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Living language

Damien Webb
Melissa Jackson
Marika Duczynski
Ronald Briggs
A major exhibition at the Library celebrates UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages at a critical time.


In Australia, roughly 90% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages still spoken today are considered endangered, and many communities are doing extraordinary work to protect, promote and pass on their languages. These languages are at the core of our memories, our expression and our ability to sustain our cultures and identities, and their destruction has had profound on Aboriginal people in Australia since 1788.

There were more than 250 languages spoken in Australia before 1788, and even more dialects. Our languages are among the oldest on the planet, and include ancient sign languages and non-verbal forms of communicating still practised throughout Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples relied on sophisticated trade routes and relationships bolstered by shared languages and established protocols for communication. The richness and diversity of Australian languages reveals a world that has been dismissed and dismantled by colonisation, a world that continues to speak to us from just below society’s surface.

A sketch portrait of an Aboriginal man.
Beerabahn or MacGill, Chief of Bartabah or Lake Macquarie
A newspaper clipping
Excerpt from ‘Conference with the Natives’, Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser. Click for transcript.

The exhibition Living Language: Community, Culture, Country celebrates the strength, diversity and richness of our Aboriginal languages in New South Wales. It touches on the complex historical relationships between different language groups, and present stories of strength, trauma and joy that have been shared with the Library’s Indigenous Engagement Branch through countless hours of consultation, research and outreach.

A yellowed notebook page with curling script.
‘Vocabulary of the language of the natives at Port Stephens’

Living Language highlights early attempts by colonists to understand Aboriginal languages. One of the key figures from that time is First Fleet officer of marines William Dawes, who recorded his conversations with the young Aboriginal woman Patyegarang between 1788 and 1791 in exceptional detail.

As well as representing the earliest attempt to transcribe and understand the Sydney languages, Dawes’ notebooks are important because they retain the conversational context which is crucial for contemporary language work. Unlike many people who recorded language in wordlists, Dawes attempted to show it as it was spoken and to recognise the speaker’s intelligence, wit and clarity.

To read the words of Patyegarang is to come close to seeing the new colony through the eyes of an Aboriginal person, and to be reminded that despite the violence of colonisation there were figures on both sides who were trying to understand each other. These notebooks have returned from the United Kingdom to Gadigal country for the exhibition.

The Indigenous Engagement Branch has worked with dozens of language groups to understand the Library’s role in responding to the language needs of Aboriginal people and communities. This role hinges on opening up the collection and building reciprocal relationships with Aboriginal language speakers and knowledge holders. It requires us to recognise that languages were not ‘lost’ but were systematically diminished, and it asks us to remember that generations of Elders have managed to keep language and culture strong despite decades of assimilation policies.

The generosity of Elders and Aboriginal communities in supporting this exhibition has been extraordinary. Being able to spend time on Country speaking with people about their language journeys has been a tremendous honour. We hope it will imbue the exhibition with a sense of life and joy that reflects the incredible and ancient history of our languages, and the strength we carry with us into the future.

Damien with Miklo

Four people and two children stand around a mounted camera.

A small house with a backdrop of a sunset.

Four people stand, being photographed by a fifth, on a grassy hill.

Notes from the road

Over three hectic weeks in March 2019, we visited nine regions of New South Wales that represent 17 separate language groups, including Anaiwan, Bundjalung, Gumbayngirr, Dhangatti, Wiradjuri and Gamilaraay. Our overall feeling from these visits was an appreciation of the generosity with which these communities shared their time, knowledge and stories.

A common theme that emerged was the idea of a ‘secret language’, which reflected the traumatic history of language dispossession. Community members were so worried about being found speaking their language that they hid away to talk to each other. Individuals sometimes locked themselves away in rooms or cupboards so that they could talk to themselves.

We were also moved by the communities’ willingness to take us to places that were very special to them. Each community was at a different stage of the language revival process, and this was reflected in the venues chosen for our meetings. Some communities had purpose-built cultural centres, while others had been given small rooms to run their operations.

There was an overwhelming enthusiasm among communities for reviving language, but their initiatives were often hampered by a shortage of resources like dictionaries, vocabularies and teaching aids, and exacerbated by a lack of financial support.


Two men and two women representing the Indigenous Engagement Branch smiling and standing in front of green plants.
From left: Damien Webb, Ronald Briggs, Melissa Jackson, Marika Duczynski. Photo by Joy Lai.

Damien Webb (Palawa)
Manager, Indigenous Engagement

Melissa Jackson (Bundjalung)
Librarian, Indigenous Engagement

Marika Duczynski (Gamilaraay)
Project Officer, Indigenous Engagement

Ronald Briggs (Gamilaraay)
Curator, Research and Discovery


This article first appeared in SL magazine, Winter 2019.


This exhibition and the extensive consultation process have been made possible through the generosity of the State Library of NSW Foundation and financial support from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.


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Photograph of the bush
  • Free
  • Exhibition

Living Language: Country, Culture, Community

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