My Mothers Tongue – The Language from the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie (HRLM)


The Language from the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie (HRLM) was spoken by the people now known as Awabakal, Wonnarua, Kuringgai, and most likely Geawegal. Geawegal and Wonnarua share section names with Darkinyung and Gamilaraay.

Traditional Country

While it is impossible to put precise boundaries on language groups, we can speak generally. This language was spoken from Brisbane Waters in the south to Newcastle in the north, and extending west to Singleton and as far as Muswellbrook. It is likely that there were dialectal differences within such a large region.

Language Details

HRLM belongs to the Pama-Nyungan family of Australia languages. It is one of 35 languages once spoken in the area now known as NSW. HRLM has a rich collection of historical sources, the most important being the grammar and wordlist published by Threlkeld in 1834. During the 1800s Aboriginal peoples across NSW bore the brunt of European invasion, and their languages were an early casualty, with the active suppression of languages and the emergence of English as a common language between the different language groups. HRLM was the first Aboriginal language to be formally taught to a non-Aboriginal person, by Biraban, also known by his English name of John McGill, to the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld, a missionary at Lake Macquarie, between 1824 and 1850. Biraban’s teachings form the basis of the grammar published by Muurrbay in 2006. Threlkeld called the language by its location name, so we continue this practice.

Biraban’s keen understanding of language structure enabled him to teach his own language to Threlkeld, and to assist with interpreting in court cases involving Aboriginal people. He learnt English whilst working as a servant to Captain M. Gill at the military barracks in Sydney and also served as a tracker of escaped convicts. A more detailed description can be found here

Reverend Threlkeld^

Alternative spellings and names include:
Awaba, Awabagal, Kuringgai, Karikal, Minyowa, Minyowie, Kuri, Wonnuaruah, Wannerawa, Wonarua, Wonnah Kuah, Wonnarua, Wanarruwa, Kayawaykal, Keawekal, Geawagal, Weawe-gal, Garewegal.

Language Outline

HRLM is characterised by having:

Three vowels: i, a and u, each of which can also be pronounced as a longer vowel (although it is not known if vowel length is contrastive) and 13 consonants. The writing system developed for HRLM includes voiceless stops and the palatal pronunciations of the laminal stop and nasal: p, t, tj, k, m, n, ny, ng, r, rr, l, w and y.
A rich system of noun suffixing (tag endings) to mark the grammatical roles of subject, object and agent. Other suffixes indicate instrument, location, movement towards, movement from, cause, via, with, like, for etc.
The pronouns have singular, dual and plural number, nine cases and the singular pronouns also have bound forms.
Verbs have three tenses: present, past and future. Other suffixes convey different meanings, such as permit, want, make, each other, self, lest, for, etc.
Sentences have free word order, although there is a tendency towards agent – object – verb in a transitive sentence, unless there is focus on a non-agent participant.
Language Resources

The main published texts are:
Threlkeld, LE 1834, An Australian Grammar comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines, in the vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. Sydney: Stephens and Stokes, Herald Office.

Lissarrague, A 2006, A Salvage Grammar of the language from the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie. Nambucca Heads: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative.

Written examples of the language

Minyaringpi nyakilin?
What are you looking at?

Anipu puwantuwa Patty amuwangkinpa.
This is Patty with me.

Wiya nyura uwanan Mulapinpakulang?
Will you all go to Newcastle?

Minyaring kanpi wiyan?
What do you say?

Minyaynpin wanay?
How many children do you have?

Wanang-pi manan, ani, anuwa?
Which will you take, this one, that one?

Wiya pali uwanan? Wantja? Sydneykulang!
Shall we go? Where? To Sydney!




29 April, 2011
Embargo: 11.30 am (Canberra time)

Speaking an Indigenous language linked to youth wellbeing

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in remote areas who speak an Indigenous language are less likely to experience risk factors associated with poor wellbeing, according to a report released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The report found that in 2008, almost half (47%) of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (aged 15–24 years) in remote areas spoke an Indigenous language. These young people were less likely to engage in high risk alcohol consumption and illicit substance use, than those who did not speak an Indigenous language. They were also less likely to report being a victim of physical violence.

However, the report also showed that there has been a decline in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth who can speak an Indigenous language. In 2008, 13% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth could speak an Indigenous language, down from 18% in 2002.

Despite this decrease in Indigenous language skills, 21% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 3–14 years who did not speak an Indigenous language at home were learning one. About one in three (31%) children aged 3–14 years also spent time with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander elder at least once a week.

In addition, the report found that youth who had been discriminated against because of their Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origins were less likely to have some characteristics associated with positive wellbeing.

In 2008, one-quarter (26%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth reported having experienced discrimination in the past 12 months because of their origins. These youth were less likely to be employed, studying full-time or able to get support outside of their households than those who had not experienced discrimination. They were also more likely to have experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress compared with their peers who did not experience discrimination.

More details on these and other topics are available in the April release of the report Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing: A focus on children and youth ( 4725.0). Additional analyses of the children and youth data will be available later in 2011.

Media notes:
Psychological distress is measured using a modified version of the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale. High scores indicate that feelings of anxiety or depression may be being experienced on a regular basis, whereas a low score indicates these feelings are experienced less frequently or not at all.
When reporting on ABS data the Australian Bureau of Statistics (or ABS) must be attributed as the source.
This page last updated 28 April 2011



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