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.


Today we have a second post 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 mandrulha has been taken up a couple of times by English speakers. The story starts with Samuel Gason (c1842–1897), the police trooper at Lake Hope in Dieri country in the late 1860s. In 1874 he published a booklet on ‘The Dieyerie tribe of Australian Aborigines’ with a vocabulary which has the entry Mundroola ’only two’. We can recognise this word as being composed of mandru ‘two’ and the suffix -lha which signals new information (Austin 2013, 64,192).

Gason’s work was reprinted a few times, notably by Curr (1886, 75–107) in his large and widely available compilation of Australian vocabularies. In turn this was drawn on by the publisher Sydney John Endacott in Melbourne in 1923. Endacott noticed that:

Australian people are now displaying a commendable inclination to favor the use of musical native aboriginal names for their homes, and the idea could perhaps be extended to other things or places that require a name

so he published a booklet ‘to supply the demand for a substantial and reliable list of pleasant-sounding words’ (Endacott 1923, 5). The booklet stayed in print in ten editions over the following 50 years, and included Mundroo ’two’ and Mundroola ’only two’ from Curr (1886, 83) (no source is given, though Endacott did acknowledge Curr 1886 and four other sources in the Preface to the first edition).

One of the earlier editions of Endacott’s booklet must have been used by Garfield Barwick (1903–1997) (later Sir Garfield Barwick, and Australia’s Chief Justice) when he wanted an appropriate name for a company he set up. The meaning of the company name became a topic for discussion in a court case in 1980 and was reported on as follows:

Barwick has said he started Mundroola Pty Ltd in 1946 for the benefit of his two children. He stated that it was a ‘family’ company. … The Barwick (or Mundroola) affair ran for barely more than three weeks in April and May 1980. (Can of Worms II Barwick and Mundroola)

At the core of the 1980 dispute was whether Mundroola Pty Ltd was really for the benefit of ‘only two’; the obituary in The Independent newspaper said that:

[Barwick’s] judgments were known for favouring the interests of individuals or companies over those of the state, and particularly for endorsing tax minimising schemes, including perhaps that of his own family company, Mundroola Pty Ltd

The company was deregistered in 1992, but the Dieri word has been used in other company names, including Mundroola Farms Pty Ltd (registered since 2004), and Mundroola Wind Pty Ltd (since 2011).

In the spirit of Endacott’s vision, the last (10th) edition of Endacott (1973) was used for yet another kind of name. The biologists San Martín, Aguado, Murray, and Gardiner 2007 assigned the impressive scientific (Linnæan) name Murrindisyllis kooromundroola Syllidae (Annelida: Polychaeta) to a kind of marine bristle worm that had been collected in 1990 off Providential Head, Wattamolla, to the south of Sydney (further details are here). The species name kooromundroola was the authors’ novel combination of mundroola with kooro ‘eyes’ (which also comes from Endacott 1973), ‘referring to the unique pair of eyes’. The element kooro comes from Muliarra (Mulyara), a language in Western Australia (Curr 1886, 378). Actually, kuru ‘eye’ is also widespread in the Western Desert Language and some of its neighbours. The Dieri word would be milki.

I wonder what Dieri people feel about these uses of a fragment of their language. They might feel it is an unfortunate appropriation which they have had no involvement in, or they might be proud that their unique word has taken on other lives, or possibly are indifferent. Or take a range of other views. Please feel free to leave a comment in the box below.

I am grateful to Penny Berents for directing me to the scientific name, and to Google for letting me find its ramifications.

Austin, Peter K. 2013. A grammar of Diyari, South Australia, available online here.
Curr, EM 1886. The Australian Race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia, and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent, vol. 1, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne. See here.
Endacott, SJ 1923. Australian Aboriginal native names and their meanings, Sydney J. Endacott, Melbourne, 1st edn., see here.
Endacott, SJ 1973. Australian Aboriginal words and place names and their meanings, Acacia Press, Melbourne, 10th edition.
San Martín, G, MT Aguado, A Murray, and SL Gardiner 2007. ‘A new genus and species of Syllidae (Annelida: Polychaeta) from Australia with unusual morphological characters and uncertain systematic position’ Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, vol. 120, no. 1, pp. 39–48, see here.

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”.


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’.

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.

Ngakarni parlku

Today we will learn Dieri words for internal parts of the body.


You can click on the picture to see it full size. Here are the names for body organs and their pronunciation in Dieri, starting from the head and moving down the body:

tyuru ‘brain’
muku ‘bone’
puwa ‘marrow’
kuldrumuku ‘spine’
pankithirri ‘ribs’
thiltya ‘sinew’
kundrukundru ‘nasal mucus, snot’
kangu ‘sweat’
kumarri ‘blood’
ngarangara ‘heart’
punnga ‘lungs’
kadlhu ‘liver’
pundrapundra ‘kidneys’
kunangandri ‘intestines’
mandra ‘stomach’

You might find is useful to draw your own picture of the human body (or print out the one above) and then add labels in Dieri to all the parts. You can also create matching games, or bingo games, from the materials we have presented today as a way of learning and practising these Dieri words.

Note: The title of today’s post ngakarni parku means ‘my body’. Thanks to Greg Wilson and the Dieri Language Committee for sharing the picture and Dieri language recordings.