Indigenous language resources at the National Library of Australia
Illuminating Indigenous languages in the National Library's unique Manuscripts collection.
13 June 2014
Fragments of an Aboriginal language are still spoken in my home. Instead of baby my family say boori, I had an ever growing galange (cicada shell) collection and my grandparent’s tales of the Doolagah (the hairy man) and the goonges (spirits) both captivated me and ensured I did as I was told ... mostly.
My great grandmother, a Krowathunkooloong woman, could speak her language fluently yet only rarely did so. As an Aboriginal person living on a Mission during the assimilation era of the 1940s-60s, she was largely prohibited from speaking her traditional language and teaching it to her children - yet the odd word trickled down. This explains why I’ve inherited such a small and eclectic collection of words but where would I go if I wanted to learn more?
Today there are many organisations and learning programs aimed at reviving and teaching Indigenous languages. Through their unique collections, cultural institutions such as libraries play a significant role in enabling and promoting language repatriation and revival.
My graduate project aims to identify Indigenous language material held in the Library’s Manuscripts collection. This is just the first phase of a much larger project with the broad aim of increasing accessibility to Indigenous language material held by the Library, particularly to Traditional Owners.
I spend one day a week working amongst the wonderful Manuscripts collection. There are roughly 11,500 individual manuscript collections in the Library, so at the moment I’m just focussing on some of the more obvious sources which include the papers and records of missionaries, ethnographers, linguists and Aboriginal Protectorates. Some of the more interesting and exciting finds I’ve made so far include:
MS 7080 – The Papers of Lorimer Fison (1869-1907). Fison’s chief interest was kinship and the complexities of clan divisions. Fison had a wide reaching network of linguists and missionaries and as such collated language lists (predominantly familial terms) from all parts of Australia and the Pacific. Fison also recorded genealogical lists of families and detailed notes on individuals, including, surprisingly for me, Kitty, a relative of mine who lived at Lake Tyers.
MS 3270 –The Papers of George Thornton (1880-1899). Thornton was an early “protector of the Aborigines” who recorded word lists of Yuin place names – most of which are still visible in some form on the New South Wales coast. He noted that in Jervis Bay Ulladulla was pronounced Woorradoora and the bird he knew as the laughing Jackass was called Kookangalla.
MS 9933 - Polly McMahon (1897). One of my favourite finds so far, this manuscript was allegedly written by 17 year old Polly McMahon. The papers are her nostalgic recollections of a childhood spent in the Burragorang Valley. Included amongst the 62 words she recorded are the names for the sun, moon and stars and how to invite a lady to dance.
To weed through these manuscripts on the hunt for Indigenous language material is not a speedy process. Once I’ve retrieved a manuscript off the shelf I sit and turn page after page after page in my search for single words or word lists. Sometimes a diary of 700 pages has yielded nothing – but it is still worthwhile investigating because you can never be certain until you look.
Other times my search has returned exhaustive pages of word lists and cultural information. It is the thrill of discovery that makes this project exciting, and the potential for connecting Traditional Owners with these collections that makes this project so important.
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