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12. Valedictory

Wilfrid Henry Douglas (died 22 March 2004, aged 86)

His son Rob Douglas writes: Decades before Mabo and the word “Land Rights” had become commonplace in Australia, Wilf Douglas was asked for help in identifying sacred sites between Laverton and the WA-NT border. The Irish-born missionary, linguist and Bible translator replied in characteristic fashion with the words: “Every square inch of land in that area is sacred”.

It was such high respect for the Aboriginal people, their culture and their language that set Mr Douglas apart and was a feature of more than 60 years tireless work, learning and understanding Aboriginal languages, and the people who spoke them. Years spent sitting on the ground in dusty Aboriginal reserves and camps around Australia resulted in significant technical studies being produced of languages as varied as the Western Desert languages of Central Australia, the Nyoongah language of the South West of WA and the Watjarri language of the Murchison region of WA. Although he never went to high school, Mr Douglas lectured in universities and mentored PhD students. Beyond technical studies he felt a deep and lasting duty to share the Christian Gospel wi=top>  

After his first attempts at learning Nyoongah at the West Australian wheatbelt siding of Badjaling at the age of 21 and a stint in the army, Mr Douglas, his wife Beth and baby son John, found themselves in the Kimberley with the United Aborigines Mission and it was while they were working on Sunday Island at the mouth of the King Sound that he succeeded in his first stumbling attempts at translating the Bible into Bardi. This interest in linguistics attracted opposition from some who believed that such an emphasis on Aboriginal languages would “take the people back to heathenism”, but Mr Douglas persisted at linguistic courses conducted by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Sydney University to expand his new found linguistic skills.



The mission asked the Douglas family in 1951 to work at their mission station at Ooldea, a railway siding between Port Augusta and Cook on the Transline in South Australia. Here he made his first serious breakthrough in understanding what he described as the Western Desert language, eventually producing a grammar and phonology for what had previously been an unwritten language.

From the sandhills of Ooldea, came a move to Warburton Ranges in the central desert, where major works were achieved including an Introduction to the Western Desert Language (pub. Sydney Univ. 1957) and an Illustrated Topical Dictionary of the Western Desert Language, (1959).

Wilf was a regular tutor, and for some years Principal, of SIL training courses in Melbourne and later Brisbane. In 1966 he attended Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Course in Mexico which enriched his own skills and enabled him to check with translations into Central and South American languages.

Only a fortnight before his death, the second edition of the Illustrated Dictionary of the South West Language was published by a valued colleague, Dr Toby Metcalfe. In 2001, Mr Douglas had been presented the Bible Society’s Elizabeth Macquarie Award for his lifelong services to translation. It reads in part: “Many Aboriginal Bible translations owe their existence to his dedicated enthusiasm and many Bible translators owe their skills to his faithful teaching.”