It is estimated that more than 250 Indigenous Australian languages and 800 dialects were spoken in Australia when the HMB Endeavour arrived in 1770. Today, just over 100 Indigenous Australian languages are still spoken, with most of these in danger of being lost.
Despite the role European colonisation had in this loss, records made during early contact between European arrivals and Indigenous Australians serve as a vital resource in the recovery and preservation of Indigenous languages.
The Endeavour voyage gives one of the earliest examples of language exchange between Indigenous Australians and Europeans—the first being between William Dampier and the Bardi language group in 1687. During the voyage, the Endeavour crew recorded several fragmented vocabulary lists from different language groups, with many of the words later confirmed by early European settlers and linguists.
Kamay (Botany Bay)
While in Botany Bay three crew members—Surgeon William Monkhouse, Able-Seaman Isaac Smith, and First Lieutenant Zachary Hicks—recorded 60 words from the Sydney language groups.
In a note dated 2 May 1770, Smith recorded that Hicks had given him nine translations, including gong (sun) and eednarda (moon). Smith himself had recorded another 20 words and Monkhouse recorded 30. Both recorded moola (man) and din (woman), but Monkhouse recorded moon as anarda and sun as koon.
All three were guessing at the possible spellings. As Indigenous Australian languages were an entirely oral tradition, the crew were attempting to convey the sound of the words as best they could.
Today we know the Endeavour crew were recording words from the Dhurag and Dharawal language groups. The words recorded are still surprisingly recognisable—although the most common spelling for each is guyun/guwing (sun), yannadah/yanada (moon), mulla (man), and dyin (woman).
Waalumbaal Birri (Cooktown)
A longer opportunity to learn Indigenous languages arose at Waalumbaal Birri, now widely known as Cooktown, when the ship was beached for several weeks for repairs.
The Endeavour crew spent time with the Guugu Yimithirr people who lived in the area and are a part of the Pama-Nyungan language group.
Lieutenant James Cook, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks and artist Sydney Parkinson each recorded words, including the first recording of gangurru (kangaroo)—spelt by Banks as kanguru. Kangaroo is perhaps the most famous example of an Indigenous Australian word adopted into the English language. However, in English it refers to all species of kangaroo while in the Guugu Yimithirr language it refers only to the eastern grey kangaroo.
Parkinson recorded more than 130 words in his journal, including different parts of the body and the names of several Guugu Yimithirr men, while Banks recorded only 38 words, also mostly body parts, including bonjoo (nose) and unjar (tongue).
Cook himself only recorded the 61 words the crew were most sure were correct. He labelled his list ‘New-Holland’, perhaps believing that there was only one language in the continent. Despite not being a linguist, Cook’s list is remarkably accurate. Now known as Cook’s Guugu Yimithirr Word List, 51 of the 61 words are recognisable in the Guugu Yimithirr language today.
Exploring the Endeavour word lists
All of the Endeavour word lists can be found online—the Kamay/Botany Bay lists survive as second-hand transcriptions, while each of the Waalumbaal Birri/Cooktown lists are preserved in print and among museum collections around the world:
- Journal of H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771
- Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks during Captain Cook's first voyage in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71 to Terra del Fuego, Otahite, New Zealand, Australia, the Dutch East Indies, etc.
- A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty's Ship, the Endeavour: Faithfully Transcribed from the Papers of the Late Sydney Parkinson, Draughtsman to Joseph Banks, Esq.
- Vocabulary of the language of New-Holland