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'Deadly' Treasured Words

'Deadly' Treasured Words

Shannon Sutton explores Aboriginal languages in the collection

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this article contains reference to words, terms and descriptions that may be culturally sensitive or considered inappropriate today. 

Joseph Lycett, Drawings of Aborigines and Scenery, New South Wales, c.1820,

In a land that often seems so starkly monolingual, it is remarkable to consider that over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and an inestimable number of dialects were spoken in Australia prior to European settlement. Language is culture; words have powerful meaning beyond the literal and the language you speak enriches your sense of belonging within your community. As a Koorie from the South Coast of New South Wales, the very few words that I have inherited from my ancestors form a core part of my identity.

Our Languages Matter was the theme of NAIDOC Week 2017—a timely theme considering the number of speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is on the rise. In 2012, census figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 145 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in Australia, and that 69 of these languages had fewer than ten speakers. The 2016 census revealed an increase in these figures, with an estimated 170 Indigenous languages currently spoken. One very telling constant is that language has thrived where Aboriginal culture dominates, and where the impacts of over 200 years of colonialism have been less pervasive.

Through their collections, which contain early, often fragmentary, records of language from the colonial era, libraries and archives have a role to play in language preservation and revitalisation. The National Library itself, charged with recording the narrative of Australia, holds a wealth of language material in print, as oral history recordings, and in unpublished collections of manuscripts—personal papers, diaries, letters and journals. Because of their nature as unpublished works, manuscript collections may be the only place in the entire world where some fragments or words of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages survive.

James Cook, John Hutchinson and Samuel Wallis, Journal of H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771,

The National Library holds one of the very earliest written records of an Aboriginal language. (The earliest was by William Dampier in 1687; Dampier recorded a single word gurry, gurry, widely considered to be ngaari, the Bardi word for devil.) In 1770, the Endeavour, in need of repairs, beached at a place known as Wabalumbaal. Stranded for seven weeks, Cook made contact with the Guugu Yimithirr peoples. During his time on the land of the Guugu Yimithirr, Cook wrote a brief vocabulary list, which included features of the landscape, parts of the body and miscellaneous objects such as cockleshells and canoes.  

The colonialist, paternalistic nature of collecting is readily apparent throughout language recordings of the nineteenth century. People like Friedrich August Hagenauer are examples of the contradictions inherent in many of the collectors, recording information about Aboriginal language and culture while at the same time seeking to supress or deny its continuance. As a missionary, Hagenauer exercised an extraordinary level of control over Aboriginal people at mission stations in Victoria such as Ramahyuck, and later at Lake Tyers where he served as superintendent. He was a prolific and meticulous recorder of Aboriginal language, particularly in the Wimmera district. Travelling to Queensland, he even expressed appreciation for the sound of a language being spoken, writing:

I was requested to say a little about the language of the Aborigines of the north but I do not know anything about it except that I liked its beautiful, ringing clear sound. And I only found one which is the same as that of the dialect of the Wimmera district, which is in Victoria.

Despite a clear knowledge and what could be construed an appreciation of language, Hagenauer banned practices such as corroborees, integral to maintaining connectedness (and with it, language and culture) at mission stations where he exercised authority.

Ignaz Sebastian Klauber and William Byrne, Gezigt van de Rivier Endeavour op de Kust van Nieuw-Holland, 1795,

Collections of languages, such as word lists or vocabularies, often reflect the singular or unique interest of the person doing the recording. One of the most substantial language collections held by the Library is undoubtedly the letter books of Lorimer Fison (1832–1907). A Wesleyan missionary, journalist and amateur anthropologist, Fison became interested in Aboriginal social organisation, marriage and kinship during the mid- to late 1800s. Through advertisements placed in newspapers, he appealed to others who shared his interest to collect and send him information. Fison’s method of appealing to the public appears to have been a success. In 1873, he wrote to the editor of The Australasian:

SirThe letter which you were kind enough to publish for me some months ago has done more help to me in my researches than all the private letters I have written and the printed circulars I have sent to gentlemen who are in a position to furnish information concerning the Australian aborigines. I received replies from the far interior of this colony, from the trans-Darling country, from Queensland, and from Western Australia, containing information so extremely valuable

The letter-books of Lorimer Fison, which hold a wealth of information about Aboriginal people, but also people of the Pacific, are bound carbon copies of outward correspondence. They contain terms about kinship, but also genealogical tables and family trees, incredibly significant material considering the paucity of written records about Aboriginal people during this period.

Samuel Thomas Gill, Aborigines and White Men Hunting Kangaroos, c.1850,

Other collections held by the Library are more limited, but no less important. In August of 1860, writing of the various relief missions sent to find, and rescue if necessary, Robert O’Hara Burke, Robert Biggart Gow wrote, ‘I am afraid Burke and his party have already perished’, before adopting a more prosaic view in the next paragraph: ‘if he is not discovered Australia will be at least pretty well explored’. Despite travelling with Aboriginal guides for the entirety of his journey, Gow recorded only a single Aboriginal word in his journal, Mindi, which he appears to have heard from some non-Aboriginal people. Henry Reynolds, in his opus The Other Side of the Frontier, wrote that in Victoria Mindye the rainbow serpent was believed to be the source of the spread of smallpox. The single word recorded by Gow has meaning because of its context; it may form part of a broader explanation of the spread of diseases and their terrible impact on Aboriginal societies during a particular time and at a particular place.  

Not all language recordings in the nineteenth century were undertaken by men employed in positions of control and authority over Aboriginal peoples. In the Library’s collection is a little black notebook belonging to 17-year-old farmer’s daughter Polly McMahon, who grew up in the Burragorang Valley, New South Wales, during the late 1800s. Despite her age, McMahon showed an awareness of the linguistic differences between language groups. She also gives us a fascinating glimpse of her own family’s ability to speak Aboriginal languages:

The New South Wales blacks speak a different language to most of the other colonies. In fact the New South Wales tribes of only 200 miles apart speak much different. My father always got along well with the blacks and could speak the languages of two or three colonies … when we were little we used to talk a lot of the native language. My mother could never learn very much, she could not remember it. Our schoolteacher had a lot to put up with our broken English.

McMahon’s diary entries provide insight into the relationships formed between settlers and Aboriginal people. The Australian agricultural industry would not be what it is today without Aboriginal labour—so a farmer learning language makes perfect sense.

They used to think all white people were alike they regarded them as enemies and felt it their duty to show fight and kill as many as possible they hoped some day to get rid of this Whitham who caused so much trouble and disturbed their peace of mind The underlined word means white devil how very strange to put such a fear in them they never knew any thing about a devil; Therese McMahon, Notebook, 1897 (detail),

Language collections are more than just words scrawled on a piece of paper. Many collections of this period tell a narrative of cultural exchange and control, of the imbalanced power dynamics between settlers, missionaries and Aboriginal people. Cook, Hagenauer, Fison and McMahon would never have envisioned that the language they recorded for the benefit of a non-Indigenous audience would potentially have a role in language recovery and revitalisation.

Shannon Sutton is a Reference Librarian in Australian Collections and Reader Services. He was the Library’s 2014 Indigenous Graduate.