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E.M. Curr's Australian Comparative Vocabulary

Curr for Living Language

At 9.45 metres long, this gargantuan accordion-fold document is  the longest known manuscript in the Library*.  Curr's Australian Comparative Vocabulary was compiled during the 1870s and completed in 1881, by squatter, author and public servant Edward Micklethwaite Curr. The manuscript contains more than 7,000 Aboriginal words gathered from 160 different places throughout Australia. It was Curr's attempt to document the more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages, including around 800 dialectal varieties, that were spoken when Europeans arrived in 1788.

As a young man, Curr was one of the first white squatters along the Goulburn River. He set up Tongala Station in 1841, near present-day Echuca. He later wrote extensively about the local Bangerang people in his 1886 memoir Recollections of Squatting in Victoria, then called Port Phillip (1841-1851)

Inspired by the work of  German linguist Max Muller Curr became interested in the differences in Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia. Curr was employed as the Victorian Chief Inspector of Stock and was based in Melbourne in the early 1860s where he began compiling his comparative vocabulary. Curr’s vocabulary lists include commonly-used words for plant and animal names, body parts, weapons, relationship terms, numbers, the natural world and weather events. He sent a list of 63 common English words to farmers and rural workers and asked them to gather their Aboriginal equivalent. He later also sought assistance from government officials and missionaries and made appeals through newspapers.

Curr was also a member of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines. His epic work The Australian Race... was published in Melbourne in four volumes between 1886 and 1887.


Ronald Briggs, Curator, Research & Discovery


* Manuscript maps, such as our collection of Darling River pilot charts, used to navigate the inland rivers of NSW in the 1870s-1880s, can be up to 18.5 metres long.