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Young man sits at a wooden desk, surrounded by shelves of boxes and jars.

Reclaiming our story

Callum Clayton-Dixon
A contributor to the Library’s Living Language exhibition reflects on Indigenous resistance, survival, and the New England linguicide.

Yaga Ambēyaŋ. Balgoldyuyn nyambiga urala.

I’m Ambēyaŋ. The high country is our home.

Ambēyaŋ is the Aboriginal language of the southern end of the New England Tableland. It is one of the five languages which together form an overarching language community covering most of the Tableland’s bottom half. The other four are Anēwan, Inawan, Yaniwan and Rādhūn. Although traditionally this cluster of closely related languages had no coverall label, the name ‘Anaiwan’ is now commonly used.

Because the New England brand of colonialism was particularly severe, smothering Aboriginal people and culture to the nth degree, our ancestral tongue suffered an extremely rapid decline and was forced into dormancy many decades ago. In contrast, the languages on either side of our own — Gumbaynggirr and Dhanggati to the east, and Gamilaraay to the west — had native speakers until much later in the twentieth century, and in some cases even into the twenty-first century.

The fact that neighbouring languages have survived more intact for longer is in no way an indication that our people cherished their language any less, nor that they were any less determined to protect and maintain this fundamental element of traditional Aboriginal life. It was simply a matter of circumstance.

The New England environment was more amenable to heavy pastoral exploitation, meaning that the district was swamped by colonists and their livestock much faster and more intensively than its neighbours. The Tableland also sustained a much smaller Aboriginal population; analysis of historical data reveals that there would have been no more than 500 first-language Anaiwan speakers at the onset of the colonial occupation in 1832, compared with many thousands in adjacent regions.

Dense bushland, with red rocks in the foreground and blue open sky in the background.
Anaiwan country, photo by Joy Lai

Compounding the vulnerability of a small speaker community was the fact that the Anaiwan language is strikingly different from its neighbours. In evidence to the Victorian Legislative Council’s Select Committee on the Aborigines in the late 1850s, historian, educationalist and civil servant G W Rusden, whose brother was a local squatter, discussed the relationship between the Aboriginal languages of New England and those of neighbouring districts:

Great similarity pervades the dialects spoken for several hundred miles on the east coast of New South Wales, while the language spoken on the table land (only eighty or ninety miles from the coast) is totally distinct from that spoken by the coast tribe ... [T]he natives of Moreton Bay can converse with tolerable ease with those of the Clarence River, and of Port Macquarie … while those in New England (on the heads of the Namoi and the Gwydir) though intelligible to one another throughout a vast tract of inland country [the New England Tableland], speak a totally different language from the one which prevails on the coast.

Although the Anaiwan language appears prima facie to be quite unique, it does in fact bear a masked relationship to its neighbours. Having said that, I would argue that the location and character of our language isolated it to a large extent from languages either side. Once the viability of Anaiwan was seriously threatened, speakers off the Tableland could not be relied upon to preserve it.

For several years after the invasion began, Aboriginal people in New England remained almost entirely independent of the fledgling white population and were still the region’s dominant language community. But by the early 1840s, English-speaking colonists had outnumbered Anaiwan speakers. 

A growing number of our people were starting to live and work on stations, where they quickly acquired English from their employers and white co-workers who, almost without exception, did not bother to learn the local language. Children and young people were among those Aborigines residing primarily with the whites, more or less separated from their family groups and tribes. Even at this time, intergenerational transmission of language and associated traditional knowledge had begun to deteriorate.

My great-great-great grandmother Maria Quinn, born in about 1839, grew up in this period. She was the daughter of an Irishman, Maurice Quinn, and a local Aboriginal woman, Mary Ann. Maria’s younger sister Elizabeth is recorded as having been a speaker of Anēwan and Ambēyaŋ, and Maria would also have spoken these languages. Maria had children with an Aboriginal man from the Ingleba area by the name of Bungaree (aka James Dixon), who was born before the British invasion of the Tableland. Bungaree would have been a speaker of several other Tableland languages in addition to Ambēyaŋ.

The assimilation process was well underway by the 1850s, and so was Aboriginal acquisition of English. Following the general withdrawal of European workers from New England stations to the gold diggings, local Aboriginal people were employed to alleviate the resulting labour shortage in the pastoral industry. Presumably owing to the relatively small size of the Tableland Aboriginal population, their contribution was supplemented by the recruitment of many Aborigines from the coastal areas. With the influx of Aboriginal workers from the coast, Anaiwan now had to contend with the influence of less vulnerable neighbouring languages, which were beginning to gain a foothold on the Tableland.

By the 1860s, disease and warfare had reduced the region’s Aboriginal population by roughly half, leaving only about 250 first-language Anaiwan speakers, and many thousands of English-speaking colonists. Traditional society was fast deteriorating, and local people had come to be almost completely dependent on the coloniser for survival. Violent exploitation of Aboriginal people and their lands continued to erode traditional owners’ access to country, entrenching the conditions for rapid language decline.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, English had become the main mode of communication within the Aboriginal community. Most children were growing up speaking English as their first language, and learning only fragments of their ancestral tongue.

My great-great-grandfather Walter Dixon was born at Woolbrook in about 1881. He probably understood his mother’s and father’s language, but his ability to speak would have been limited. My great-aunt Patsy Cohen said that it was in the late nineteenth century that the old people stopped passing on a lot of our cultural practices, traditional knowledge, and our language.

I believe that’s when the silence started and the secrecy of keepin’ things away from the next generation. They had to really go the white feller’s way. It must’ve been a very sad time for them old people ’cause they couldn’t pass on what they knew. They were told to stop teaching the kids ... and leave that behind and they had to teach their kids the white man’s way ... They were made to feel ashamed [of our culture and identity].

In answer to a circular issued by the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia requesting ‘native names of places and their meanings’, Uralla’s District Registrar Kenneth Mitchell responded in 1899 that:

I have done my best to obtain information upon above subject but regret I am unable to do so, all the old Blacks have left my district and only the young ones and half castes are now residing here. And they know nothing of the old dialects of their forefathers.

Intergenerational language transmission had all but ceased by the first decade or so of the twentieth century. There were some middle-aged and elderly people who still knew the language and occasionally spoke it to each other, but it wasn’t being passed down to their descendants in any substantial way. My great-grandmother Clara Dixon was born at Woolbrook in 1915 into a world where English was the only language she and her siblings would ever learn.

The language was critically endangered by the early 1930s, with most of the remaining speakers very elderly. My grandfather Norman Dixon was born in 1933 at Walcha, a town built on Ambēyaŋ country. He and his two younger sisters were stolen from their Aboriginal mother in 1941 while their European father was overseas fighting in World War II. After spending a few years at a Catholic boys’ home in Parramatta, my grandfather was returned by government authorities to live with his people, on country, at Woolbrook and the Ingleba Aboriginal Reserve. He lived there at a time when there were probably just a handful of old people left who could speak the language.

Our language had been forced into dormancy by the mid-twentieth century. Only a small amount of residual knowledge was retained by elderly people who died in the 1960s and 1970s. My father, Shane Dixon, born in Aotearoa in 1968, was raised by his Aboriginal father and Pākehā mother. He and his sisters were never exposed to Aboriginal language. Shane’s cousins, who were raised in the Armidale and Walcha areas, may have heard some Aboriginal language growing up, and possibly learned a few isolated words, but these would have belonged to neighbouring languages such as Gumbaynggirr and Dhanggati.

A group of people stand around a smiling girl trying on headphones and watching the filming camera.
Callum Clayton-Dixon, Gabi Briggs, videographer Bill Code and the Library’s Marika Duczynski, with Mason, Aryannah and Amaliyah, filming at Yina Nature Reserve for the Living Language exhibition
The Anaiwan Language Revival Program, established in 2016 by members of the Armidale Aboriginal community, aims to reclaim and revitalise the local language. The program began running classes in late 2018, including at the local Aboriginal preschool, and is working to produce a comprehensive language knowledge book.

Children and adults are starting to (re)learn our ancestral tongue, and a small but growing number of our people are (re)introducing the language into everyday use. Born in 1994 in Aotearoa, I now live in Armidale, on the country of my grandfather’s language community. Alongside members of my extended Aboriginal family, I am involved in the effort to revive the language of our ancestors. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t use words and phrases from my language.

The story of language ‘loss’ on the Tableland can be viewed inversely as a remarkable story of survival and cultural continuity. Many Aboriginal languages, including our own, have been classified by linguists as ‘extinct’. It is true that, as a direct result of colonisation, our people stopped speaking their mother tongue many years ago. But it did not die, it did not go extinct — it became a sleeping language.

And if it wasn’t for our old people who made the decision to provide their knowledge to researchers like ethnographer R H Mathews and anthropologist A R Radcliffe-Brown, there would be no records from which we could reclaim our ancient tongue from its dormant state. Perhaps they knew that doing so would ensure that future generations would have something to work from. Perhaps they knew that in order to ensure the survival of our language, they had to exploit the coloniser’s obsession with documenting the ways and words of a so-called ‘dying race’, with the hope that, when the time was right, their descendants would reawaken it. And it is because of our people’s strength, resilience and determination that we are able to undertake this task today.


This is an edited version of Callum Clayton-Dixon’s talk for the Library’s bimonthly ‘Talking Deadly’ series.


Young man sits at a wooden desk, surrounded by shelves of boxes and jars.
Callum Clayton-Dixon in the State Library stack, photo by Joy Lai
Callum Clayton-Dixon is an Ambēyaŋ linguist, historian, founding member of the Anaiwan Language Revival Program, and a PhD student at the University of New England, Armidale. He is the author of Surviving New England and was part of the reference group for the exhibition Living Language: Country, Culture, Community, in the Library until 3 May 2020.

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Summer 2019–20.