Treasure trove of Indigenous language documents unearthed at NSW State Library

Deborah Rice ABC News 27 August 2013

A treasure trove of Indigenous language documents from across Australia has been discovered in the New South Wales State Library.

The accounts of early contact between Aboriginal people and European settlers were unearthed during a forensic search of the unpublished papers filed away in the basement of the colonial building.

The operation was led by Dr Michael Walsh from Sydney University's Linguistics Department, who spent two years combing the stacks.

"I found it quite exciting in the midst of a lot of drudgery, because some of the material was buried in boxes and boxes of papers, so you get two pages out of 2,000," he said.

"It's the agony and the ecstasy, you might say."

Dr Walsh is one of only a few people to have seen the documents, which have gone on public display for the first time today as part of an international Indigenous language symposium at the library.

The NSW State Library is the oldest in Australia. Opened in 1827, it stands as a monument to colonial settlement.

So it is appropriate that it holds the records of many of those who helped establish the colony: the explorers, surveyors, government officials, settlers, soldiers and police.

As they spread out and claimed the land, their initial contact with its traditional owners was often bloody.

But taking note of the words of the Indigenous people allowed those early colonists to communicate and map the landscape.

It's an indication of how there are hidden treasures
- Dr Michael Walsh

As recording the vocabularies was not their primary task, the word lists among their writings were largely overlooked until Dr Walsh started his investigation.

"It's an indication of how there are hidden treasures," he said.

Many of the accounts had never been reviewed and some had even been misfiled.

In one case, Dr Walsh was curious when he saw a particular book on a shelf, close to other material he was checking.

He opened it and found it was actually a box, disguising the journals of Victorian surveyor Charles Tyres.

In those, he found a seven-page vocabulary from the "Natives" of Raffles Bay.

"When I located this I didn’t even know that Charles Tyres had anything to do with the notebooks involved," he said.

"So it was just a fluke that I happened to stumble across it – maybe I would have done it eventually, but it was a happy surprise."

Some of the 'earliest records ever seen'

That was just one of 200 previously unknown documents relating to about 100 languages that have now been uncovered by Dr Walsh, through a mix of good luck and painstaking detective work.

One of Dr Walsh's most prized discoveries was a mislabelled language list found among the papers of Allan Carroll, who established the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia in 1885 and edited a journal called Science of Man.

The library stacks held several folders of miscellaneous material that had been sent to Carroll from people who had hoped to be published.

Nestled between a list of Solomon Island words and a page of antique alphabets from the Philippines was a document labelled: Some Norfolk Island Aboriginal words and their meanings, taken from notes made by the Reverend Henry Fulton in 1801.

Documents discovered in the NSW state library in 2013
Among the finds was a German dictionary of two central Australian languages.
(ABC News: Deborah Rice)

When Dr Walsh came across the vocabulary, a local Indigenous language specialist just happened to be be looking over his shoulder and recognised the words: they were from Sydney.

Dr Walsh says they are possibly the most accurate record of the Eora language ever seen.

"The word for a black man, Yea-warrah, may be a more accurate source for the word Eora, the nation of Sydney people," Dr Walsh said.

"Yea-warrah sounds a lot more like what you’d expect the Aboriginal language to sound like in this part of the world, where words don't usually start with vowels."

Among the other discoveries, an extract from the journal of naturalist Robert Brown revealed an 1801 vocabulary of the Perth language, Noongar.

Previously, the earliest known written record of Noongar was from 1831.

In addition, Brown compiled a language list in northeast Arnhem Land in an 1803. The next recording of that language was not made until 150 years later.

Revitalising spoken languages

Also found in the stacks was a 125-page German dictionary which, on closer examination, turned out to be a translation of two central Australian languages.

The library's Indigenous services librarian, Ronald Briggs, has worked with Dr Walsh in unearthing the records.

"You never know what you’re going to find once you dive in," he said.

"For example, when Michael was researching for this language project we managed to find some language written by the explorer Thomas Livingstone Mitchell from the Peel River which is in Kamilaroi country, my country, and it’s probably one of the first written examples of the language from that area."

It will be Mr Briggs’s role to help communities across Australia access the discoveries.

"I’m talking about language material but if you’re learning about language you’re also learning about culture and a lot of the other written documents that we’ve found are telling us about our cultures as they were practiced 100-150 years ago, it’s absolutely fantastic," he said.

"I think for a lot of Aboriginal people reconnecting, rediscovering and reaffirming Aboriginal heritage is extremely important."

And like Dr Walsh, he hopes the material will also help revitalise spoken languages.

'Through this project I hope that more communities are able to relearn and speak language conversationally," he said.