There are a number of online and published resources providing background to the history and etymology of Aboriginal words and place names spoken in Sydney and NSW.

Many of the First Fleet diarists, including David Collins, Daniel Southwell and William Dawes, created wordlists of the local Aboriginal language in Sydney. Second Lieutenant William Dawes’ language notebooks, produced within the first three years of British colonisation, are the most extensive record of the original language spoken by Aboriginal people at Sydney. The notebooks recorded local language and culture shared by Aboriginal people. The most well-known informant was a young Aboriginal woman named Patyegerang.

In 1993, Aboriginal linguist Jakelin Troy wrote The Sydney Language ‘to revive interest in a long extinct Aboriginal language of the Sydney district and to make readily available the small amount of surviving information about the language.’ This publication is regarded as the most comprehensive word list of the Sydney language published and accepted by the Aboriginal community. It is particularly useful because it identifies the provenance of where the words came from. Because Aboriginal people did not have a written tradition, there are a number of different spellings for language words that have been recorded over the past 200 years.

www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/history_nation/indigenous/vocabularies/larmer/index.html
Extract from James Larmer’s Notebook of Australian Aboriginal Vocabularies, 1832-1853 (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – MLMSS 7213)

The Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project aims to make accessible the rich archival collections of the State Library of NSW. The website features historic word lists, records and other documents relating to Indigenous Australian languages. The website includes digitised word lists from the Sydney region including Dharug, Dharawal, Eora, Gundungurra, and Ku-ring-gai / Gameraigal language groups and clans.

Place names

Many places around the Sydney had Aboriginal names. Some of these names continued to be used by the Europeans, though many were jettisoned in favour of English naming. Sometimes the new arrivals introduced a new Aboriginal name while ignoring the traditional one. For example, the name Dawes Point was given to the place originally called ‘Tar-Ra’.

Since 2002, a number of places around Sydney Harbour have been ‘dual named’. Dual naming means that the original Aboriginal place name has been officially reassigned by the Geographical Names Board, and is recognised along with its more recent European place name. The purpose of having a dual named site is to indicate equal footing for the two names – European and Aboriginal. The dual naming policy ‘applies to already named geographical features such as rivers, creeks, waterfalls, beaches, harbours, islands, mountains and caves – specifically those cultural and environmental features of significance to the local Indigenous community.’ Dual naming is an important way to support and recognise Aboriginal cultural heritage.

For more information on dual naming, visit the Geographical Names Board website.

The Australian Museum website has a place names chart that includes current place names, references and historical names and descriptions.

Sydney places – dual named sites in the City of Sydney LGA

These places within the City of Sydney local government area (LGA) have been officially gazetted as dual named sites by the Geographical Names Board.

  • Bennelong Point / Dubbagullee
  • Campbells Cove / Meeliyahwool
  • Darling Harbour / Tumbalong
  • Dawes Point / Tar-Ra
  • Elizabeth Bay / Gurrajin
  • Elizabeth Point / Jerrowan
  • Farm Cove / Wahganmuggalee
  • Fort Denison / Muddawahnyuh
  • Macleay Point / Yurrandubbee
  • Mrs Macqaurie’s Chair / Yurong
  • Potts Point / Derrawunn
  • Sydney Cove / Warrane

Other Aboriginal place names identified around Sydney Harbour

  • Ar-ra-re-agon – Snapper Island
  • Bayinguwa or ba-ing-hoe – Garden Island
  • Be-lang-le-wool – Clarke Island
  • Coodyee – Millers Point
  • Cookaroo or Cockaroo – Royal Botanic Gardens
  • Gong-ul – Spectacle Island
  • Goudjoulgang or Pannerong – Rose Bay
  • Kiarabily or Ciar Billie – Kirribilli
  • Kogerrah or Kogarah – Rushcutters Bay
  • Memel – Goat Island
  • Pirrama – Pyrmont
  • Talla-wo-la-dah – The Rocks
  • Waalamool or Walla-mool – Woolloomooloo Bay
  • Warinyama or Wa-rea-mah – Cockatoo Island
  • Willara – Woollahra Point
  • Yaranabe or Eurambie – Darling Point

Aboriginal words – for some common nouns

  • badagarang – eastern grey kangaroo
  • badangi – Sydney rock oyster
  • barani – yesterday
  • bara – fish hook
  • baruwaluwu – dolphin
  • binyang – bird
  • bubuk – boobook owl
  • bulga – hill (or green)
  • bunda – hawk
  • burra – eel
  • buruwang gaba – island
  • daringyan – stingray
  • dingu – dingo
  • duwal – spear (short, with two barbs)
  • dyiral – shoal water
  • gadyan – Sydney cockle
  • gamai – spear (general name)
  • ganing – cave
  • garradjun – fishing line made from bark
  • garrigarrang – sea
  • gawura – whale
  • girra girra – seagull
  • gunya – dwelling made by people
  • guru – deep water
  • marrang – sand or beach
  • ngurra – camp
  • nawi – canoe
  • wulumay – snapper
  • walumil – Port Jackson shark
  • waragal – mackerel
  • wirambi – bat
  • wulaba – rock wallaby
  • wumbat – wombat
  • yara – crab

Further reading

Attenbrow, Val, ‘Aboriginal placenames around Port Jackson and Botany Bay, New South Wales, Australia’, in Hercus, Luise Anna and Koch, Harold James 2009, Aboriginal placenames: naming and re-naming the Australian landscape, ANU E Press and Aboriginal History Inc, Canberra

State Library of NSW, Rediscovering Indigenous Languages website, indigenous.sl.nsw.gov.au

Steele, Jeremy Macdonald 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, published MA thesis, Macquarie University

Troy, Jakelin 1994, The Sydney Language, AIATSIS, Canberra

Troy, Jakelin and Walsh, Michael, ‘Reinstating Aboriginal placenames around Port Jackson and Botany Bay’, in Hercus, Luise Anna and Koch, Harold James 2009, Aboriginal placenames: naming and re-naming the Australian landscape, ANU E Press and Aboriginal History Inc, Canberra