Diyari yawarra tharla: Maranguka

Colleague, and previous contributor to the Dieri language blog, David Nash, has pointed out that there is a social action proposal developed in Bourke, western New South Wales, that has a name that comes from the Dieri language, namely “Maranguka”. The project website says:

“Maranguka was the birth child of the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party, a grassroots coalition of concerned local Aboriginal residents who wanted to see positive change in their community.

Translated as ‘caring for others’, the Maranguka proposal they developed is a grassroots vision for improving outcomes and creating better coordinated support for vulnerable families and children through the true empowerment of the local Aboriginal community.

The Maranguka Proposal was endorsed in principle by the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party in August 2013. It involves establishing community-led, multi-disciplinary teams working in partnership with relevant government and non-government agencies and organisations”

According to the preliminary assessment report “Unlocking the Future: Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke” written by KPMG, the name comes from the “local Ngemba Aboriginal language” (the Ngiyampaa language belongs to central New South Wales, some distance to the east of Bourke –see the map here). As David Nash notes, this is wrong and in fact the name comes from the Dieri word maranguka ‘to help, to offer assistance’. This is a transitive verb in Dieri and takes a subject (usually in the ergative case) and an object (in the accusative or absolutive case), as in the examples: ngathu yinha marangukalha nganayi ‘I will help you’ and nganha marangukanimayi! ‘(You all) help me!’.

Quite a number of Dieri people live in Bourke so it is not surprising that a name (tharla) in the Dieri language would be used for this development — it’s a pity that the KPMG report identified the source incorrectly.

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.

Waka ya Wakaleo

Today’s post is by guest blogger David Nash who is an expert on central Australian languages like Warlpiri, and who has also written about Aboriginal languages more generally, including the language of Sydney.


The Dieri word waka ‘small’ was introduced in last March’s post on doubling. It was nice to find that the word was embraced some forty years ago by palaeontologists, who study fossils, when they coined the term Wakaleo to name an extinct genus of marsupial carnivore.

The genus name was formed to parallel the most similar genus that had already been described called Thylacoleo (Owen 1859). That name had been coined from the Greek word θύλακος thulakos meaning ‘pouch’ (as in thylacine, the recently extinct Tasmanian tiger), and the Latin word leo meaning ‘lion’.

The fossil was found in Dieri country near Lake Ngapakaldi (in Dieri ngapa ‘water’ and kaldri ‘salty’), in the Tirari Desert between the Birdsville Track and Lake Eyre (northeast South Australia). Wakaleo was the size of a dog, smaller than Thylacoleo, so waka was appropriately used to form the name. The species name of W. oldfieldi commemorates the family of Bryan Oldfield who was the owner of nearby Etadunna Station.

The original fossil (called the ‘type specimen’) was found in 1971 and is kept at the South Australian Museum. Presumably someone there provided the Dieri word for Clemens and Plane who described it in an article published in 1974. As far as I know it was the first time a word from an Australian language (other than a placename) was used in the scientific name of a fossil taxon.

Here is a picture of the Wakaleo oldfieldi fossil jawbone (photo by S. Morton from here)


And this is what scientists think Wakaleo may have looked like: (photo from the Australian Museum):


WA Clemens and M Plane. 1974. Mid-Tertiary Thylacoleonidae (Marsupialia, Mammalia). Journal of Paleontology 48.4(July), 653-660. (The full article is online here but you need a library subscription to view it all.)

Postscript by Peter Austin, added 6th July 2014

It turns out that Wakaleo is also the name of a website that was set up by paleontolgists from the University of Queensland to present information about ancient fossils found in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in north-west Queensland. As the About page on the website says, it aims “to provide news and faunal information about Riversleigh World Heritage Area. News will include stories about the latest or upcoming fieldwork, as well as the latest research published in scientific journals”.

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)