Endangered Sydney language is kept alive by SOAS archive

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Over the last three generations, more than 200 languages have become extinct. A recent Harvard report suggests that of the ‘7,500 languages spoken worldwide, over half will be extinct by the year 2050 owing to imperialism’. One particular tongue at risk of being wiped out completely is the Sydney language, of New South Wales, Australia.

“Our language is like a pearl inside a shell

The shell is like the people that carry the language

If our language is taken away, then that would be like a pearl that is gone

We would be like an empty oyster shell”

The poetic quote by Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, a language advisor from Elcho Island, home to the Galiwin’ku community, the largest and the most remote Aboriginal community in northeast Arnhem Land, perfectly sums up the extinction of a language. This is a phenomenon that has been faced by several indigenous groups worldwide, owing to aggressive white colonialism that sought to ‘civilise’ the people of its colonies and putting in little effort to preserve endemic languages. 

Dawes' notebook on Sydney language

The endangerment and loss of cultural heritage in Australia has been particularly disastrous. Before the First Fleet that left from Portsmouth, England arriving in Australia in 1788, the estimated number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia was around 700,000. However, the population declined by nearly 87% in the 1900s; rising again to 670000 as per the 2011 census. However, changes in population coupled with poverty and poor living conditions of the aboriginal groups caused by institutional apathy of white settler colonialism has negatively impacted the indigenous heritage. They are now grappling to save their languages which envelope their rich cultural legacies.

One such endangered language is the ‘Dharuk’ language or the ‘Sydney’ language. This Australian Aboriginal language is spoken by the ‘Darug’ or ‘Eora’ people (Eora is a term used by the natives to describe themselves as ‘people’) belonging to the coastal clans of what is now New South Wales. Jakelin Troy, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney states in her book, The Sydney Language published in 1994, that the Darug population and culture had greatly diminished since the onset of colonisation. Although early colonialists and anthropologists tried documenting the culture through the Dharuk vocabulary, Troy feels that this was ‘limited and reflected the interests of the people who recorded the information rather than the rich vocabulary of the speakers.’

Koala in Sydney/Dharuk language
The word koala comes from “gula” in the Dharuk and Gundungurra languages.
Photograph: Jordan Whitt/Unsplash

However, one particular colonial explorer’s work provided a significant breakthrough in the understanding and the documentation of the Dharuk language. This was William Dawes (1762-1836), an astronomer, colonial administrator and also an abolitionist who travelled to Sydney on the First Fleet and built the Sydney Observatory. During his time building the observatory, he developed friendly relationships with the aboriginal communities alongside a keen interest in their culture and decided to conduct a scientific study of their language. Troy writes that ‘Dawes’ observations about the nature and structure of the language contain a unique level of detail and insight — making him a pioneer in Australian anthropology.’

William Dawes, Sydney language
William Dawes. Image: History.com

His field notes, entitled ‘The language of New South Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney’, states that the Dharuk language has two dialects. In two notebooks, Troy deciphers and investigates the intricacies of the language. The first notebook captures the grammatical forms, contextualising and organising the ‘twenty-one verb paradigms in tenses:  singular-plural; first, second and third person.’ The second notebook captures the vocabulary and phonetic information of the language. His notes, though provide rich insight into this culture, captures conversations, provides information on clans and groups, translations, maps; they are written roughly and sporadically indicating his spontaneity in taking notes. Regardless, his observations are sharp and descriptive; which is why these manuscripts are integral to the study of Dharuk language.

Both of William Dawes’ notebooks are now in possession of the SOAS Library as part of their special archives catalogued as ‘Manuscript 41645 parts (a), (b), and (c)’ and have been digitised for SOAS Digital Collections. The third notebook (c) is attributed to anonymous and said to be the work of several authors. They were provided to SOAS on its opening by Kings College London who procured it via linguist and orientalist William Marsden (1754-1836). Since then, the archive has been used by several scholars, activists and Australian linguists. Dawes and his notebooks also featured in the SBS documentary called First Australians broadcast in 2008.

William Dawes Archive/SOAS Special Collections

Even though Dawes was a colonial administrator; he is said to have been an advocate for fair treatment of the aboriginals. This is reflected in not just his writing and notes in which he seems to present his subjects with dignity and respect, but also in Troy’s books and papers where she recounts several stories about the Dawes interactions with Eora people and other colonial colleagues. Even though the language is largely lost; some vocabulary is retained by its speakers who are trying to regenerate it. Dawes’ work has proved instrumental in trying to keep the Sydney language alive.

Access the archive, or read more of Troy’s work on the ‘Sydney Language.

Devyani Nighoskar is SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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