Many Australian languages
have been lost since the European colonisation of New South Wales.
Awabakal is singular in the degree to which it was studied and
documented by Europeans. For this we are famously indebted to
two men: the Scottish Reverend Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, and
his Aboriginal mentor and friend, "Johnny Magill" or
Birabahn. Together they
bequeathed an outstanding record of an ancient Australian language,
including some landmark publications and bundles of unpublished
manuscript material. While the appeal and use of Threlkeld's work
was limited at the time, it is recognised today as having been
"well in advance of much later work in Australia" (Capell
1965: 101) and its value now is inestimable. Much of Threlkeld's
published and unpublished language materials were drawn together,
rearranged and re-edited by Dr
John Fraser in 1892 in a monumental work, An Australian
Language, that is housed in most of the world's best libraries
Awabakal continued to be spoken in the late
nineteenth century by some older Aboriginal people in the Swansea,
Martinsville and Cooranbong areas, and by some white people in
the communities of Swansea, Pelican and Belmont. Early in the
twentieth century a young Percy
Haslam, learning from old men like Berntee, Gommera and Yee-oekarlah,
began a lifelong quest to preserve and teach the language. During
the 1960s, Haslam researched Awabakal in partnership with the
President of the Lake Macquarie Historical Society and scholar
in languages, Mr. D. R. Blakemore. Haslam pursued his study of
Awabakal from 1977 as Convocation Research Fellow at the University
of Newcastle. From 1986 he initiated projects designed to revive
the language among Aboriginal descendants in the region, which
saw Awabakal taught to students at Gateshead High School, to Aboriginal
inmates at Cessnock and Long Bay gaols, and broadcast as weekly
lessons on Newcastle community radio station 2NURFM.
Today, there is renewed vigour in plans to revive
Awabakal, advanced by the Wandiyali Aboriginal Youth Service,
with the assistance and scholarship of John Meynard of the University
of Newcastle University's Wollotuka School of Aboriginal Studies.
A report commissioned by the University in 1999 recommended further
research into the possibility of offering a course in the Awabakal
language. A contemporary, scholarly linguistic analysis of the
nineteenth century Awabakal language studies is very much required.
Follow the links to:
- Missionaries and
linguistics by Assoc. Prof. Hilary M. Carey, which details
the pursuit of Indigenous languages by nineteenth century evangelical
missionaries, providing background to the amazing legacy of
Reverend L.E. Threlkeld and Birabahn.
- The Gospel of
St. Mark in Awabakal, transcribed and edited by Sue West
and Dr. David Andrew Roberts from a manuscript in the Mitchell
Library, published here for the first time.
- An English-Awabakal
Dictionary, compiled by Dr. David Andrew Roberts from Threlkeld's
An Australian Grammar (Threlkeld
1834) and Fraser's An Australian Language (Fraser
1892). The Dictionary contains over 500 English words, giving
their Awabakal translation (with references) and contrasting
the spellings and orthography of Threlkeld and Fraser.
A list of Awabakal Language Studies can be found
in the Bibliography.