Keith Vincent Smith
The inspired and inspiring language notebooks compiled by Marine Lieutenant William Dawes have returned to England a second time.
This precious cargo first sailed away with Dawes when he boarded HMS Gorgon, leaving Sydney Cove on 18 December 1791 and arriving at Portsmouth on 18 June 1792.
After a brief visit to Sydney for the Living Language exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, the notebooks are back at the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Dawes himself never returned to Australia. ‘The Aboriginal people’, wrote Indigenous linguist Jakelin Troy, ‘lost one of their most valuable allies and the colony a fine scientist who had hoped to settle there and continue his research’.
AN EARWITNESS ACCOUNT
Spoken words and sounds jotted down in English handwriting from his informants preserve Dawes’s earwitness account of their unwritten language through encounters, conversations, dialogues and exchanges of knowledge that remain, in the words of historian Paul Carter in The Calling to Come (Museum of Sydney, 1996) ‘a source of revelation’.
The trio of the two Dawes notebooks and a third wordlist kept by Governor Arthur Phillip and his aides, which I call the ‘Governor’s Vocabulary’ (Book C 1791), were soon in the hands of William Marsden (1754-1836), an associate of the influential Joseph Banks. Much later, they passed to the SOAS from Kings College, London.
The three SOAS notebooks were the basis of an accessible dictionary of cross-cultural communication in early Sydney by historian and linguist Jakelin Troy, first published in Canberra in 1993-4 in The Sydney Language.
Her work was the genesis of the revival of the classic language spoken by the Indigenous people who inhabited coastal Sydney.
Professor Troy writes:
The earliest and best records of the Sydney Language document the coastal dialect which was spoken in the immediate vicinity of the first British settlement at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson.
There are wordlists with phonetic translations for body parts, kin terms, language, mythology and ceremony, food, cooking and fire, weapons and artefacts (many illustrated in line drawings by Shirley Troy), water, elements, mammals, reptiles, birds, marine and aquatic life, plants and fruits and insects and spiders.
She points out that this wordlist
… is by no means a complete list of all the words in the Sydney language. It only contains the vocabulary which I was able to recover from the published and unpublished notes of known eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who recorded information about the Sydney Language. … In spite of the limitations of the wordlist it is a window onto the world of the Aboriginal people of Sydney.
Indeed, these words, sentences and placenames reveal traces of the past, a cultural memory and insight into the way Indigenous people viewed their spiritual and physical life before (and during) European settlement. This includes words they invented to describe the foreign technology, for example na-muru for a compass, from naa ‘to see’ and muru ‘the way, or a path’.
In September 1994 Dr. James Kohen, later my supervisor at Macquarie University, Sydney, gave me photocopies of these manuscripts taken from microfilm. I still have them, slightly out of focus and held together by rusty paperclips.
Dawes’s words opened up new research possibilities. They were the stimulus that would take me through BA, MA and PhD degrees in Indigenous Studies and Anthropology.
The next year I was fortunate to obtain a copy of the first edition of The Sydney Language, which was reissued in June 2019 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra with the help of funds raised by the Australian band, The Preatures.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2019/2020