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Aboriginal Languages of Australia

Scholars estimate that there might have been around 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia at the time of the European upheaval in 1788.These languages are different from other language ‘families’, one scholar asserting:


“It seems that the languages of Australia have been so long in their present location that any evidence of connection with other languages has been, through time, eroded away.]”   [Dixon, R.M.W. 1980, p.238]
 

Within Australia (excluding Tasmania, which is another story), the languages have been classified by linguists into around 30 groups, all bar one being in the north-west corner of the continent. The remaining group, and by far the biggest occupying about three-quarters of the land mass, has been called the Pama-Nyungan group, pama and nyungar being the words for ‘man’ at diagonally opposite ends of the continent—from around Albany in south-west WA to Cairns in Queensland.

Since the earliest days of population influx first by Europeans and then by others there has been constant language loss: so much so that of those original 250 languages, now only thirteen are being fully used and passed onto the coming generation of children. These residual languages tend to be in remote locations. The names of a few of them (e.g. Tiwi and Aranda) might be familiar enough, but most people will never have heard of others such as Anindilyakwa and Kala Lagaw Ya.

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BIYAL BIYAL

The first language to be paid some serious attention to was the Sydney Language. Biyal Biyal, by the First Fleeter William Dawes, a junior officer of the marines. The next, a generation later, was the Lake Macquarie language, Awabakal, by the missionary, the Reverend L.E. Threlkeld. His work in the
1820s-30s was a considerable advance, and the first published grammar, well as gospel translations and specimen sentences. Who was Threlkeld?

Portrait of William Dawes by Tsuroi-Rinn Uhle
Portrait of Reverend Threlkeld

This website is primarily about the Aboriginal Language of Sydney Biyal Biyal. It looks at some other Australian Aboriginal languages. This was more accidental than deliberate. Languages near to Sydney sometimes had shared or similar vocabulary to Sydney, and helped illuminate and amplify the study. Some word lists included words from other languages. Sometimes opportunities arose to look at other languages.

 

Often the result was a separate database to organise the language information. These new databases then often revealed word links: the same or similar words occurring in different languages. Sometimes another language was deliberately targeted, such as Nyungar in south-west Australia, where Jeremy Steele grew up. Or Tasmania, where he visited in 2015.

About Jeremy Steele

Jeremy Steele worked in educational publishing and as an  administrator in the University of Sydney. He began acquiring  information about Aboriginal languages mainly after retirement in  1999. Living in Sydney since 1969 though originally from WA, he  took an interest in the Sydney Language, referring to it as Biyal  Biyal, in a Macquarie University master’s degree thesis of 2005  entitled ‘The Aboriginal Language of Sydney’. Because of the  paucity of information he began to look at languages nearby, and some others too. 

It all really began with few handwritten notes made of Aboriginal  words occurring in First Fleet accounts by such writers as Watkin  Tench and David Collins. These were eventually to develop into  relational databases of increasing size and sophistication, to which  Steele gave the name the ‘Bayala Databases’. One of these  databases covered the coastal region north of Sydney to the  Queensland border, in which the language writings by the Rev. L.E.  Threlkeld featured prominently. Much of Threlkeld’s work appeared  in a book edited by John Fraser that appeared in 1892 entitled An  Australian language as spoken by the Awabakal, the people of  Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales)  being an account of their language, traditions and customs  [Awabakal 1892]. 

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In due course the challenge of the ‘back translating’ into English of  one of Threlkeld’s major achievements, the translation of the gospel  of Luke into the the Hunter River (Awabakal) language, published in  Awabakal 1892, could no longer be resisted. Back translating by  Steele of Threlkeld’s Awabakal translations of the gospels of Mark  and part of Matthew, were to follow. Prayers, as well as Threlkeld’s  sentence collections, both also in Awabakal 1892, were added to  the project, which had effectively become an analysis, aimed at ‘everyman’ rather than specialists, of all of Threlkeld’s language  output. 

In due course the challenge of the ‘back translating’ into English of  one of Threlkeld’s major achievements, the translation of the gospel  of Luke into the the Hunter River (Awabakal) language, published in  Awabakal 1892, could no longer be resisted. Back translating by  Steele of Threlkeld’s Awabakal translations of the gospels of Mark  and part of Matthew, were to follow. Prayers, as well as Threlkeld’s  sentence collections, both also in Awabakal 1892, were added to  the project, which had effectively become an analysis, aimed at  ‘everyman’ rather than specialists, of all of Threlkeld’s language  output. 

This undertaking had begun in April 2017 and was completed over  three-and-a half years later. In December 2020 it was added to the  present aboriginal languages.com ‘Languages in Australia’ website  that had begun in 2016. 

Since then Steele concentrated on developing and expanding the  Bayala Databases, covering all parts of Australia. 

Jeremy Steele was born in Adelaide in 1938, grew up in Perth, then  in 1955 aged 16 lived with his family in Italy for a year until moving  to England in 1957 where he succeeded in qualifying for university  admission, going on to complete a bachelor of arts degree in the  University College of North Staffordshire (later Keele University) in  1962. After marrying, and spending five years working in  educational publishing, he moved to Sydney. 

Jeremy Steele, Tuesday 16 January 2024

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