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.

Welcome (back) to the Dieri language blog

Welcome to the Dieri language blog where you can learn about the Dieri language which is spoken in the far north of South Australia. For more details about Dieri click here.

If you are new to this blog you will find it contains about 70 posts that present materials of different types — songs, stories, conversations, words and meanings, grammar descriptions, cartoons, games and information about the Dieri people and their history and culture. All of the posts are classified according to their topic and general area of interest, and you can access all the posts on a particular topic by clicking on the “Categories” links that are listed on the lower left of this page (so if you want to see all the comics just click on “Comics” category). Most of the language learning posts are classified according to level (introductory, intermediate, advanced) so if you are starting out click on the “Introductory” category and read the posts from the oldest to the most recent, because later posts build upon information in earlier posts.

If you are coming back after a time away, it can be good to refresh your memory of Dieri by choosing the topic or level from the “Categories” list and reviewing your knowledge from oldest post to most recent post so that you are fully up-to-date with what you have learned about the Dieri language.

If you are a regular reader, great to see you again! You can write comments on blog posts, or “like” them on Facebook and Twitter, or you might even like to “follow” us and get notified when a new post is put up.

Yawarra marra

On the 4th April the third ILS-funded language revitalisation workshop was held in Adelaide and attended by 35 members of the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation. In the morning Peter Austin and Greg Wilson ran parallel sessions, with Greg’s group working on materials for the Dieri language school programme and Peter’s group revising previous workshop materials and learning new words and expressions with a focus on everyday language use. In the afternoon Peter worked with the whole group on Dieri songs, and extending and practising everyday conversation, with an emphasis on functional language use.

During the day yawarra marra ‘new words’ (yawarra means ‘word, sentence, language’ and marra means ‘new’ — remember that modifying words follow the thing they modify in Dieri) of two types came up. Some were terms that Peter had not learnt before and so were not yet in the dictionary, and the others were terms that we discussed as being appropriate new expressions to add to the Dieri language.

An example of the first type of words that Peter had not heard before came up when we were discussing how to instruct or order people to do things, like ‘sit down!’, ‘be quiet!’, ‘go away!’ and so on. Some of the karna from Broken Hill remembered their Nanna calling out kurrakani! when she wanted them to leave her alone. With the help of the Elders we were able to work out that this is a command form based on the word base kurraka which means ‘to gallop, run quickly’ plus the ending -ni meaning ‘you all’, so it means ‘you all run away quickly!’. We also learnt that you could say nhanthu kurrakayi ‘The horse is galloping’.

The second type of new words are terms for things we use every day that did not exist previously, so have no traditional names. An example of this is mobile phone. We discussed what to call it in Dieri during the last session of the workshop. Languages generally follow two patterns when they want to make up new words. The first is borrowing a word from another language, and adapting it in pronunciation (English has done this with words from lots of languages, including Dieri — for example English ‘mulga’ comes from Dieri malka). So, we could, for example, say pana for ‘phone’ in Dieri (remember Dieri does not have f or o and all words must end in a vowel). The second pattern for creating new words is to use existing materials and combine them in new ways. Chinese tends to do this so their word for ‘telephone’, for example, means “electric speech”.

For ‘mobile phone’ it was suggested that we could use tharlpa ‘ear’ and combine it with daltyi ‘rattling noise’ (see the previous discussion of words for sounds). This gives us tharlpa daltyi for ‘mobile phone’. Next we discussed ‘video game’ — the Dieri word for ‘game’ is pirkini (based on the verb pirki-rna ‘to play). We combined this with paratyi ‘lightning’ (and hence ‘electric’) to give paratyi pirkini for ‘video game’. The last word we discussed was ‘computer’. Again, we decided to use paratyi ‘lightning’ and combine it with puwa ‘matter, soft insides’ (as in muku puwa ‘marrow’, where muku means ‘bone’, and tyuru puwa ‘brain’, where tyuru means ‘intelligence’). This gives us paratyi puwa for ‘computer’.


In the future, new words can be added to Dieri in this way to express new terms and concepts.

Wata diyari yawarra nhaririyi!

Many people around the world rely on the Ethnologue, published by SIL International, for up-to-date information on the world’s languages. This is a listing of more than 7,000 languages spoken on every continent, giving information about where the languages are spoken, the number of speakers, and what languages are related to one another.

The 2013 edition of Ethnologue has just appeared and unfortunately it contains grossly inaccurate information about the Dieri language. Ethnologue uses the international standards office (ISO-639) codes for languages, and for Dieri this is DIF. Here is what it says:


Notice that Dieri is listed as extinct, that is, no-one speaks it. In the main information section of the 2013 edition here is what it says about Dieri:


Each language is now classified on a scale of Language Status from 1 (alive and kicking) to 10 (dead and gone). So Dieri is classified as 9 “dormant” (asleep). The authors explain what these language status terms mean:

9 Dormant – The language serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency.

10 Extinct – The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language.

Well the 600 members of the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation would certainly object to being told that “no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language”! They would also object to the idea that “no one has more than symbolic proficiency”. A number of the Elders can speak Dieri, and Nanna Renie Warren in particular, is completely fluent. The voices of these speakers can be heard on the Dieri Yawarra CD-ROM, and in the recordings made as part of the Ngayana Dieri Yawarra Yathayilha project and the current ILS-funded language revitalisation project.

Notice also that the Ethnologue says there are “no known L1 speakers” — what this means to say is that there is no-one who grew up speaking Dieri as their first language. Again, this is grossly inaccurate as quite a number of the Elders spoke Dieri as children, and continue to speak it to each other as adults.

It is a shame that this kind of misinformation is published by what is supposed to be a major international reference source.

Note: the title of this blog means ‘The Dieri language is not dying’. It is made up of these words:

wata ‘not’

diyari ‘Dieri’

yawarra ‘language’

nhaririyi ‘is dying, is becoming dead’ which is made up of nhari ‘dead’ and the endings ri ‘become’ and -yi ‘is happening now, present tense’

Ngayana kirririrna warayi Dieri yawarra yathalha


The second ILS-funded Dieri Aboriginal Corporation language revival workshop was held in Port Augusta on 16th and 17th March. About 40 Dieri community members attended from Broken Hill, Lyndhurst, Whyalla and Port Augusta. Peter Austin flew over from Canberra and he and Greg Wilson drove up from Adelaide to help with the two-day workshop.

Greg Wilson explaining Dieri songs

Greg Wilson explaining Dieri songs

There were several activities carried out at this workshop, including:

  • language learning sessions, where we learnt words and how to use them in sentences in context
  • translation and performance of songs, including some for children as well as the Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues”
  • curriculum and materials planning and development for a Dieri language programme that will begin at Wilsden Primary School in April. Four weeks of lessons for the programme were mapped out and materials developed


A feature of this workshop was the participation of four generations of Dieri, from great grandmothers to small children. The primary school children were especially keen participants.

The older boys had a great time. Some of them recorded videos of the song performances and uploaded them to Facebook before the workshop was over.

Using mobile phones to video singing

Using mobile phones to video singing

The next ILS workshop is planned for Adelaide in early April.

Dieri museumanhi


A visit to Acton in Canberra today revealed that there is Dieri language on display in the National Museum of Australia.

In a display about changing climate in Australia there is a graphic on one wall that gives various Dieri words relating to drought and rain, taken from the Dieri dictionary compiled by Rev. Reuther in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the Museum does not seem to have consulted Dieri people, or linguists who know the language like Greg Wilson, Luise Hercus or Peter Austin, and so all the materials on display are misspelled and badly translated.


Dieri contains several sounds that do not exist in English (or in Reuther’s native German) and so these tend not to be represented correctly in older records of the language. Alongside t that occurs on words like wata ‘no, not’ Diyari has rt in words like warta ‘butt, base’ (e.g. pathara warta ‘butt of a box tree’), which sounds to an English speaker like a t with the tip of the tongue turned back. This is different from rd in words like warda which means ‘type of head-dress’. It is important to distinguish rt from rd as it can make a meaning difference, as in these words and also pirta ‘tree’ and pirda ‘navel’. Notice that Dieri also has th which is like a t pronounced with the tip of the tongue between the teeth (eg. mitha ‘ground, earth’).

Now, Reuther did not record the difference between these four sounds (t, th, rt and rd) so when he writes “t” we don’t know which sound he was trying to spell. Also, Dieri has three r-sounds (as we have mentioned before) and they make a meaning difference (remember yara ‘this way, towards me’ versus yarra ‘that way, away from me’), but again Reuther wrote them all as “r”.

So, in the display we have the word “pitaru” several times — this represents pirdarru meaning ‘drought’. Here are some of the other expressions, showing not only that the spelling is incorrect but also that the meaning is sometimes wrong as well:

display: “ngapa pidarurina for water to become increasingly scare”

should be:

ngapa pirdarrurirna meaning ‘water it becomes drought’

display: “talara-tandra markingana for rain to pour down”

should be:

thalara thandra markingarna

which is made up of of three words:

thalara ‘rain’

thandra ‘seed, round part’ (so thalara thandra means ‘rain drops’)

markingarna, which is made up of marka ‘crawl’ and the endings -inga meaning ‘action carried out while going past something else’ and -rna meaning ‘to’ (the form of the verb listed in the dictionary).

So, together this means ‘for rain drops to be crawling past’

(If we want to say ‘rain is pouring down’ we would usually say thalara pirna kurdayi, like in the translation of the chorus of the song ‘The Cooper’s coming down’, described in a previous post.)

Probably the most inaccurate information given in the Museum display is:

display: “ngarimatala birds which give warning of a flood”

This is actually the Dieri word ngarrimathalha which is made up of ngarrimatha ‘flood’ and the ending -lha indicating ‘new information that the speaker assumes the hearer does not know’. All together this means ‘(there is) a flood now’. Nothing to do with birds at all!

It is great that the Dieri language is being presented in the National Museum of Australia in the nation’s capital city. It is a pity, however, that the material is so inaccurate, especially as there are Dieri speakers and other language experts who could have corrected the mistakes easily.

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’