The Dieri language was traditionally spoken in the far north of South Australia, to the east of Lake Eyre. Dieri country is traversed by the lower reaches of Cooper Creek — a mostly dry watercourse that runs from western Queensland, through Innamincka (of Burke and Wills fame) and into Lake Eyre. The Birdsville Track also passes through Dieri country. This is one of the driest and hottest regions of Australia with an average annual rainfall of about 100mm (or 4 inches) and summer temperatures regularly reaching 45 degrees centigrade, however the whole of the area was occupied by the Dieri and is covered with placenames and important mythological sites.
The Dieri’s neighbours were the Thirrari and Arabana (to the west), the Kuyani and Adnyamathanha (south), the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarga (east), and the Ngamini and Wangkangurru (north). The Dieri language is quite similar to Thirrari and Ngamini — speakers could understand one another easily. These languages also seem to be related to Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarga, with which they share much common vocabulary. The other languages to the west and south are quite different, however. Today no-one speaks these neighbouring languages.
When they were first contacted by white settlers in the 1860s, the Dieri probably numbered over 1000. Today there are only a few Elders who can speak the language fluently, while there are quite a lot who have some command of it. Most Dieri community members know words and expressions, and people of all ages are very keen to learn more about the language.
Linguistic specialists have studied the language for over 40 years and we have recordings dating back to the work of Alec Edwards and Luise Hercus in 1971. Peter Austin began learning Dieri as an undergraduate student in 1974, and worked extensively on it between 1974 and 1978 with a number of people who had learnt the language as children. One was Mr Ben Murray (traditional name parlku-nguyu-thangkayiwarna), who was born in 1893 and was also the very last speaker of the Thirrari language. He passed away in 1994. His life history, including a series of stories told by him in Dieri and Thirrari has been published in the journal Aboriginal History.
Unlike many Australian Aboriginal languages, Dieri has a long history of use as a written language (as described in this blog post. In 1869 German Lutheran pastors established a Christian mission among the Dieri at Lake Killalpaninna on Cooper Creek; the mission and associated sheep station flourished until its closure by the South Australian government in 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. The Dieri were taught to read and write, and we know from written records that they used the language in their letters from the turn of the century until about 1960. Ben Murray regularly read his copy of the New Testament until his eyes became weak.
One of the most remarkable missionaries, the Rev. J.G. Reuther, not only translated the New Testament into Dieri, but also compiled a 14-volume manuscript on Dieri language, culture, mythology and history that includes a massive 4-volume dictionary. This manuscript was translated into English by Rev. P. Scherer in 1981 and stands as monument to Reuther’s dedication to the Dieri people. As mentioned above, recent research on Dieri began in the 1970’s when tape recordings and notes were made by Luise Hercus, David Trefry and Peter Austin. Austin wrote his PhD thesis on Dieri and published a grammar of it in 1981; he is currently working on a dictionary and collection of stories told by the last fluent speakers.
Starting in 2009 Greg Wilson began work with the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation to prepare materials for teaching Dieri language in school. He developed some teaching materials, including a multimedia CD-ROM, and a textbook (not yet published). Greg was centrally involved in the ILS-funded project.
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