Sunday Tribune - - WORLD - Ust­edes no saben lo que han he­cho por mi madre. Le han in­su­flado vida. (You don’t know what you have done for my mother. You have breathed life into her). |

THE Patag­o­nian desert in south­ern Ar­gentina is a harsh en­vi­ron­ment. Lit­tle seems to thrive on its seem­ingly end­less red plains and parched land. Yet in this un­likely place there is a unique bilin­gual com­mu­nity. It’s made up of the Afrikaans and Span­ish-speak­ing de­scen­dants of the about 650 South African Boers, who came to Patag­o­nia in the first decade of the 20th cen­tury.

The Boers trace their ori­gins to the Dutch pop­u­la­tion that set­tled on the south­ern tip of Africa in the 17th cen­tury. They came into con­flict with the Bri­tish Em­pire as it ex­panded in the re­gion, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Sec­ond An­globoer War of 1899-1902. Many Boers, un­will­ing to ac­cept Bri­tish rule, then sought to re­lo­cate else­where, in­clud­ing Ar­gentina.

The first Boer gen­er­a­tions in Patag­o­nia eked out an iso­lated liv­ing. But a cul­tural shift be­gan in the 1950s as the set­tlers in­creased con­tact with nearby com­mu­ni­ties in Sarmiento and Co­modoro Ri­va­davia. To­day, older mem­bers of the com­mu­nity – those over 60 years of age – still speak Afrikaans, though their dom­i­nant lan­guage is Span­ish. As the younger gen­er­a­tions, which only speak Span­ish, be­come fully in­te­grated into Ar­gen­tine so­ci­ety, the bilin­gual com­mu­nity is quickly dis­ap­pear­ing.

To many, Patag­o­nian Afrikaans is a relic of the past. Against the odds, how­ever, a re­nais­sance has be­gun.

As part of this, a project at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, ti­tled “From Africa to Patag­o­nia: Voices of Dis­place­ment”, is con­duct­ing in­no­va­tive re­search on the Patag­o­nian Boers and their two lan­guages.

The value of study­ing this ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mu­nity is hard to over­state. The Patag­o­nian Afrikaans di­alect, spo­ken nowhere else, pre­serves el­e­ments of Afrikaans from be­fore 1925, when the South African gov­ern­ment recog­nised it as an of­fi­cial lan­guage.

It thus pro­vides a unique win­dow on to the his­tory of Afrikaans from a pe­riod be­fore its di­alec­tal va­ri­eties were re­duced through stan­dard­i­s­a­tion.

The team is gath­er­ing data about a pe­riod in the de­vel­op­ment of Afrikaans for which there is scant oral or writ­ten tes­ti­mony.

The project’s archive of oral in­ter­views al­lows one to an­a­lyse the com­plex re­la­tion­ships among the com­mu­nity’s lan­guage, cul­ture and bilin­gual iden­tity. It also pro­vides data for fu­ture projects by re­searchers.


Since the com­mu­nity had been liv­ing out­side of South Africa for over a cen­tury, the dis­ap­pear­ance of its fore­fa­thers’ her­itage seemed in­evitable.

By the late 1980s, ob­servers char­ac­terised the com­mu­nity as vir­tu­ally “ex­tinct”. Yet over the past two decades there has been a resur­gence of in­ter­est in pro­mot­ing the Boers’ unique cul­tural iden­tity. This has in­cluded ac­quir­ing space to house a cul­tural cen­tre and mu­seum. Once-dead tra­di­tions, such as an an­nual games fes­ti­val, have also been re­vived.

This re­newed in­ter­est has not been lim­ited to the com­mu­nity. In 1995, an­thro­pol­o­gist Brian du Toit pub­lished Colo­nia Boer, the first aca­demic his­tory of the set­tle­ment. In 2002, jour­nal­ists Lil­iana Per­alta and María Morón pro­filed the com­mu­nity in En las tier­ras del viento, úl­tima trav­esía boer (In the Lands of Wind: The Last Boer Trek).

In 2015, the com­mu­nity was show­cased in a doc­u­men­tary, The Boers at the End of the World, which won three South African Film and Tele­vi­sion Awards and sparked sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est.

And the com­mu­nity has con­tin­ued to at­tract at­ten­tion from re­searchers. But its unique­ness has re­quired an in­no­va­tive re­search method.

The cur­rent project in­volves a team of more than 40 pro­fes­sors, post-doc­toral re­searchers and stu­dents at all lev­els. They come from a wide range of fields, in­clud­ing lin­guis­tics, his­tory, an­thro­pol­ogy, lit­er­a­ture and re­li­gious stud­ies.

Over the course of two re­search trips, nearly 100 in­ter­views with com­mu­nity mem­bers were con­ducted in Afrikaans and Span­ish.

The in­ter­views pro­vide a rich cor­pus of lin­guis­tic data as well as new ev­i­dence about the de­ter­mi­na­tive role of lan­guage, iden­tity, re­li­gion and racial ide­olo­gies in the in­te­gra­tion of the Boer set­tlers in Ar­gentina.

The com­mu­nity is, in a way, like a time cap­sule, re­flect­ing pro­nun­ci­a­tion and syn­tax from an ear­lier era. For ex­am­ple, the Afrikaans word for nine – “nege” – is pro­nounced “niege” in mod­ern South Africa, but with a hard “g”, as ni g , in Patag­o­nia.

At the same time, some el­e­ments are su­perbly mod­ern, in­clud­ing vo­cab­u­lary adapted for the 21st cen­tury. For ex­am­ple, an air­port is not, as in mod­ern South Africa, a “lughawe”, which is a word that did not ex­ist when the com­mu­nity first dis­em­barked in Ar­gentina. It is a “vlieg­tu­igstasie” (lit­er­ally “aero­plane sta­tion”), a com­pound word coined by the com­mu­nity.

The project has sparked in­ter­est among lin­guists in Europe and South Africa, and has also led to deep per­sonal con­nec­tions in Patag­o­nia – es­pe­cially with the younger gen­er­a­tions.

The chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the older com­mu­nity mem­bers re­sponded to the re­search team’s visit in 2014 by seek­ing out a teacher to of­fer on­line classes in Afrikaans. The team has since made it a goal that the broader pub­lic come to view this com­mu­nity as its mem­bers do: not as a faded relic of the past, but as a group that con­tin­ues to thrive in spite of a trans­formed so­cio-cul­tural land­scape.

The rel­e­vance of this project be­came clear ear­lier this year dur­ing a sec­ond re­search trip. At one point, the re­search team in­vited three cousins to con­verse solely in Afrikaans, in­clud­ing Re­becka Dick­a­son, who spoke only Afrikaans un­til the age of 10. Dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, her Span­ish-speak­ing daugh­ter, Tecky, wit­nessed a change in her mother’s de­meanour. Re­becka was smil­ing and ges­tur­ing as she con­versed com­fort­ably in her orig­i­nal na­tive tongue.

It was a pow­er­ful mo­ment for Tecky, who thanked the team af­ter­wards with tears in her eyes, giv­ing a new sense of vi­tal­ity and hope:


AFRIKANER de­scen­dants rep­re­sent­ing Ar­gentina, South Africa to­day and the coun­try’s old flag. |

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