The Australian equivalent of the Rosetta Stone has been discovered in a library in New South Wales. A chance find, it has led to numerous manuscripts containing ancient indigenous Australian vocabularies being put on public display for the first time.

Dr Michael Walsh of Sydney University’s Linguistics Department was browsing the library when he spotted what he thought was a large book. On closer inspection it turned out to be a box, within which was two handwritten journals kept by Charles Tyres, a colonist during the reign of Queen Victoria. On the pages of the notebooks was a guide to the native languages of Australia’s Northern Territory, which had previously been thought lost.

Just like the Rosetta Stone, the books have provided an insight into languages that are long extinct. Indeed, it was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 that allowed historians to finally decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics, as the stone featured the same passage inscribed in Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Ancient Greek. As a result, it acted as a key for scholars to read the still comprehensible Ancient Greek script to unlock the Hieroglyphics.

A linguistic treasure hunt

The discovery of the Tyres’ journals sparked a thorough search of the New South Wales (NSW) State Library, which is the oldest building of its kind in Australia. A treasure-trove of papers detailing words and phrases in numerous Aboriginal languages emerged. The resulting collection, which is on display at the library, includes examples of local indigenous languages and first-hand accounts of the settlers who helped to establish the earliest European colonies.

In total, the search has uncovered 200 documents that were previously unknown, and together these artefacts have helped to shed light on around 100 Aboriginal languages. Not only are they now helping educate historians and linguists on these forgotten languages, but they are also being taught in schools so that new generations can speak them again.

Ironically, the notes on these languages were most likely originally kept so settlers could use them to aid communication in disputes over land, as well as to make a record of their expanding landscape. Dr Walsh tells the Guardian: “One harsh view would say that the people who were collecting this stuff were colonialists who were basically intent on stealing Aboriginal land … settling the country and opening it up to pastoralism.”

Today, however, the writings will be used for far more positive means. They will help scholars to greater understand these ancient languages and will mean a permanent record is created for future generations. This is occurring at an opportune time, as according to the Australian government, 110 of the 145 indigenous languages currently spoken in Australia are critically endangered.

Languages in danger

Of course, Australia is not the only country where languages are under threat. UNESCO recently estimated that as many as half of the more than 6,000 world languages spoken today could be extinct by 2100. It is because of this that initiatives like Enduring Voices are underway to capture and record the planet’s most threatened languages so that they are not lost forever.

However, the intent of Dr Walsh and his team is not for these languages to just become museum pieces. Ronald Briggs, NSW State Library’s indigenous services librarian and assistant on the project, tells ABC News that the discovered documents are also helping people to reconnect with their culture and gain an insight into the lives of their ancestors more than a century ago.

Mr Briggs notes that for the Aboriginal people of Australia, being able to reconnect with their heritage like this is “extremely important”. He adds: “Through this project I hope that more communities are able to relearn and speak language conversationally.”

Business Insider recently reported that Australia’s Aboriginal languages are among the most at risk of extinction in the world. The country’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs has estimated that around 250 different languages were spoken across Australia prior to the arrival of white settlers in the late 18th century, but more than half of these have since become extinct. Many of those that remain are in danger, with some having only a couple of living speakers.