LIVING LANGUAGE

Language notebooks of William Dawes, Sydney Cove, 1790-1791                                     PHOTO: Joy Lai, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

Keith Vincent Smith

Living Language: Country, Culture, Community
State Library of New South Wales,
Macquarie Street, Sydney
The Dawes notebooks are no longer on display
The exhibition is open from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. until Sunday 3 May 2020
Free admission

The bright shining stars of this exhibition for me were the two small notebooks in a glass case, dating to 1790-1791. They left Sydney in 1792 and returned briefly in the Living Language exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

When they first became widely known, after a lapse of 180 years, these handwritten records of the coastal Sydney Language by William Dawes caused great excitement.

In November 1790, one month after Woollarawarre Bennelong and the friendly Eora  began to frequent the English convict settlement at Warang / Sydney Cove, Dawes, a young marine officer from Portsmouth, took a small notebook and began to write down Indigenous words and  phrases given to him by his informants.

The first notebook, titled (in another hand) Grammatical forms of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney is catalogued as MS 4165 (a) in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

From internal evidence, Dawes began his second notebook, MS 4165 (b), Vocabulary of the Language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney in 1791. It is the only source for what is known about his relationship with his principal informant, an Aboriginal girl named Patyegarang (Grey Kangaroo).

Dawes’s notebooks were located by Australian librarian, later Mitchell Librarian, Phyllis Mander-Jones and included in her publication Manuscripts in the British Isles relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra in 1972.

Living Language charts the strong revival of dozens of First Australian languages – among the 250 once spoken throughout Australia – which were previously suppressed by government policies of removal and assimilation.

This major exhibition is built on years and months of research and consultation with many Aboriginal communities by the library’s Indigenous Engagement (IE) Branch. I was privileged to collaborate with both Ronald Briggs (Gamilaroi), Curator, Research & Discovery and Melissa Jackson (Bundjalung) in two exhibitions at the State Library: EORA in 2006 and MARI NAWI in 2010.

Damien Webb (Palawa), Manager, Indigenous Engagement and Marika Duczynski (Gamilaroi), IE Project Officer, were also involved in the exhibition, which was backed by the State Library of NSW Foundation.

Writing in the  Sydney Morning Herald (14 July 2019), Matt Bungard quoted Melissa Jackson:

Lieutenant Dawes was just really interested in not just the culture, but getting to know the people and their nuances. The notebooks are incredibly important to Aboriginal people because they retain the conversational context which is crucial for contemporary language revival work today.

WHO GAVE THE WORDS?

Dawes often acknowledged his Indigenous informants – in his first book principally Warreweer (who provided names of Indigenous plants), then Bennelong (her brother) and  his second wife Barangaroo. In ‘Book B’ Patyegarang, who knew Dawes for just three months,  is mentioned more than fifty times, but also Colebee, his wife Daringa, a girl  named Gonangoolie, and others.

Dawes’s little language notebooks help to inform much of the ‘back story’ about this group, which fleshes out  and confirms details about their lives not found in First Fleet journals. How much would we know about the Gweagal man Wárungin, Wángubile (‘Botany Bay Colebee’) in the profile that follows without Dawes’s records?

For more information about the Dawes notebooks see ‘The Language of Port Jackson’ under the heading Language in this blog.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2019