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.



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 university administration, and began acquiring information about Aboriginal languages mainly after retirement in 1999. Living in Sydney since 1976 though originally from WA, he took an interest in the Sydney Language, referring to it as Biyal Biyal, in a master’s degree thesis of 2005 entitled ‘The Aboriginal Language of Sydney’ . Because of the paucity of information about this language he began to look at those nearby, and some others too.

A few handwritten notes made of Aboriginal words occurring in First

Fleet accounts by such writers as Watkin, Tench and David Collins, were

to develop into relational databases of increasing size and sophistication, which Jeremy dubbed the ‘Bayala Databases’. One of these databases covered the coastal region north of Sydney to the Queensland border, in which the language writings by Threlkeld, excluding the big Luke-gospel block of text, featured prominently. 

Ultimately the challenge of Threlkeld’s major opus, the gospel of Luke, could no longer be resisted. So it was that this, together with the gospels of Mark and part of Matthew, were worked through completely once, then a second and a third time. The Prayers, another block of text in the Fraser 1892 An Australian Language volume, as well as the Threlkeld sentence collections, were added to the project, which had effectively become an analysis, aimed at ‘everyman’, of all of Threlkeld’s language writings.


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

Jeremy Steele, Thursday 3 December 2020

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