Kararaya yawarra — word of the week: mudlha

Today we look at the Diyari word mudlha (also pronounced mulha) which can be translated into English as ‘face’ and ‘nose’, but also has a wider range of other uses. It is also found in a lot of idioms — ways of speaking where the parts do not necessarily add up to the meaning of the whole (like English ‘kick the bucket’ to mean ‘to die’).

Here are some examples showing the different uses:

  1. ‘nose’
    • thanali muku kurrarna wanthiyi mudlhanhi ‘They used to put a bone in their noses long ago’
    • mudlha kilthi ‘snot, nasal mucus’
    • mudlha murru ‘dried crust of snot under the nose’
    • mudlha kumarri ‘nosebleed’
    • mudla wirlpa ‘nostril, hole in nose’
    • mudla durru ‘hook of the nose’
    • mudlha ngankarna ‘to rub the nose’ (ngankarna generally means ‘to do, make’)
    • nganhi mudlha pununu parrayi ‘my nose is itching’. People believe that when your nose itches then someone must be talking about you behind your back.
  2. ‘tip of a body part’
    • mara mudlha ‘tip of the finger’ (mara means ‘hand, finger’)
    • thidna mudla ‘tiptoe’ (thidna means ‘foot, toe’)
  3. ‘tip or edge of something in nature’
    • ngarrimatha mudlha ‘the edge of rising flood waters’
    • wathara mudlha ‘the edge of an approaching windstorm’
    • daku mudlha ‘the point of a sandhill’
    • karirri mudlha ‘the line of trees marking the edge of watercourse or creek’
    • pirta mulha ‘the thick end of a fallen tree’
    • kalku mudlha ‘the bottom end of a reed where is is broken off the root or stalk’
  4. ‘tip or end of something that people make’
    1. katu mudlha ‘the end of a windbreak’
    2. palthu mudlha ‘the end of a road or path’
    3. marda mudlha ‘the pointed end of a grinding stone’
  5. ‘face’
    • mudlha ngumu ‘beautiful, attractive face’
    • mudlha manyu ‘friendly face’
    • mudlha kurlikirri ‘clean washed face’
    • mudlha dulyardulya ‘dirty face’
    • mudlha malka ‘stripes painted on the face’. Traditionally, when someone died the women would paint their faces with black and white stripes using charcoal and gypsum

Here are some idioms that use mudlha where the overall meaning is not predictable from the other words in the expression:

  • mudlha putyu (literally ‘face blind’) ‘not paying attention when something bad could be predicted to happen’, for example, minhandru yundru kupa yinparna warayi ngapa padninhi? Yidni mudlha putyu?. ‘Why did you send the children out without any water? Couldn’t you see (they would nearly die of thirst)?
  • mudlha yarkirna (literally ‘face burn’) ‘to look angry’
  • mudlha pirtarirna (literally ‘face become wood’) ‘to become sullen, surly, glum’
  • mudlha wararna (literally ‘face throw’) ‘to pull a long face, to look sad or disapproving’
  • mudlha thiri pardakarna (literally ‘face angry take’) ‘to make up, become reconciled with someone’. When two people are upset with each other meet and make up then they take the angry faces away.
  • mudlha wathirna (literally ‘face search’) ‘to look for someone among a group of people’
  • mudlha punthiparna (literally ‘face separate’) ‘to separate people into two groups and send them on their way’
  • mudlha matharna (literally ‘nose bite’) ‘to give someone the cold shoulder, for a woman to turn down an offer of marriage’
  • mudlha murruwarna (literally ‘nose scratch’) ‘to beat around the bush, to ask for something indirectly’
  • mudlha ngurdarna (literally ‘face stretch’) ‘to hurry ahead of someone’
  • mudlha kutya (literally ‘face feather’) ‘leader of a revenge expedition’. Traditionally, when someone died a group of men called a pinya would be sent out to avenge the death by killing someone from another group. The leader of the pinya is called mudlha kutya because they have feathers stuck on their face with blood.

Words in the examples :

durrubent over
karirricreek, watercourse
kilthijuice, liquid
kupachild, children
kurrarnato put
kutyafeather of a bird (not emu)
malkamark, line, stripe
manyugood, sweet
marahand, finger
mardastone, rock, money
matharnato bite
murruwarnato scratch
ngankarnato make, to do
ngurdarnato stretch
padninone, nothing
palthuroad, path
parrayiis lying down (of inanimate objects)
pinyarevenger expedition
pirtatree, wood
pirtarirnato be come wood
punthiparnato separate, divide in two
thidnafoot, toe
wararnato throw
wirlpahole in solid object
yarkirnato burn
yinparnato send

Dieri yawarra kartyimalkarnayitya

German Lutheran missionaries lived among the Dieri for 45 years from 1869 to 1914. The missionaries studied the Dieri language and used it in their work and their daily lives, including preaching in Dieri and teaching it in the mission school. They prepared primers, schools books and dictionaries and grammars of Dieri, and translated a large number of Christian works into the language, including hymns and the Old and New Testaments.


One of the missionaries who was most keen to study Dieri language and culture was Rev. Johannes Georg Reuther who arrived at the mission in 1888 at the age of 27. According to the South Australian Museum, by July 1899 Reuther had completed a grammar of Dieri, followed by grammars of the neighbouring Wangkangurru and Yandruwantha languages. From 1903 to 1906 Reuther spent most of his research time completing a dictionary of Dieri that contains 4,200 entries. Reuther left Killalpaninna in 1906, after 18 years as a missionary; his massive collection of unpublished materials are now in the South Australian Museum. Reuther’s 13 volumes of manuscript notebooks were translated into English by Philipp Scherer between 1974 and 1978. The translation was published on microfilm in 1981 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In the 1990s David Nash and Jane Simpson scanned and OCRed the dictionary section of Scherer’s translation and deposited them as 66 digital files in the Aseda electronic archive.

Here is page 1920 of Reuther’s dictionary.

Unfortunately, in this form the dictionary is difficult to use and to find information easily, especially as there is no English-Dieri index that allows users to look up words by their English translation. Also, Reuther used the missionary spelling which is inconsistent and does not represent the sounds of Dieri very well (compare the entries here with those for thina in Peter Austin’s draft dictionary page shown in this previous blog post).

Over the last few years Bernhard Schebeck has been processing the Scherer dictionary translation files (including some work as part of the current ILS revitalisation project) to mark them up for the type of content (Dieri word, part of speech, English translation etc) and to create an English to Dieri listing. This is very useful, but the materials are still not yet fully usable or widely available.

The Dieri Aboriginal Corporation has now decided to fund a project by David Nathan of ELAR at SOAS to create a web version of the Reuther dictionary, building on and extending Scherer’s and Schebeck’s work. We hope that a hypertext version of Reuther’s dictionary will be available on the internet next year.

Note: The title of this blog consists of the familiar Dieri yawarra ‘Dieri words/language’, plus a new word kartyimalkarnayitya which is made up of:

kartyimalka the verb root meaning ‘turn over’
-rna the verb ending used to create a dictionary form
-yitya an ending which turns a verb into a noun referring to the person or animal who does the action described by the verb (like the “-er” ending in English: talk – talker (person who talks) or run – runner (person who runs)

The combination yawarra kartyimalka-rna in Dieri is how we say ‘to translate’ — it literally means ‘to turn over words’. So, Dieri yawarra kartyimalkarnayitya means ‘Dieri language translators’ (“the ones who turn over Dieri words”).

We can use this combination of endings -rna-yitya with any verb in Dieri to create a noun that refers to the person who does an action. Here are some examples:

nganthi damarnayitya ‘butcher’ (one who cuts up meat)
yawarra yingkirnayitya ‘preacher’ (one who gives words)
yindrarnayitya ‘crier’ (one who cries)

Minha nhawuya nhingkirda pityanhi?

Dier language committee at work

Dier language committee at work

Following the two-day Dieri ILS revitalisation workshop the Dieri Language Committee met for one and a half days to check over the draft Dieri-English dictonary, and to make recordings for the planned Dieri talking dictionary. We approached this by describing a set of pictures drawn by a Pitjantjatjara artist and made available to the group by Greg Wilson. Each language committee member took turns in describing some aspect of the pictures, making up Dieri sentences that they felt said something about what they saw in the drawings. Three generations of speakers were present, and everyone contributed according to their knowledge and abilities. The result was a nice selection of more and less complex constructions that will be excellent source materials for future Dieri language learners.

Winnie and Marjorie describing a picture

Winnie and Marjorie describing a picture

The group enjoyed the process and the opportunity to share their knowledge, especially when Aunty Winnie kept making jokes that got us all laughing. We even got some new words that were missing from the dictionary (and some example sentences that were a bit too rude to be included).

Note: the title of this blog post means “What is this here in the picture?” and uses a word borrowed from English pitya ‘picture’. You should be able to work out the rest of the sentence and its grammar from previous blog posts.

Ngayana pirkirna warayi Lingo Bingo

One of the activities we carried out on Monday during the ILS Dieri language revitalisation workshop was Lingo Bingo. This is a team game that involves remembering Dieri words, or looking them up in the available language materials (like the draft dictionary and the Dieri Yawarra book).


We had five teams of participants and 30 bingo cards (in various colours). For half the cards, Peter wrote English words on one side and for the other half he wrote Dieri words on one side. Each team got six cards and had to write either the Dieri word or the English translation on the other side, either by remembering the words we had learned before or by looking them up (and making sure they were spelled and pronounced correctly). Then the two rounds of competition began. For the first round everyone put their cards on the table so the Dieri words were facing up, and then Peter called out the words in random order. The goal was to hear the word, and the team with that card had to call out the English translation and then turn the card over. The team with all their cards turned over was the winner when they shouted out “Lingo Bingo”. Round one was won by a team from Broken Hill. For round two the teams turned the cards with the English facing up, Peter called out English translations and the teams had to say the Dieri word (making sure to pronounce it properly). This round was won by a team fr0m Port Augusta. Everyone got very engaged in the game and enjoyed it a lot, and got to share and practice their knowledge of Dieri words and pronunciation.

Dieri yawarra workshop

The Dieri Aboriginal Corporation organised a final language workshop for the ILS language revitalisation project on 1st and 2nd September. On Sunday, 55 community members participated, and on Monday there were 35 enthusiastic participants — on both days ages ranged from 6 months to 82 years, so there was quite an age range! Community members came from Port Augusta, Maree and Broken Hill. There was also a representative of the Parnkalla community who welcomed us to Port Augusta — Aunty Rene and Uncle Reg responded in Dieri to the welcome. Peter Austin flew out from London (via Brunei, Singapore and Sydney) and Greg Wilson took part on Sunday, driving the 7 hours Adelaide-Port Augusta-Adelaide within less than 24 hours.


The goal of this workshop was to practise language use, and also to try out the draft Dieri-English dictionary. We ran various activities, including using the dictionary to look up words so we could make up Dieri sentences describing some pictures, making sure the words were in the right Dieri order and had the proper endings, like the marker for the transitive subject that has been discussed in previous blogs. Everyone enthusiastically joined in the group activities, and there was a lot of use of the draft dictionary and the Dieri language materials that Greg Wilson and the Dieri Langiage Committee produced a couple of years ago. The only thing missing was a guitar player so we could properly song Dieri songs!

Discussing words in the Dieri Yawarra resource book

Discussing words in the Dieri Yawarra resource book

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.

Minha yundru waltharna parlkayi?

In some areas of vocabulary the Dieri language has many more words and expressions than we find in English. One of these are words having to do with carrying things — Dieri has several different verbs, depending on how the object or person is carried. Here they are with examples:

  • pardaka-rna means ‘to carry in the hands’, as in:

    nhulu ngardanhi pardakayi yinka ‘Then he carried the string in his hands’

  • thuka-rna means ‘to carry on the back’, as in:
    nhantuyali nganha thukayi ‘The horse carries me on its back’

    Notice that the intransitive verb thukatharri-rna derived from this root is how we express ‘to ride on’ in Dieri (it literally means, ‘to be carried on the back of’), as in:

    nganhi thukatharriyi ngandrinhi ‘I ride on my mother’s back’

  • waltha-rna means ‘to carry on the head’, as in:
    katyi nhulu waltharna wanthiyi ‘He used to carry spears on his head long ago’

  • wanpa-rna means ‘to carry on the shoulder’, as in:
    nhandru pirlipirli wanparna parlkayi ‘She carries a little bag on her shoulder as she goes along’

The title for this blog post can be translated into English as ‘What are you carrying on your head as you go along?’, and is made up of these words:

minha meaning ‘what?’

yundru meaning ‘you (one person)’ — this is the transitive subject form

waltharna means ‘carrying on the head’

parlkayi means ‘is going along’ and consists of the root parlka ‘to go along, to go on a journey’ and the ending -yi present tense, indicating that the event is happening now. The combination of two words at the end of the sentence here waltharna parlkayi is called a compound verb and we will discuss this type of combination some more in a later blog post.

Yawarraya pipa

For the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation ILS project we are working on developing several bilingual dictionaries of the Dieri language. We expect that there will be a number of dictionaries that come out of the project, meant for different users and different uses.

Peter Austin has been working on creating a reference dictionary that will be a major resource for teachers and language learners and will include lots of information about words, meanings, cultural context and use and will include examples of the words taken from his recordings made in the 1970s, along with material from present-day speakers. He has created a draft of the dictionary that has three parts:

  1. Dieri-English section organised according to the Dieri words, with their English translations and explanations
  2. English-Dieri section that lists English words 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 group together

The Dieri-English and Categories sections contain illustrations for plants, animals, artefacts and other words so that readers can gain more information about a particular itemn. Here is one page from the list of words beginning with ka- that shows what the dictionary might end up looking like.


Here is what a page from the Categories section for Birds might look like:


We also hope in the future to make a web-based dictionary that includes sounds so that people can hear the words pronounced by a native speaker and then model their pronunciation on them.

Note: The title for this post consists of yawarra meaning ‘language’, the ending ya meaning ‘for, belonging to’ (called the ‘possessive ending’) and pipa meaning ‘book’ (and originally from the English word ‘paper’). Together this means ‘books for language’