South Africa: Language and Identity – Lessons From a Unique Afrikaans Community in Patagonia

Photo: The Boers at the End of the World

In a distant stretch of Patagonia, Argentina, there’s a household – the Dickasons – who communicate a language from a rustic 7,000km to the east. They are a part of a 114-year-old Afrikaans Boer group – settlers of South African Dutch descent who sailed throughout the ocean after the destruction of a warfare with the British. Today, lower than 50 nonetheless communicate the language and so they wrestle to maintain their tradition alive. Patriarch “Ty” Dickason, 82, is a cowboy who has by no means flown in a airplane – and but he yearns to at some point go to the nation of his blood before he and his compatriots move away.
This a number of South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA)-winning documentary is a portrait of the final days of the group – a parallel world the place Afrikaans was by no means linked to Apartheid – and one household’s journey to reconnect with South Africa.


The Patagonian desert in southern Argentina is a harsh atmosphere. Little appears to thrive on its seemingly countless pink plains and parched land. Yet on this unlikely place there’s a distinctive bilingual group. It’s made up of the Afrikaans and Spanish-speaking descendants of the about 650 South African Boers, who got here to Patagonia within the first decade of the 20th century.

The Boers hint their origins to the Dutch inhabitants that settled on the southern tip of Africa within the seventeenth century. They got here into battle with the British Empire because it expanded within the area, culminating within the Second Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902. Many Boers, unwilling to simply accept British rule, then sought to relocate elsewhere, including Argentina.

The first Boer generations in Patagonia eked out an remoted dwelling. But a cultural shift started within the 1950s because the settlers elevated contact with close by communities in Sarmiento and Comodoro Rivadavia. Today, older members of the group – these over 60 – nonetheless communicate Afrikaans, although their dominant language is Spanish. As the youthful generations, which solely communicate Spanish, change into totally built-in into Argentine society, the bilingual group is rapidly disappearing.

To many, Patagonian Afrikaans is a relic of the previous. Against the percentages, nevertheless, a renaissance has begun.

As a part of this, our project on the University of Michigan, entitled “From Africa to Patagonia: Voices of Displacement”, is conducting modern analysis on the Patagonian Boers and their two languages. The worth of learning this extraordinary group is tough to overstate.

The Patagonian Afrikaans dialect, spoken nowhere else, preserves components of Afrikaans from before 1925, when the South African government recognised it as an official language. It thus gives a singular window onto the historical past of Afrikaans from a interval before its dialectal varieties had been lowered via standardisation.

Our team is gathering information a few interval within the improvement of Afrikaans for which there’s scant oral or written testimony. Our archive of oral interviews permits us to analyse the advanced relationships among the many group’s language, tradition and bilingual identification. It additionally gives information for future initiatives by researchers.

Time capsule?

Since the group had been dwelling exterior of South Africa for over a century, the disappearance of its forefathers’ heritage appeared inevitable. By the late 1980s, observers characterised the group as just about “extinct”. Yet during the last twenty years there was a resurgence of curiosity in selling the Boers’ distinctive cultural identification. This has included buying house to deal with a cultural centre and museum. Once-dead traditions, such as an annual games competition, have additionally been revived.

This renewed curiosity has not been restricted to the group. In 1995, anthropologist Brian du Toit revealed Colonia Boer, the first educational historical past of the settlement. In 2002, journalists Liliana Peralta and María Morón profiled the group in En las tierras del viento, última travesía boer (In the Lands of Wind: The Last Boer Trek). In 2015, the group was showcased in a documentary, The Boers on the End of the World (dir. Richard Gregory), which gained three South African Film and Television Awards and sparked significant worldwide curiosity.

And the group has continued to draw consideration from researchers. But its uniqueness has required an modern analysis technique. During the filming of Boers, our team was concurrently gathering information in Argentina. We clearly noticed the necessity to work throughout educational disciplines to doc the group’s number of Afrikaans and take full account of its dynamic socio-linguistic and cultural context.

Our challenge entails a team of greater than 40 professors, post-doctoral researchers and college students in any respect ranges. They come from a variety of fields, including linguistics, historical past, anthropology, literature and non secular research. Over the course of two analysis journeys, we performed practically 100 interviews with group members in Afrikaans and Spanish.

The interviews present a wealthy corpus of linguistic information in addition to new proof in regards to the determinative position of language, identification, faith and racial ideologies within the integration of the Boer settlers in Argentina.

The group is, in a method, like a time capsule, reflecting pronunciation and syntax from an earlier period. For instance, the Afrikaans phrase for 9 – “nege” – is pronounced niəxə in trendy South Africa, however with a tough “g”, as niəgə, in Patagonia.

At the identical time, some components are beautifully trendy, including vocabulary tailored for the 21st century. For instance, an airport shouldn’t be, as in trendy South Africa, a “lughawe”, which is a phrase that didn’t exist when the group first disembarked in Argentina. It is a “vliegtuigstasie” (actually “aeroplane station”), a compound phrase coined by the group.

Future progress

Our work has sparked curiosity amongst linguists in Europe and South Africa, and in addition led to deep private connections in Patagonia – particularly with the youthful generations.

The kids and grandchildren of the older group members responded to our 2014 go to by searching for out a trainer to supply on-line courses in Afrikaans. We have since made it our goal {that a} broader public come to view this group as its members do: not as a light relic of the previous, however as a gaggle that continues to thrive despite a remodeled socio-cultural panorama.

The relevance of this challenge grew to become clear to us earlier this year throughout our second analysis journey. At one level, we invited three cousins to converse solely in Afrikaans, including Rebecka Dickason, who spoke solely Afrikaans till the age of 10. During the dialog, her Spanish-speaking daughter, Tecky, witnessed a change in her mom’s manner. Rebecka was smiling and gesturing as she conversed comfortably in her unique native tongue.

It was a robust second for Tecky, who thanked us afterwards with tears in her eyes, giving a brand new sense of vitality and hope: Ustedes no saben lo que han hecho por mi madre. Le han insuflado vida (You do not know what you will have completed for my mom. You have breathed life into her).

Ellie Johandes and Myrna Cintrón-Valentín contributed to the article.

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