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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bequeathed an outstanding record of an ancient Australian language, including some landmark publications and bundles of unpublished manuscript material.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 Much of Threlkeld's published and unpublished language materials were drawn together, rearranged and re-edited by Dr John Fraser in 1892 in a monumental work, An Australian Language, that is housed in most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 (Fraser 1892).

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.


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Citation: D.A. Roberts, H.M. Carey and V. Grieves, Awaba: A Database of Historical Materials Relating to the Aborigines of the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie Region, University of Newcastle, 2002
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Authorised by: Faculty of Education & Arts Web Team
Produced by: School of Liberal Arts Web Team
Last Updated: 28 June, 2017
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