William Dawes and the Dharuk Language

In seeking information about the Aboriginal languages around Sydney, I encountered the story of William Dawes and his notebooks recording details of the Dharuk language, made between 1788 and 1791. Although discussed in entries by 2014 students (referenced below), and in Chapter 3 of the textbook (not a prescribed reading), I would like to add comment on the tragic side of this story. The following website provides a comprehensive account of the story of Dawes and his notebooks:


The following linked article by Jakelin Troy adds further detail:


According to Bob Dixon, quoted by Troy in the above article, Dawes ‘had a sound classical education, and commenced a masterly grammar, gathering paradigms of verbs and sample sentences’. Electronic copies of the hand written notebooks are provided on the following site, offering insight into Dawes’ meticulous recording and organization of the language data:


This early scholarship contrasts with the ignorant attitudes towards Aboriginal languages that prevailed well into the 20th century, as discussed in the first lecture.

The tragedy is that despite his desire to stay in NSW, Dawes was not allowed to renew his term, after expressing regret over participation in (a failed) punitive expedition against Aboriginal people, ordered by Governor Phillip. We can only surmise what might have happened if Dawes had been able to continue his work and publish a comprehensive account of Dharuk and other surrounding languages. Could this have encouraged a more enlightened understanding of Aboriginal languages from the beginning, leading to a more comprehensive recording and survival of many of the languages which are now lost?

Earlier entries by Peta Mason (19/9/2014) and Jemma Dunne (11/8/2014) also draw attention to the story of Dawes and the Aboriginal girl Patyegarang, one of his linguistic informants, which featured in the SBS documentary ‘First Australians’ and the Bangarra production ‘Patyegarang’. Jemma has also reported on Dharuk language revival projects which have been greatly assisted by the notebooks.

John Ryder, Ling 366

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