  • wata yarra wapalumayi thanali yulanha nhayiyathi ‘Don’t you two go over that way or they will see you’

this is: wata ‘not’, yarra ‘that way’, direction away from the speaker, wapalumayi ‘you two go!’, thanali ‘they all’, the transitive subject form, yulanha ‘you two’, the transitive object form, and nhayiyathi ‘might see’

  • wata thirrimaliyamayi yulyali yuranha maniyathi ‘Don’t fight one another or the police will get you all’

this is: wata ‘not’, thirrimaliyamayi ‘fight one another!’, consisting of thirri ‘fight’ -mali ‘one another’, -ya ‘order’ and -mayi ’emphasis’, yulyali ‘police’, the transitive subject form, yuranha ‘you all’, the transitive object form, and maniyathi ‘might get’

  • ngapuriyamayi ngathu yinha nandrayathi ‘Be quiet or I’ll hit you’

this is: ngapuriyamayi ‘be quiet!’, made up of ngapu ‘silence, quiet’, -ri ‘become’, -ya ‘command’, -mayi ’emphasis’, ngathu ‘I’, transitive subject, yinha ‘you’ transitive object, and nandrayathi ‘might hit’.

Note that in very fast speech the sequence ngathu yinha ‘I you’ is squeezed down to ngathinha so a useful warning is:

ngathinha nandrayathi ‘I might hit you’


Yawarra warulha

Did you try the challenge at the end of the previous blog post? Did you try to translate into English the Dieri title nhawu dalkiyi nhungkarni ngandrinhi?

Well, it means ‘He disobeys his mother’, and is made up of these words:

  • nhawu ‘he, this’ — this is the intransitive subject form
  • dalkiyi ‘disobeys’ consists of the extended intransitive verb root dalki ‘to disobey’ and the ending -yi which marks present tense (something happening now)
  • nhungkarni ‘his’ — this is the possessive form
  • ngandrinhi ‘with/at mother’ consists of the root ngandri ‘mother’ and the locative ending -nhi ‘with, at’ which marks the second participant of an extended intransitive verb.

This sentence is based on a line from a traditional Dieri story that was written down by Dieri man Sam Dintibana and published in the journal Folklore in 1937 by the Adelaide-based anthropologist Henry Kenneth Fry, with translations by Theodor “Ted” Vogelsang, the son of a mission helper Hermann Vogelsang. Ted Vogelsang was born and grew up at the Killalpaninna mission near Cooper Creek and spoke Dieri fluently (see this previous blog post for discussion of letters in Dieri sent to Ted Vogelsang in Adelaide). Look at the material in the box in the following picture:


Sam Dintibana wrote using the spelling developed by the missionaries which unfortunately does not capture Dieri pronunciation well, however we can clearly recognise this Dieri sentence:

nhawu dalkirna wanthiyi pulangu ya nhungkarni ngandrinhi ‘He disobeyed them two and his mother’

The extra words here are:

  • wanthiyi follows the verb and indicates something that happened a long time ago in the past
  • pulangu is the locative form meaning ‘them two’
  • ya means ‘and’.

The main character in the story is a boy, who is told by his older sister (kaku) and brother-in-law (kardi) to stay at home with his mother (ngandri) while they go off somewhere else. He disobeyed them and his mother, and followed along behind his older sister and her husband. Various adventures follow, including the boy being told to climb a tree which is then magically sung by the brother-in-law so that it grows and grows and the boy is trapped high up at the top. He is eventually rescued by his two older brothers (nhiyiwurlu); one of them is left-handed (ngunyari) and the other is right-handed (warrangantyu). Eventually, the three brothers catch up to the evil brother-in-law and finish him off.

Fry published a number of Dieri traditional stories from Dintibana in two issues of the journal. The only one Peter Austin was able to check with Dieri speakers in the 1970s was this one.

Fry, H. K. 1937. Dieri Legends, Part II. Folklore, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 269-287.

Nhawu dalkiyi nhungkarni ngandrinhi

The Dieri language makes a fundamental distinction between verbs (words describing actions or events) that are intransitive and verbs that are transitive (see this blog post for an introduction).

Intransitive verbs involve just one participant, and include concepts like wapa-rna ‘to go, walk’ or ngama-rna ‘to sit’ or thurara-rna ‘to lie down, sleep’. The person or thing who does this action is called the intransitive subject (shown in purple), as in:

thanaya kupakupa wapayi ‘These children are going’
nhawu ngamayi warlinhi ‘He is sitting in the house’
waranha thurarayi nhaka? ‘Who is sleeping over there?’

Transitive verbs involve two participants, one who does the action (the transitive subject, shown in red) and one who is affected by the action (the transitive object, shown in green) and include concepts like dama-rna ‘to cut’ or thayi-rna ‘to eat’ or nhayi-rna ‘to see, look at’, as in:

thanaliya kupakupali nhinhaya pipa damayi ‘These children are cutting this paper’
nhulu nganthi pandra thayiyi ‘He eats cooked meat’
warli yinanha nhayiyi ‘Who is looking at you?’

Now, Dieri also has a different set of verbs that involve two participants, however one takes the same form as an intransitive subject (shown in purple) while the second one (shown in orange) is in the locative form which we usually use to indicate where something or someone is located (like warlinhi ‘in the house’ in the example above). These verbs (which we call extended intransitive verbs) are different from transitive verbs because they involve two participants but they don’t affect or change anything, and usually describe speech or thoughts rather than physical actions. These verbs include the following:

dalki-rna ‘to disobey’
darni-rna ‘to say goodbye to’
kilpari-rna ‘to disbelieve’
kurutharra-rna ‘to forget’
murda-rna ‘to finish with’
tyampa-rna ‘to be very fond of’

Here are some examples:

thanaya kupakupa kalapayi thanarni ngapiranhi ‘These children answer their father’
yaruka nganhi murdayi nhangkangu ‘That’s how I finished with her’
wata yini tyampayi walypalaya puka ‘You are not really fond of white people’s food’

When we learn a new verb in Dieri it is important to also learn whether it is intransitive, transitive or extended intransitive as this will affect the number and form of the participants that can occur together with the verb.

Question: Can you translate the title of this blog post? The sentence actually comes from a traditional Dieri story. The answer will be in the next blog post.

Yawarraya pipa mandru

Back in February we published a blog post about the Dieri dictionary that Peter Austin is preparing as part of the DAC ILS project. Peter has been doing further work on the dictionary since then and has added more information, including examples and sub-entries under the main entries, as well as notes on Dieri culture (for an example, look at the sub-entry for thina malthara in the sample below). The dictionary has three parts to it:

  1. Dieri-English section organised in alphabetical order according to the Dieri words, with their English translations, explanations, examples, and cross-references
  2. English-Dieri section that lists English words in alphabetical order and their Dieri equivalents, but with less detail about meanings and uses
  3. Categories section organised according to meanings, so all the words for particular topics and concepts are grouped together

Here is an example page from the latest version of the Dieri-English section:


The main body of the dictionary now has 100 pages and is planned for final checking next month and, hopefully, for printing soon after.

Waranhaya wakarayi

In a previous blog post we introduced how to say ‘who?’ in Dieri when we want to ask about the identity of a person. Here is a reminder of all the different forms we looked at:

Dieri English Function
warli who? transitive subject
waranha who? intransitive subject and transitive object
warni whose? possessor
warangu with who? location
warangundru from who? source

In another recent blog post we saw that the ending -ya can be added to minha ‘what?’ to express the meaning ‘something’. The same ending can be used with forms for ‘who?’ in Dieri to mean ‘someone’, such as waranhaya ‘someone’ (intransitive subject or transitive object). The different forms of ‘someone’ that contain this -ya are then used in statements and do not have to be at the beginning of the sentence, unlike how we use ‘who?’ in questions. Here are some examples:

waranhaya wakarayi
‘Someone is coming’

waranhaya thurarayi ngakarni pangkanhi
‘Someone is sleeping in my bed’

ngathu waranhaya nhayirna warayi thinkanhi
‘I saw someone in the night’

warliya nganha nandrarna warayi
‘Someone hit me’

nhaniya thurarayi warniya pangkanhi
‘This one is sleeping in someone’s bed’

pula pirkiyi waranguya
‘They two are playing with someone’

thana nandramaliyi warangundruya
‘They all are fighting because of someone’

Of course, it is possible to use both ‘someone’ and ‘something’ in the same sentence, if you really are unsure what is going on:

warliya minhaya thayiyi
‘Someone is eating something’

minhayali waranhaya matharna warayi
‘Something bit someone’


Minha thanali nhinhaya yawarra dikayi?

Visitors to this blog may not realise that in addition to the posts in the main window, like this one, there is useful background information to be found on the other pages that are linked from the grey banner that runs across the page between the title and each new post. The red arrows in the following picture point to links to these pages (click on the picture to enlarge it):


  • About — gives the background explaining why this blog was set up and thanking our sponsors, the ILS programme
  • Dieri language — discusses where the Dieri language is spoken and gives some brief history of its study by non-Dieri people
  • More information — describes sources where readers can find more details about the Dieri language
  • Spelling — describes the Dieri spelling system and how to pronounce Dieri words and sentences

The title of this blog post refers specifically to the last of these. It means in English ‘How do they say this word?’ and is made up of:

minha ‘what’ (discussed in a previous blog post) — this is the transitive object form
thanali ‘they (all)’ — this is the transitive subject form
nhinhaya ‘this’, consists of nhinha ‘him, this’ which is the transitive object form, plus the ending -ya meaning ‘near the speaker’
yawarra ‘word, expression, language’
dikayi ‘calls, names’ — this is the present tense form (indicating something happening now, or a general statement that is always true) and is made up of the verb root dika-rna ‘to call, to name’ plus the ending -yi which marks present tense

In Dieri there is a saying paya parlpa thana dikatharriyi which can be translated into English as ‘Some birds say their own name’. It is made up of these words:

paya ‘bird’
parlpa ‘some’
thana ‘they (all)’
dikatharriyi ‘name themselves’, which consists of the verb root dika-rna mentioned above plus the ending -tharri which indicates an action done to oneself, plus the ending -yi which marks present tense

What this refers to is that in Dieri the names of some birds (but not all) are similar to the sounds that the birds make. An example of this is the crow kawalka which makes the sound ka-ka-ka.

This ending -tharri can be used with just about any verb to indicate an action done to oneself — notice that the person or thing acting on themself with such a verb is always in the intransitive subject form:

thana dikatharriyi ‘They name themselves’ (compare thanali nhinha dikayi ‘They name him’)

nganhi damatharrirna warayi nhayipali ‘I cut myself with a knife’ (compare ngathu nganthi damarna warayi nhayipali ‘I cut the meat with a knife’)

kupakupa wajamatharriyi ngapali ‘The children are washing themselves with water’ (compare kupakupali wajamayi kinthakinthala ngapali ‘The children are washing the little dog with water’)

yini nhayitharriyi ngapanhi? ‘Do you see yourself in the water?’ (compare yundru nganha nhayiyi ngapanhi? ‘Do you see me in the water?’)

Notice that in English expressing actions done to oneself is complicated because you have to change the ‘…self’ word depending on who does the action (‘I … myself’, ‘you … yourself’, ‘he … himself’, ‘she … herself’, ‘it … itself’, ‘we … ourselves’, ‘you … yourselves’, ‘they … themselves’), but in Dieri it is very simple: just add -tharri to the verb.

Minha nhawuya?

In previous blog posts we looked at how to ask questions in Dieri, first how to ask about ‘who?’ and then to ask about ‘which?’. In this blog post we will learn about how to ask about ‘what?’.

We use ‘what?’ in English to ask about an object, thing or creature that is not human (and use ‘who?’ for humans). The corresponding element in Dieri is minha, which is a noun meaning ‘what?’.

Like all other nouns in Dieri, minha ‘what?’ has different forms (and takes different endings) depending upon its role in the sentence. Here are the different forms we need to learn, together with their functions (notice that they always appear as the first word in the question):

Intransitive Subject minha
minha nhawuya? ‘What is this?’
minha parrayi nhaka? ‘What is lying over there?’

Transitive Subject minhali
minhali nganha mathayi? ‘What is biting me?’
minhali nhinha nandrayi? ‘What hit him?’

Transitive Object minha
minha kinthalali nhayiyi? ‘What is the dog looking at?’
minha yundru thayiyi? ‘What are you eating?’

Location minhanhi
minhanhi nhawuwa wapayi? ‘What is that one going with?’
minhanhi nhani ngamayi? ‘What is she sitting with?’

Source minhandru
minhandru nhawu kinthala mindriyi? ‘What is the dog running away from?’
minhandru nhani wakararna warayi? ‘What did she come from?’

Notice that the locative in Dieri is also used to express some goal that the subject has in mind when doing an action, as in:

nganhi wapayi warliya nganthinhi ‘I am going to the house for meat’
nhawu wapayi kararraya ngapanhi ‘He is going to the creek for water’

So when we want to ask about a goal we use minhanhi ‘what for?’ which often translates into English as ‘why?’

minhanhi yini wapayi? ‘What are you going for?’ or ‘Why are you going?’
minhanhi nhawu wakarayi nhingkirda? ‘What is he coming here for?’ or ‘Why is he coming here?’

You can hear Alec Edwards (recorded by Luise Hercus in 1968) asking in Dieri minhanhi yura thirri? ‘What are you all angry for?’, first at normal speed: and now repeated slowly:

The source in Dieri is also used to express a reason that causes or explains an action, as in:

thana yathamaliyi widlhaya yawarrandru ‘They are arguing with each other because of the woman’s words’
marda karku pantyirna wanthiyi kumarrandru ‘The stones became red ochre because of the blood’

Here is Alec Edwards saying slowly tharindru thanaya thirri ‘They are angry because of the young man’

Now, when we want to ask about a reason or cause we use minhandru ‘what from?, because of what?’ which also often translates into English as ‘why?’

minhandru yura nandramaliyi? ‘What are you all hitting each other from?’ or ‘Why are you hitting each other?’
minhandru yini mindrirna kurrayi? ‘For what reason did you run away? or ‘Why did you run away?’

It is important to remember that if we want to translate ‘why?’ from English to Dieri we need to be careful to make a difference between minhanhi ‘why for?’ (purpose) and minhandru ‘why from?’ (reason).

Finally, we can add the ending -ya to minha and then add the endings we saw in the forms above to mean ‘something’, as the following examples show. Notice that these are not questions so the different forms for ‘something’ do not have to be at the beginning of the sentence but occur where we normally find other nouns serving the relevant function in Dieri:

minhaya parrayi nhaka ‘Something is lying over there’
minhayali nganha mathayi ‘Something is biting me’
nhanhi pirkiyi minhayanhi ‘She is playing with something’
thana nandramaliyi minhayandru ‘They are fighting because of something’

When you don’t know what to call something in Dieri, or you briefly forget the name of something, we can use minhaya to mean ‘something or other, what-you-may-call-it, thingummyjig’, as in:

ngathu ngararna warayi, minhaya, thurru wilpara ‘I heard the, what-you-may-call-it, train’

This little word can be really useful in conversation when you can’t remember what Dieri word to use next!

Note: Dieri has two words that can be translated into English as ‘to lie down, to be lying’, namely thurara-rna and parra-rna, but you can only use the first of these to talk about humans or animals lying down while the second one is used for non-humans (like trees, water etc.). So, in the examples above you will see minha parrayi nhaka? ‘what is lying there?’ — compare this with waranha thurarayi nhaka? ‘Who is lying there? Who is sleeping there?’