Dharug - the Sydney language

The Dharug language is 5,000 years old. It was the first Aboriginal language heard by the European colonisers when they arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788. Dharug is the voice of the original inhabitants of the current Sydney metropolitan area in New South Wales.

Aboriginal language map of Sydney and coastal NSW, Horton (1996)

Aboriginal language map of Sydney and coastal NSW, Horton (1996)

Indigenous languages were oral languages and nothing was written down, so correct spelling is variable and explains why there are several word variations for Dharug which is also known as Dharak and Darag.

Dharug is the source of many words which have made their way into common usage today such as corroboree, koala, dingo, cooee, waratah and woomera. A wide range of place names and street names throughout the Sydney metropolitan area are derived from Dharug. These include: Kogarah, Mulgoa, Dural, Winmalee, Parramatta, Cammeray and Wahroonga.

Lieutenant William Dawes was an officer of the First Fleet. He is credited as the first major source of information about the Dharug language. Dawes was principally known as an astronomer and surveyor, however, he developed strong bonds with the Aboriginal people he encountered and an interest in orthography.  Dawes didn’t just record word lists but actively recorded conversations and the meanings of words in the Dharug language.

Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836). Drawing by Rod Blackford, date unknown. Commonwealth of Australia, Bureau of Meteorology

Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836). Drawing by Rod Blackford, date unknown. Commonwealth of Australia, Bureau of Meteorology

Eva Webb who died in 1970, was reportedly the last traditional Dharug speaker. Eva Webb’s grandson Richard Green has spent many years reclaiming the language for present generations. Over the past decade he has worked with the NSW Board of Studies to align the Dharug language with the languages studies syllabus. He began teaching Dharug at Chifley College in Western Sydney in 2007. At that time 23 per cent of students at the school were Aboriginal. He started with 10 students. By 2010 his program was expanded to an additional school, Doonside Technical High, and had more than 60 students including men and women attending his classes.

Green describes himself as a ‘songman’ and uses repetition and song to teach the language. His version of the language differs slightly from the original dialect and requires what Green terms ‘language engineering’, borrowing words and phrases from similar dialects and adding new words and modern context.


Austlang (2008), Australian Indigenous languages database, viewed 3 September 2015, http://austlang.aiatsis.gov.au/main.php

Dawes, W. (1790-91). Vocabulary of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney. (Native and English), by Dawes. London: School of Oriental and African Studies. Manuscript, Marsden Collection 41645b.

Dharug Daland (2011), University of NSW, viewed 3 September 2015, http://dharug.dalang.com.au/Dharug/plugin_wiki/index.html

Frawley W, (2004),   International Encyclopedia of linguistics, Oxford University Press.

Green R , (2010) Reclamation process for Dharug in Sydney using song, inJ Hobson, K.Lowe, S Poetsch & M Walsh, Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney University Press.

Heimans F (2009), The changing shire – a Dhurug perspective,

Steele J (2005) The aboriginal language of Sydney: a partial reconstruction of the indigenous language of Sydney based on the notebooks of William Dawes of 1790-91, informed by other records of the Sydney and surrounding languages to c.1905, Thesis (MA)--Macquarie University (Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy. Warawara - Dept. of Indigenous Studies), 2005

Troy, J (1994). The Sydney Language. Canberra: Panther.