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.

Biraban *

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 Birabanthe 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.

Reverend Threlkeld
Reverend Threlkeld ^

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.

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:

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. This book is now out of print, but a PDF is available

 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.

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!

Worth Place Park – Honeysuckle Newcastle 2009

Worth Place Park

In 2007 Lillian Eastwood from the Guraki Aboriginal Advisory Committee of City of Newcastle Council consulted Muurrbay linguist Amanda Lissarrague outlining the possibility of incorporating local languages from Warrimay (Gathang) and the language from the Hunter River – Lake Macquarie for a public artwork commissioned by the Honeysuckle Development Corporation, Newcastle.

This sculpture designed by Zenscapes Landscape Architects Milne and Stonehouse, reflects layers of Aboriginal and English languages, and historically aspects of geology, maritime, and mining that continues to be evident in and around the mouth of the Hunter River.  

“The languages and the representation of the midden in the artwork, convey the message that Aboriginal people occupied that space from long ago and had a great diverse life on the river. I personally believe if we can add and build the layer of Aboriginal language and history into the fabric of the Newcastle landscape then we build hopefully a safer, more tolerant and inclusive Novocastrian community” (Lillian Eastwood).

HRLM Language Map
HRLM Language Map

*^Images from AWABA, an electronic database and guide to the history, culture and language of the Indigenous peoples of the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie region of NSW.