August 2013 | Nate Pedersen

Library Discovery Sheds Light on Indigenous Australian Languages

Serendipity has always played an important role in the lives of book collectors and scholars. One day Dr. Michael Walsh, a linguistics professor at the University of Sydney, was browsing through the stacks at Mitchell Library, Sydney, (part of the State Library of New South Wales) when he randomly pulled down an object that looked like a codex, but was actually a box containing two notebooks. After flipping through several pages of "doodles," Walsh stopped at page seven, intriguingly entitled "A short vocabulary of the natives of Raffles Bay." Walsh soon realized he had stumbled across a guide to a lost language from the aboriginal people settled near the coast in Australia's Northern Territory.

The notebook, written by the Victorian colonist Charles Tyres, was entirely unknown to modern scholars.

Using that find as a launching pad, Walsh instigated a two year research project trolling through 14km worth of colonial manuscripts in search of mention of the lost or endangered indigenous languages of Australia.

The Australian government estimates that 145 aboriginal languages are still spoken around the country today, with a further 110 hovering at the edge of extinction. Walsh's research project has contributed to the knowledge of 100 of these native languages. One of his favorite finds was a 130 page, tri-language dictionary in German, Diyari, and Wangkangurru, the later two being aboriginal languages from the north-east part of the South Australia state. 

The next step of Walsh's research project is to disseminate the findings to the aboriginal people around Australia who still speak these languages, or are culturally descended from the native speakers. The Mitchell Library also hopes to digitize the findings, if granted the appropriate cultural approvals, making them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.