Pilkipildra ya pildra pilki

In a previous blog post, David Nash pointed out that Dieri words have been used to make up a name for an ancient extinct animal called Wakaleo by scientists. Today’s blog is about another example of this that was pointed out to me by David.

In 1987 the scientists Michael Archer, Richard H. Telford and Thomas H. Rich published chapter in a book in which they wrote about their discovery of a new kind of extinct possum. They proposed that there were four species which belonged to a new family of marsupials that they named Pilkipildridae. Bones of this new kind of possum were found in several locations, including on Etadunna Station in northern South Australia. They give a map that includes the following:


Location B on the map is given as: “Etadunna Station, Ditjimanka Local Fauna”. We can recognise this (misspelled) place name as Dityimingka — in Dieri dityi means ‘sun’ and mingka means ‘hole in the ground’. The place called Dityimingka is an important site of significance for Dieri people, because according to tradition it is the place where the sun goes when it sets (note that in Dieri for ‘sunrise’ we say dityi durnka meaning ‘sun emerge’ and for ‘sunset’ we say dityi wirri which means ‘sun enter’ because the sun is believed to come out of Dityimingka each morning and go back in each night).

Here is a reconstruction by Peter Murray of one of the four species of Pilkipildridae called Djilgaringa gillespiei that was found at another location in Queensland:


According to the chapter by Archer, Telford and Rich, the name of the possum species and the new family comes from the Dieri language. On page 609 they write:

Etymology of the family name: Pilki is a Dieri word meaning “different” and pildra is a Dieri word meaning “possum” (Reuther 1901; as translated by Scherer and published in 1981). The Dieri Tribe occupied the Tirari Desert in which occurs Lake Palankarinna where the first pilkipildrid fossil was discovered in 1972.

So, it seems that the authors wanted to call the extinct animals ‘different possum’ and have taken two words meaning roughly that in Dieri from Reuther’s dictionary and put them together to make the name. Unfortunately, they have made a big mistake because in Dieri a word that modifies the meaning of a noun, like an adjective or a number (see here), must follow the noun, not go before it (like in English). Here are some examples:

mankarra pirna ‘big girl’ where mankarra is ‘girl’ and pirna is ‘big’
kanku waka ‘small boy’ where kanku is ‘boy’ and waka is ‘small’
kalthi payirri ‘long spear’ where kalthi is ‘spear’ and payirri is ‘long’
palthu kurndikurndi ‘winding road’ where palthu is ‘road, path’ and kurndikurndi is ‘bent, winding’

karna kurnu ‘one man’ where karna is ‘man’ and kurnu is ‘one’
kinthala mandru ‘two dogs’ where kinthala is ‘dog’ and mandru is ‘two’
wilha parkulu ‘three women’ where wilha is ‘woman’ and parkulu is ‘three’

So, while it is good that the scientists chose Dieri words for the new name, and in the process showed respect to the traditional owners of the country where the fossil bones were found, it is unfortunate that they did not put them together in the correct order according to the structure of the Dieri language. If they had called the newly discovered extinct animals pildra pilki they would have been on the right track. Even worse, when they made up the family name that changed pildra to pildri when they added the Latin ending -idae (resulting in Pilkipildridae) and then they refer to the group of species as “pilkipildrids”, making a mixture of Dieri words in the wrong order, a bit of the Latin ending and a bit of English (plural ‘s’).

Archer, Michael, Richard H. Telford and Thomas H. Rich. 1987. The Pilkipildridae, a new family and four new species of ?Petauroid possums (Marsupialia: Phalangerida) from the Australian Miocene. In Michael Archer (ed.) Possums and opossums: studies in evolution, 607-627. Sydney: Surrey Beatty & Sons and the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. Available online here [accessed 2014-07-06]

Reuther, J. G., 1981 [1901]. The Diari. Translated (as A Diari Dictionary) by Rev. P. A. Scherer. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Microfiche No.2.