top of page
Thesis Aboriginal Language of Sydney


The Aboriginal Language of Sydney

The Aboriginal Language of Sydney is a partial reconstruction of the indigenous language of Sydney based on the notebooks of William Dawes of 1790-91, informed by other records of the Sydney and surrounding languages to c.1905.


'Wara wara!" — 'Go away!' — the first indigenous words heard by Europeans at the time of the social upheaval that began in 1788, were part of the language spoken by the inhabitants around the shores of Port Jackson from time immemorial. Traces of this language, functionally lost in two generations, remain in words such as 'dingo' and 'woomera' that entered the English language, and in placenames such as 'Cammeray' and 'Parramatta'. Various First Fleeters, and others, compiled limited wordlists in the vicinity of the harbour and further afield, and in the early 1900s the surveyor R.H. Mathews documented the remnants of the Dharug language. Only as recently as 1972 were the language notebooks of William Dawes, who was noted by Watkin Tench as having advanced his studies 'beyond the reach of competition', uncovered in a London university library. The jottings made by Dawes, who was learning as he went along, are incomplete and parts defy analysis. Nevertheless much of his work has been confirmed, clarified and corrected by reference to records of the surrounding languages, which have similar grammatical forms and substantial cognate vocabulary, and his verbatim sentences and model verbs have permitted a limited attempt at reconstructing the grammar.

Read Jeremy Steele's exploration of the Sydney Aboriginal language through the notebooks of William Dawes in his thesis, The Aboriginal language of Sydney.

bottom of page