Gavan Breen AO (SPC 1948-52)

February 19, 2024

Gavin Breen.

One of the nation’s most well-known linguists, Old Collegian Gavan Breen AO (SPC 1948-52) sadly passed away on 5 October 2023 in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.


Gavan was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2016 Australia Day honours list for his distinguished service to the Indigenous community through the preservation of languages, to the development of orthographies, and to education.

Gavan studied and recorded 49 such languages.

We extend our deepest condolences to Gavan’s wife Rosalie and their extended family.

John Gavan Breen was born in St Arnaud in 1934. Gavan, as he had been known throughout his life, took up residence at St Patrick’s College in 1948 after winning the Dr Ryan Scholarship. He was described in the 1951-52 College Annual as “naturally shy and of a retiring nature” and “a keen student and a model boy”. He was a member of the Sodality of Our Blessed Lady and was elected Prefect in his last year at the College.

He won a Commonwealth Scholarship but he had it deferred and returned to College. He was Dux of Leaving in 1950 and in 1952 was Dux of the College. He went on to Newman College, initially studying metallurgy but, after attending a public lecture in 1967 in which he learned that Indigenous languages were dying, Gavan decided to join the efforts of others in trying to record as many as possible before it was too late.

Gavan, pictured in the 1951-52 College Annual.

Gavan was awarded a scholarship to study his Masters in linguistics, and received grants to travel to regions of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory to research and record Indigenous languages.

Beginning in 1967 and continuing for over a decade, he recorded at least 49 Indigenous languages across three states. Around 120 Indigenous languages are still spoken in Australia, less than half of those in use at the time of European colonisation. Some of the languages now lost were recorded by Gavan Breen over the course of numerous field trips, using reel-to-reel and audio cassettes.

Although Gavan officially retired in 2001 he continued to work at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs and was still working at least 15 years later.

In 2014 his collection of field notes was digitised and made available online, becoming a free resource for descendants and part of an overall revival of Indigenous languages.

In 2015 he worked with numerous Native Title cases in Western Queensland as an expert witness and also wrote a book on some of the last speakers of the Warluwarra language from the Georgina River district in Western Queensland.

Gavan spoke about his work and how he discovered Aboriginal languages in this great story here

Gavan, pictured in his matriculation class photograph in 1952. He was also Dux of the College in his final year.

Gavan, pictured in his matriculation class in 1951. Gavan returned and completed his matriculation again in 1952, as was quite common in those days.