The Guardian • Issue #2037

Awabakal: A Recovered Language


Although we will never know for certain, it is estimated that before invasion there were about 400 First Nations languages in the land now called “Australia.” In our time, about 20 languages are thriving, with all age groups speaking the language, while more than 100 are mostly spoken by older people.

However, there is another group of languages: the recovered First Nations languages.

Let me give the example of Awabakal, which was spoken in part of the country of the CPA’s Hunter branch – Awaba (Lake Macquarie) and the Hunter River from Maitland to Newcastle. The history of the recovery of Awabakal is somewhat convoluted, but immensely interesting.

The non-conformist missionary, Lancelot Threlkeld (1788-1849) arrived at Awaba in 1825 and was established with his second family in rather sumptuous quarters on the north side of the lake. While he was supposed to convert the Awabakal people to Christianity, teach them agriculture and carpentry, and establish a school for children, he ended up converting virtually no-one. Needless to say, the missionary overseers were not impressed and cut his funding. Not deterred, Threlkeld took up more entrepreneurial activities, especially coal mining.

Through all of this, one of Threlkeld’s main interests came to the fore. He drew heavily on the skills and wisdom of Birabhan to translate one of the New Testament Gospels, produce a grammar of Awabakal, and leave behind significant other writings. To be clear, Threlkeld used the model of ancient Greek for the grammar and introduced many neologisms into the translation of the Gospel of Luke. However, when Awabakal ceased to be spoken – due to epidemics, massacres, and dispersion of the Awabakal people – these works by Birabhan-Threlkeld became an invaluable source.

Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, when the process of recovering the Awabakal language began. Moving one step at a time, and drawing on the immense amount of research into the structure of First Nations’ languages, it gradually became possible to reconstruct much of the language.

While pronunciation will never be quite as it was, the results are impressive.

The project has led to establishment of the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre, with its offices in central Newcastle. As the website points out, “Miromaa” means to “stop from loss.”

Their first project was to stop the Awabakal language from disappearing forever. We now have both a grammar and a dictionary, and you can download the first of a series of books called Teach Yourself Awabakal. In light of the success with Awabakal, the Miromaa Centre has been providing its insights and techniques to many other projects, including those overseas.

Allow me to quote from the first volume of Teach Yourself Awabakal:

“The first part awa is the root part of words meaning ‘to smooth out flat with the hand,’ which suggests that the meaning of awa is ‘a flat surface with movement,’ and what, after all, is a lake other than a flat surface with movement? To the word-root awa the ending ba is attached, and in Awabakal, the ending ba, among other things, indicates a place name … So, Awaba conveys ‘the place of the flat surface with movement’ … Thus, the name Awabakal, which literally expresses ‘Man of Awaba’ … is used to name the people, language and customs/culture of the local area.”

Language is, of course, a window into culture and history. If you have ever spoken a few words in a local language when in another country, you will know what it is like to see a person’s face light up when they hear their own tongue.

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