An article in Namalata Thusi. The Queensland Government’s external publication on Indigenous issues, published by The Department of Communities.

Namalata is a Queensland Aboriginal word meaning “messenger” and Thusi is a western Torres Strait Islander word meaning “paper” or “book”.

An Indigenous languages project in NSW has unearthed an early European recording of words from Queensland’s Torres Strait.

Dr Michael Walsh said the recording was significant because it was made during the very early days of British contact with the area, and decades before most other records.

“In terms of northern Australia particularly, recordings generally start in the mid-19th century,” he said. “(However,) this recording was made by Robert Brown, the botanist who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his around-Australia trip. In 1803 or ’02, they got to Torres Strait, which is where this comes from.”

While the Brown recording isn’t very large, it is significant because it captures words spoken by Torres Strait Islanders before their languages were influenced by European languages.

Dr Walsh is the researcher on the State Library of NSW’s Indigenous languages project, sponsored by Rio Tinto. It aims to recover snippets of lost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

It will have three phases – discovering what lies in the library archives; consulting Indigenous communities and making the words available online; and developing new education programs that teach the forgotten words in primary and high schools.

About 250 languages were spoken across Australia at the time of European settlement. Only a handful remains in use; most are extinct or are in danger of disappearing.

Ironically, some of the best surviving records of these languages were made by early British settlers. The library has something like 12 linear kilometres of their manuscripts and has opened them to Dr Walsh and his year-long research.

“It’s a real grab-bag,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of material to search. Sometimes, it (will be) a little letter or note poked into somewhere it shouldn’t be.”

Dr Walsh estimates the manuscripts will reveal a good amount of language from NSW and Victoria, and probably from Tasmania as well. Queensland is likely to be less generously covered but there could still be significant finds.

“I’m only fairly early into this project (but) it’s clear there are records concerning Queensland,” he said. “While it’s the State Library of NSW, we have records from all over Australia.”

Some of the earliest Queensland recordings were made by Captain James Cook and his crew in 1770 when their ship stopped for maintenance at what is now Cooktown. They spent about six weeks interacting with the locals. Dr Walsh said the stay gave us one of the most widely known names – kangaroo.

“The modern word of kangaroo comes from northern Queensland, not NSW,” he said.

Dr Walsh has researched Indigenous languages for 40 years and has noticed a growing interest in them. He says language recovery has taken off in Queensland over the last three or four years.