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.


All languages in the world have short expressions that can be used by themselves to express emotions or feelings, or to fill up silence when we can’t think of a word or anything to say. We can call these interjections or exclamations.

Here are some useful expressions of this type in Dieri, firstly, to fill in space while you think:

aa ‘um, ah, er’ (when you can’t think of anything to say)
minhaya ‘what’s-it, whatchamacallit, thingummy’ (when you can’t remember the name of something)
waranhaya ‘who’s-i-whatsit, someone-or-other’ (when you can’t remember the name of someone)

Here are some words to express emotions or feelings. To disagree with someone:

wata! ‘No!’

malhantyi marla! ‘Really bad!’

madlhantyi marla! ‘Really bad!’

To agree:

kawu! ‘Yes!’

matya ngumu! ‘That’s good!’

To express sorrow and sympathy for someone who has suffered from something bad:

nguyala! ‘Poor thing!’

To express surprise at something unexpected happening:

yakayayi! ‘Oh heck!, oh my goodness!’

Even if you don’t speak much Dieri you can still express yourself with these useful little words.

Note: Thanks to Greg Wilson and the Dieri Language Committee for sharing the sound recordings used in this post.

Yathani yaruldramatha

man bites dog
In English the order of words in a sentence is important and switching words around can drastically change the meaning. So:

The dog bit the man

does not mean the same thing as:

The man bit the dog

In English the subject (person or thing doing the action) comes first, the verb (action word) comes next and finally the object (person or thing affected by the action) comes at the end. In English we always have subject-verb-object.

In Dieri, the functions of the words in a sentence are indicated by the endings that they take. So, the subject of a transitive sentence (one that involves two participants) takes the ending -li or -yali while the object does not take an ending. Look at these examples:

karnali kinthala matharna warayi ‘The man bit the dog’
kinthalali karna matharna warayi ‘The dog bit the man’

Because they have different endings, we can switch the order of the words in Dieri without changing the meaning (the verb normally goes at the end of Dieri sentences):

kinthala karnali matharna warayi ‘The man bit the dog’
karna kinthalali matharna warayi ‘The dog bit the man’

So, even though the one affected comes first in these sentences we know who does the action because of the -li ending.

English allows a little bit of variation when we add things like places to describe a situation, but you cannot switch around subjects and objects without changing the meaning:

John took his sister from Adelaide to Port Augusta
John took his sister to Port Augusta from Adelaide

Here there is a shift in emphasis but the meaning is the same. If we switch the subject and object, however, the meaning changes completely:

His sister took John from Adelaide to Port Augusta
His sister took John to Port Augusta from Adelaide

Now, in Dieri there is a lot more freedom to change around word order because of the role that the endings play. For example, when Aunty Rene was asked how to say the following:

I want to teach my children my language

she said in Dieri:

ngathu ngantyayi ngakarni kupa kirringankalha ngakarni yawarra

Word-by-word this is: ‘I-subject want my child to-teach my language’

When Aunty Winnie was asked how to say the same thing, she said in Dieri:

ngathu ngantyayi yawarra kirringankalha ngakarni kupa-kupa

Word-by-word this is: ‘I-subject want language to-teach my child’

(Aunty Winnie uses kupa-kupa ‘small child’, while Aunty Rene just uses kupa ‘child’. Remember that Dieri does not generally make a difference between one or more than one person or thing, so kupa means ‘child’ or ‘children’. To be more specific we can say kupa-wara ‘children’ which uses the ending -wara meaning ‘three or more’.)

So, don’t be surprised when speaking Dieri that words can occur in different orders but the meaning stays the same.

Note: The title of today’s post yathani yaruldramatha means ‘talking the same’: yathani is a noun based on the verb yatha-rna ‘to speak, talk’ while yaruldramatha means ‘same, identical’.

Nhawurdatha nganhi!

Here is the comic we presented in the last blog post:

Here is what the two characters (Thidnamara ‘Frog’ on the left, and Mawakantyi ‘Greedy’ on the right) are saying:

Thidnamara: wardaru yini mawakantyi? ‘How are you?’
Mawakantyi: matya nganhi manyu ‘I’m fine’
Thidnamara: waranha nhaniya? ‘Who is she?’
Mawakantyi: nhaniya ngakarni papa ‘She is my aunt’
Thidnamara: waranha nhawurda? ‘Who is he?’
Mawakantyi: nhawurda ngakarni kaka ‘He’s my uncle’
Mawakantyi: nhawurdatha nganhi! ‘This is me!’

The English translation misses some important parts of the meaning in the Dieri original because English does not have a way to express certain concepts, like the distance someone is from the speaker. Notice that Frog uses nhaniya to refer to the aunt who is a little distance away, using the ending -ya. But when he points to the uncle who is understood to be right close by he uses nhawurda with the ending -rda that means ‘close by’. Similarly, when Greedy sees himself on the computer screen he uses nhawurda because it is close by (he could reach out and touch it) — he also adds the ending -tha which indicates old information, something that everyone can see and know about. Notice if the character was female she would say nhanirdatha nganhi! ‘This is me!’ using the female term for ‘this, she’.

You can use these expressions by yourself or in a group to practise Dieri in several ways. One possibility is to draw pictures of your relatives (and yourself!) and write the term for their relation to you in Dieri under the picture. Then place them on a table at various distances away and practice saying things like nhawurda ngakarni kaka ‘This (right here) is my uncle’ or nhaniwa ngakarni ngandri ‘That (far away) is my mother’. You can also do this with a friend as question and answer pairs, like:

Question: waranha yingkarni kaka ‘Who is your uncle?’
Answer: nhawurda ngakarni kaka ‘This (nearby) is my uncle’


Question: nhaniya yingkarni kaku kara yingkarni ngathata ‘Is this your older sister or your younger sister?’
Answer: nhaniya ngakarni kaku ‘This is my older sister’

If you can use Powerpoint you can also scan the pictures with their Dieri relation terms, and create a Powerpoint show with them, one on each slide, and then narrate the slides in Dieri as you present them. You can end your presentation with nhawurdatha nganhi! or nhanirdatha nganhi!, depending on whether you are male or female.

Note: Thanks to Greg Wilson and the Dieri Language Committee for sharing some of the materials and ideas in this blog post.

Waranha nhawurda?

Today’s comic talks about different relations:


Here is what the two characters (Thidnamara ‘Frog’ on the left, and Mawakantyi ‘Greedy’ on the right) are saying — to help understand them you might have a look back at this blog post and this blog post. For some of the dialogue listen to the recordings of Aunty Rene and Aunty Winnie below:

Thidnamara: wardaru yini mawakantyi?
Mawakantyi: matya nganhi manyu
Thidnamara: waranha nhaniya?
Mawakantyi: nhaniya ngakarni papa
Thidnamara: waranha nhawurda?
Mawakantyi: nhawurda ngakarni kaka
Mawakantyi: nhawurdatha nganhi!

Listen to Aunty Rene and Aunty Winnie saying part of the dialogue:

nhaniya ngakarni papa

nhawurda ngakarni kaka

nhawurdatha nganhi!

In the next blog post we will look at the translation of this dialogue and also some ways it can be used in language learning activities, either by yourself or in a group, such as in a classroom.

Note: Thanks to Greg Wilson and the Dieri Language Committee for sharing their sound recordings.

Nhingkirda, nhingkiya, nhingkiwa, nhaka

The previous blog post presented a comic where the characters talk about ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘here’ and ‘there’ in Dieri. Here it is again:


Here is what the two characters are saying (Warrangantyu means ‘left, left-hand’ and is the character on the left, and Ngunyari means ‘right, right-hand’ and is the character on the right in each panel):

Warrangantyu: minha nhawuwa? ‘What’s that?’
Ngunyari: wirdirdi? nhingkirda? ‘Where? Here?’
Warrangantyu: wata! nhawuparra nhingkiwa ‘No, that one, there’
Ngunyari: nhaka? pirtanhi? ‘There? In the tree?’
Warrangantyu: wata yaruka warritha marla ‘Not that far away’
Ngunyari: aa nhingkiwa ‘Oh, there’
Warrangantyu: kawu ‘Yes’
Ngunyari: nhawuparramatha mutaka ngakarni ngapiraya ‘That’s my father’s car’

English has only two words ‘this’ and ‘that’ to talk about things, and ‘here’ and ‘there’ to talk about locations. Dieri has more terms and is able to make subtle contrasts that are lacking in English.

To point out something we can use the words nhani ‘she, this’ for females and nhawu ‘he, it, this’ for everything else (these are the forms we use for intransitive subject in Dieri — the full set of forms for other functions are listed in this blog post). We can then add to these words endings that show distance from the speaker and the person spoken to:

-rda ‘right next to the speaker’, around 1 metre away
-ya ‘near the speaker’, around 2-3 metres away
-wa ‘far from speaker’, over 5 metres away

This gives us the following diagram:


Dieri has two other useful endings:

-parra ‘previously mentioned’, indicates something that the speaker or another person has mentioned previously, or that is being pointed to
-matha ‘identified information’, indicates that the speaker is able to identify the thing being spoken about

This gives us:
nhawuparra ‘this one we were talking about’
nhawumatha ‘this one that I just realised what it is’

You can combine these to give:
nhawuparramatha ‘this one that we were talking about that I just realised what it is’

This is used Ngunyari in the last frame when he realises exactly what it is that Warrangantyu has been pointing to all the time.

Finally, to talk about locations we have the following terms in Dieri (notice that English has only ‘here’ and ‘there’):

nhingkirda ‘here, right next to the speaker’, around 1 metre away
nhingkiya ‘here, near the speaker’, around 2-3 metres away
nhingkiwa ‘there, far from speaker’, over 5 metres away
nhaka ‘there, far from the speaker and the person spoken to’, a long distance away (including places that cannot be seen, like places over a hill or on the other side of the world)

This gives us:


Note: The two characters also use two very useful Dieri words kawu ‘yes’ and wata ‘no’ in their discussion.

Nhawuparra nhingkiwa

Today’s comic is about saying ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘here’ and ‘there’ in Dieri.


Here is what the two characters are saying (Warrangantyu is on the left and Ngunyari is on the right in each panel):

Warrangantyu: minha nhawuwa?
Ngunyari: wirdirdi? nhingkirda?
Warrangantyu: wata! nhawuparra nhingkiwa
Ngunyari: nhaka? pirtanhi?
Warrangantyu: wata yaruka warritha marla
Ngunyari: aa nhingkiwa
Warrangantyu: kawu
Ngunyari: nhawuparramatha mutaka ngakarni ngapiraya

Here is the vocabulary you need to understand this conversation:

kawu ‘yes’
marla ‘very’
minha ‘what?’
mutuka ‘car’
ngakarni ‘my’
ngapiraya ‘of father’ (consisting of ngapiri and the ending -ya ‘possessor, of’, with a change in the last vowel of the root element)
nhaka ‘there’
nhawu ‘he, this/that’
nhingki ‘here’
pirtanhi ‘in the tree’ (consisting of pirta ‘tree’ and the ending -nhi ‘in, located at’)
warritha ‘far, distant’
wata ‘no, not’
wirdirdi ‘where?’

There are also some endings that can be added to pronouns like nhawu ‘he, this/that’ and nhani ‘she, this/that’ and to the location word nhingki ‘here’ that appear in this conversation:

-rda ‘right next to the speaker’
-matha ‘identified information’
-parra ‘previously mentioned’
-wa ‘far from speaker’

Using this information, try to understand the conversation and to translate it into English. We will present the translation and some grammar notes in the next blog post.

Note: Thanks to Greg Wilson for suggesting the topic of today’s post.