Why Coogee smells in history
They reveal the meaning of many place names, such as Yagoona, Chullora and Cowan.
They also show how the first attempts to spell Aboriginal words – “Kiarabilli,” for example – were later refined by linguists.
The State Library of NSW has added the historic documents to its indigenous Australians website to try to rescue some of the vocabulary from extinction.
They consist mostly of lists of indigenous words written with ink on parchment, a few phrases and extended tracts such as a translation of the Gospel of Mark into the Arwarbukarl language of Lake Macquarie.
Their authors range from surveyors, officers and missionaries in the earliest days of the colony to early 20th century Aborigines trained in English.
Among the vocabulary lists being published is one by Mary Jane Cain, the Aboriginal matriarch of Coonabarabran and the first indigenous person to write about indigenous tongues.
She explains the source of place names such as Dunedoo (small feet), Mudgee (sharpening stone), Dubbo (ground grub), Coonabarabran (inquisitive person) and Gunnedah (motherless).
Although some indigenous vocabulary, such as the word “kangaroo”, was recorded in Cape York during Captain James Cook’s first expedition to Australia’s east coast in 1770, the transcription began in earnest after Sydney was founded in 1788.
The State Library’s indigenous services librarian, Ronald Briggs, said the documents had been stored in the bowels of the library for too long “and it’s about time we got them out there for people to see. It’s a really untapped resource”.
About half of the language in the library’s 500-plus artefacts remain untranslated, he said, and risked going the way of hundreds of indigenous languages since settlement.
Linguists estimate that more than half of the 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia are already extinct and many besides have only a few speakers left. In NSW about 20 out of 70 remain.
“We’re hoping elders and communities will get access to them again and help us to decipher them. If not, it will be lost forever. It will just be squiggly writing on a page,” Mr Briggs said.
He also hoped the language lists would remind everyone that we speak indigenous words daily.
“Everyone says these place names without even realising they are speaking an Aboriginal language. Coogee has a very different connotation today to ‘smelly place’ [its Aboriginal meaning].”
PLACE NAMES AND THEIR MEANINGS
* Yagoona today
* Chullora flour
* Cowan uncle
* Tuggera cold
* Warringa Middle Harbour
* Curcur water
* Kiarabilli the name for Milsons Point
* Tumbalong the name for Darling Harbour
* Willara the name given to present-day Point Piper