Lancelot Edward Threlkeld and Biraban 

The first Aboriginal language to be paid some serious attention 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. 



This Aboriginal Languages in Australia website attempts to look at the translations made by the Rev. Lancelot Edward Threlkeld into the ‘Aboriginal Language’. He never gave it a single clear name, though it has been called by others Awabakal, and more recently the Hunter River/Lake Macquarie language. Awabakal is simpler, and is used on this website.

The main translations done by Threlkeld were the gospels of St Luke and St Mark, and part of St Matthew. He wrote about ‘five chapters’, but only the first three, and part of the fourth, are held in the State Library of NSW (Mitchell Library).

A portrait of Lancelot Edward Threlkeld

Lancelot Edward Threlkeld

L.E. Threlkeld was born in the Australian landmark year 1788.
He was an early settler at Lake Macquarie, so much so that he had to make his own ‘road’ from Newcastle. He had been employed as a missionary, by the London Missionary Society.


He was complex: determined, indefatigable, knowledgeable, difficult, abrasive, benevolent, and a daunting task confronted him in the bush then untouched by Europeans. His troublesome led him first to fall out with the LMS, who terminated his Mission; and later to his arrested by the authorities. But he persisted to the point when the were no Aboriginals left for him to minister to.

He married twice, outliving both his wives, by whom he had nine surviving children. His eldest son whose boyhood was spent during the period of the Mission, became fluent in the language, exceeding his own capability But neither this son, nor any of his siblings, inherited Threlkeld’s talent for pouring out writing on any subject, for none of them appears to have left any records at all—regrettably as they might be expected to have become, as children, linguistically proficient too. Read more

Reverend Lancelot E. Threlkeld

Reverend Lancelot E. Threlkeld holding his major publication,

Australian Grammar (1834).


Biraban was the Rev. L.E. Threlkeld’s principal informant for language, but was often quite a bit more. Much is shadowy about Biraban’s early life. He must have been born about 1800, and this might have been in the Newcastle or Lake Macquarie region.

In a ‘Return of Black Natives of 1828’, Threlkeld recorded his original name as We-pohng, which might be rewritten wibung, for which, in common with many other proper names, there are no vocabulary records to suggest a meaning.

As a boy Biraban appears to have been abducted by the British, and to have been attached to Captain J.M. Gill of the 46th Regiment of Foot, within the barracks in Sydney. It was at this time that he learnt to speak English well, and when he acquired the name M’Gill by which Threlkeld principally referred to him.

Portrait of Biraban the Aboriginal man who assisted Threlkeld

In 1821 and by then a young man, in the role of bush constable, he assisted a Captain Francis Allman who had been charged with setting up a penal settlement at Port Macquarie. Subsequently, his days with the military being over, he moved to Lake Macquarie, where he was to marry Ti-pah-mah-ah (dibamaya), whom Threlkeld, in the return mentioned above, recorded as Patty. They were to have a son, Ye-row-wa (yirawa), born about 1823. In

about early 1826 Biraban was initiated, and acquired the name Biraban (wedge-tailed eagle).

By this time Threlkeld’s Mission has been established, in connection with which Biraban was to prove more helpful than anyone else, not only in practical matters of running a property but in Threlkeld’s personal quest to acquire the local language for the purpose of communicating the Christian message to the Aboriginal community, the reason for his being there.

Threlkeld was to remark on Biraban’s intelligence, as did other European visitors to the Mission. And it was Biraban who enabled Threlkeld to carry out his self-imposed daunting task of reducing the language to a written form, which included preparing a grammar, then translating the gospels. All translating work came to a halt whenever Biraban absented himself for cultural or other reasons.

Repeatedly too Threlkeld acknowledged the vital contribution Biraban made in the translating enterprise, affirminf for accuracy’s sake that Biraban checked and approved of everything. Nevertheless the question must be asked whether this was truly so for throughout the translations there appear to be usages that it would seem a native speaker could hardly have sanctioned. Could it have been that the master-servant relationship between them was so strong that Biraban said yes whenever Threlkeld sought his approval, however absurd in reality.

Portrait of Biraban - also known as MGill

From time to time Threlkeld was called to offer succour and advice to Aboriginal miscreants incarcerated and about to face the judicial system in the courts. In trying to find out the true story of supposed misdemeanours, and so see the hapless prisoners fairly represented as he could, he was assisted by Biraban who frequently accompanied him on such occasions, notably so despite Threlkeld’s advances with the language, when the prisoners were spoke another dialect. Sometimes it was only to see them executed.


Biraban is usually perceived as heroically admirable. While this might have been largely true, he had succumbed to the temptations of drink. Threlkeld was to record, in a section ‘Reminiscences of Biraban’ within his 1850 work A Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language, the following: … M’Gill, once, when intoxicated, … shot his wife, the which he deeply deplored when he became sober; the injury sustained was not much, and ever afterwards he treated her with that affection which appeared to be reciprocal.

In similar vein a specimen sentence buwil bang PATTYnung reveals this darker, more violent, side. Perhaps this behaviour was normal for the times: it means: ‘I wish to beat Patty’.

Threlkeld’s Mission closed in 1841, and he returned to Sydney.
Patty, although known to be still alive when aged 65, predeceased Biraban, who died on 14 April 1846.

Image of Reverend Lancelot E. Threlkeld

Reverend Lancelot E. Threlkeld c. 1815, aged about 27

Understanding the analysis of the translations

A five-bar analysis system is used throughout, with the function of the different bars being explained in the lower illustration alongside.

The aim has been to enable non-experts to see and understand what is presented. For this reason terms used by academic linguists have been avoided as far as possible, although it
has not been possible to do without one: ‘ERG’, standing for ‘ergative’, indicating the subject of a transitive sentence.

Threlkeld aboriginal language translations

ANALYSIS EXAMPLE 1: gagala — be-be-PH
In Awabakal, verbs have a stem, often followed by a ‘stem-forming suffix’. followed by a tense marker.

  ga: stem    be
-ga-:    stem-forming suffix: -be
-la:    tense marker    PH (past historic)

PAST HISTORIC [?]Various forms of ‘past tense’ are used in the Threlkeld material, and one of these has been denoted ‘PH’. This was a term one Latin teacher once used for his primary school pupils, and is the only defence of it offered here, other than that it is very short (‘PH’).

ANALYSIS EXAMPLE 2: -li-li- — -ing-ing


​Aboriginal languages are at times sophisticated, and at other times simple. -li-li- is and example of the simple usage, and is analysed simply as ‘-ing-ing-’, to indicate ‘persistently continuing’.

Threlkeld aboriginal language translations

ANALYSIS EXAMPE 1: gagala — be-be-PH
In Awabakal, verbs have a stem, often followed
by a ‘stem-forming suffix’. followed by a tense

ga: stem be
-ga-: stem-forming suffix: -be
-la: tense marker PH (past historic)


Various forms of ‘past tense’ are used in the
Tkld material, and one of these has been
denoted ‘PH’. This was a term one Latin teacher
once used for his primary school pupils, and is
the only defence of it offered here, other than
that it is very short (‘PH’).


ANALYSIS EXAMPLE 2: -li-li- — -ing-ing
Aboriginal languages are at times sophisticated,
and at other times simple. -li-li- is and example
of the simple usage, and is analysed simply as ‘-
ing-ing-’, to indicate ‘persistently continuing’.


Explanatory ‘note patches’ have been often used, as: Sometimes a word has been picked out in colour to draw attention to what the note patch is referring to — as in the case of dangGi in the example above.

Many of the note patches recur time and again, to save the viewer having to look somewhere else for the explanation intended.

The translations given in the blue bar at the bottom are admittedly often awful. But the point is not elegance, but to show how Tkld’s translation into Awabakal can be seen though
this English ‘back-translation’.

Threlkeld aboriginal language translations

Aboriginal SPELLING: e.g. dangGi
Where /ng/ has the nasal sound as in ‘singer’, it is picked out
in BOLD type.

But sometimes this is not the case, as in the English word
‘finger’. How would a non-English speaker know fow to
pronounce ‘singer’ and ‘finger’ just from the look of the words? In the spelling system adopted by ‘Aboriginal Languages of Australia’, these would be represented:


finGer: the capital /G/ is intended to be separately


singer: /ng/ is the nasal sound

Threlkeld aboriginal language translations
Threlkeld aboriginal language translations


What is not apparent throughout these analyses of Tkld’s translations is the ‘North’ database, used to analyse
an confirm everything. It has over 35 000 entries.


Threlkeld aboriginal language translations

This fragment shows a dozen of the 35 000 records, and includes information such as the page and line of the source entry, the original ‘language’ entry (dark grey), the respelling (light brown), the original English translation(light grey), modern English simplified translation (yellow/ orange), and the suffix-by-suffix analysis mostly in the last columns on the right.


A description of how these databases work is to be found under the heading ‘Bayala Databases’ in white type near the top of this frame.