top of page

Aboriginal Languages of Australia

It seems likely that the first time words of an Aboriginal language were ever recorded may have been in 1688 when William Dampier visited King Sound in the Kimberley region of north-west Western Australia; the language might have been Bardi. The Aboriginal language of Sydney, called Biyal Biyal on this website, was however the first Aboriginal language to be encountered by Europeans in any sustained way. At the time when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in January 1788 intent on establishing a permanent presence, scholars estimate that there might have been around 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia. 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 subsequently 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 on to 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.

colourblob3_edited_edited.png

BIYAL BIYAL

The first Aboriginal language to be paid some serious attention was the Sydney language, called Biyal Biyal on this website, by the First Fleeter William Dawes, a junior officer of the marines. The next, a generation later, was the Hunter River–Lake Macquarie language, Awabakal, by the missionary, the Reverend L.E. Threlkeld. His work in the 1820s-30s was a considerable advance, including the first published grammar of an Australian language, as well as gospel translations and specimen sentences.

Portrait of William Dawes by Tsuroi-Rinn Uhle
threlkeld3_edited.png

Rev L.E. Threlkeld

This website began in 2016, at that time being primarily about the Aboriginal language of Sydney, Biyal Biyal. This is because that is where its founder happened to live. Because the Biyal Biyal records were found to be relatively meagre—they did not include the word for ‘rainbow', for example—other languages nearby, Dharawal, Gundungurra and Awabakal, came to be looked at in the hope of finding shared or similar vocabulary to that used in Sydney, so helping to illuminate and amplify the study of Biyal Biyal. All the while words were being added to language databases. The website and the databases continued to grow as time went by.

 

The first database was just for Sydney words. Then came one for coastal languages south of Sydney, and another similar one for languages to the north. Then came databases for language groups to the west of the Great Dividing Range. These new databases often revealed word links: the same or similar words occurring in different languages. In due course another distant language, Nyungar in south-west Australia, where the founder of this website grew up, was deliberately targeted. Then the language of Tasmania, which was visited in 2015. More languages were added, and the databases became more sophisticated.

 

It is a pity the databases, which Steele named the Bayala databases, cannot be shared on this website. By now they comprise hundreds of thousands of words. While simple databases are able to be placed on the internet, the Bayala series has become too complex for that. You need the platform they were compiled on: just like if you want to go from A to B by car, in the end you actually have to have a car.

About Jeremy Steele

Jeremy Macdonald Steele, the founder of this website and originally from SA and later WA, worked in educational publishing and as an administrator in the University of Sydney. He began acquiring information about Aboriginal languages mainly after his retirement in 1999. Living in Sydney since 1969, he took an interest in the Sydney language, and completed a Macquarie University master's degree thesis in 2005 entitled 'The Aboriginal Language of Sydney’ in which he referred to this language as Biyal Biyal. As explained above, because of the paucity of information about it he began to look at languages nearby, and some others too.

This interest all really began with a few handwritten notes made of Aboriginal words occurring in First Fleet accounts by such writers as Watkin Tench and David Collins. These scrappy notes were eventually to develop into relational databases of increasing size and complexity.

Jeremy Steele 2023.png

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, including his 1834 Grammar, was included 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 (Fraser) 1892]. 

 

Also included in the 1892 book was Threlkeld’s translation of Luke’s gospel into Awabakal, nearly seventy pages of impenetrable Aboriginal language. In due course the challenge of 'back translating' this, one of Threlkeld's major achievements, into English on a word-by-word basis could no longer be resisted, and the result is on this website, along with word-by-word back translations of Threlkeld's translations into Awabakal of the gospel of Mark and part of the gospel of Matthew, along with his Prayers, and sentence collections, both the latter being also in Awabakal (Fraser) 1892. The relevant section of this website has effectively become an analysis, aimed at 'everyman' rather than specialists, of all of Threlkeld's language output. This Threlkeld project was begun in April 2017 and completed over three and a half years later. In December 2020 it was all added to this website. Since then Steele has continued to develop and expand the Bayala databases, covering other parts of Australia.

Jeremy Steele was born in Adelaide in 1938. He grew up in Perth, then in 1955 aged 16 lived with his family in Italy for a year before moving to England in 1957 where he succeeded in qualifying for university admission, going on to complete a bachelor of arts degree at 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, 15 March 2024

bottom of page