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The Sydney language was the first Aboriginal language to be encountered by Europeans in any sustained way. For all that is now known, the Aboriginal people of Sydney did not have a name for their language or even for themselves as a distinct group. They used the word yura (transcribed by First Fleet recorders as ‘eora’) to mean ‘people’, and the only people around apart from the Europeans were they themselves. They had distinct words for ‘man’ (mula, possibly mala [transcribed as ‘mulla’]) and ‘woman’ (dyin [transcribed variously as ‘gin’, ‘din’ and similar]). On this website the Sydney language as it was spoken at the time of the Europeans' arrival is referred to as Biyal Biyal: learn why here.


When the First Fleet arrived from England in January 1788, it was the first time that boats touching the Australian coast had brought newcomers intent on staying here. The local Aboriginal people shouted at them 'Wara wara!' — 'Go away!'

Little direct contact was achieved between the interlopers and the local people until an Aboriginal man, dubbed 'Manly', was captured on 29 December 1788 for the purpose of getting to know them. Although it was later thought he was called Arabanoo for this is what he said when they tried to find out his name, it is unlikely that it was: instead, it is almost certainly Biyal Biyal for ‘I don’t understand’. Arabanoo died on 18 May in 1789 when smallpox broke out and ravaged the Aboriginal population.


By November 1789 the Aboriginal people must have reluctantly come to accept the presence of the invaders, who appeared always to be plentifully provided for. They by contrast were increasingly in need of subsistence, perhaps owing to the frightening away of game by the intruders with their muskets and noisy ways. Alarmingly powerful as they were, the newcomers seemed non-threatening, and so the Aboriginal people, Eora or yura, at last took to venturing into the settlement in Sydney Cove. The British, not daring to reveal the reality of how close they were themselves to starvation and thus the weakness of their position, had no choice but to meet the Aboriginals’ pleas with food from their dwindling supplies.


On 25 November 1789 two more Aboriginal men were captured. This was probably at Manly, and for the same purpose as before, of wishing to make some form of useful connection between the newcomers and the original inhabitants. Lt William Bradley, given responsibility for this operation, wrote: “It was by far the most unpleasant service I ever was ordered to execute”. The two taken, probably fearing for their lives, were Coleby, aged about 30, and Bennelong, about 25. Coleby managed to escape three weeks later, on 12 December 1789. Bennelong finally did likewise, on 3 May 1790.


There was a positive outcome of these kidnappings, however: the exchange of language. Bennelong was probably the most successful learner, surrounded as he was by English speakers, but to some extent key British figures also picked up some linguistic ability from their captive.

While all this was taking place, junior officer of the Marines, second-lieutenant William Dawes, who was to become the leading figure in the recording of Biyal Biyal, was carrying out his duties. Prior to the departure of the First Fleet from England Dawes had been noted for an interest in astronomy by the British Astronomer Royal, Dr Neville Maskelyne. This latter provided him with the equipment necessary to set up an observatory on arrival, with the particular purpose of recording a comet expected to be visible in the southern skies. So it was that the first timber observatory, replacing a provisional tent, was begun in April 1788 at what is now Dawes Point. No traces of this original observatory remain but it is thought to have been situated on the lower eastern side of what is now the southern Harbour Bridge pylon, possibly where temporary anchor points were embedded for the massive cables used to support the great arch of the bridge when under construction.


By July 1790 it was recognised that the observatory needed improving and a building made of stone was begun nearby, traces of which remain to the north-west of the pylon. This is where Dawes lived.


Perhaps  because the observatory was isolated at a considerable distance from the main settlement at Sydney Cove, curious or friendly Aboriginal people—in particular, teenagers or younger boys and girls—took to visiting Dawes there. Dawes was educated, described by Sydney University professor of history G. Arnold Wood in 1924 as "the scholar of the expedition", and he took to not only learning the local language and participating in conversations, but writing down what was said.


Dawes compiled two notebooks. In one, for verbs, he set out tables or ‘paradigms’ for about twenty verbs, showing examples of present, past and future tenses. In the other, for nouns, he began by providing pages for words beginning with different letters of the alphabet. When he realised that in Biyal Biyal there were no letters 'f', 'v', 's', 'z', no sound 'sh', and that no words began with 'r' or 'l', he used this notebook instead to record sentences that he heard. In so doing he provided insights into the grammar of the language. Captain of the Marines, Watkin Tench, commenting on Dawes work with the language, stated that “he had advanced his researches beyond the reach of competition”.

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