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Last Words

LSA researchers work to document a lesser-known version of the Afrikaans language before the last generation of speakers is gone.
by Brian Short

This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

It’s an early morning in June in Comodoro Rivadavia, a coastal city in eastern Argentina about halfway between Montevideo and Cape Horn. The city grew by about 50,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, and the next census could reflect even more. The air is brisk, the waves white-topped. Three LSA linguists — professors Nicholas Henriksen, Lorenzo García-Amaya, and Andries Coetzee — are in their hotel rooms preparing for the day.

Coetzee gets coffee for the team. García-Amaya always gets a double espresso, and he taught Coetzee, the only non-Spanish speaker on the trip, how to order one. When Coetzee shows up with coffees in hand, that’s the signal for the rest of the team that it’s time to go.  

The three researchers load into a car and drive three hours west, deep into the Patagonian foothills where there’s not much around except long-haul delivery trucks and wide fields dotted with pumpjacks bobbing their heads up and down as they draw oil from the ground. 

“You can’t really call them roads, when you get far enough up there,” says García-Amaya, an assistant professor of Romance languages and literatures, of the rutted ground the team’s car bumped across. “It’s really like flattened earth. You look for the places where the grass is worn away and you drive there.” 

While they’re in the car, the group plans out their day: who they’re going to talk to, what data they’ll be searching for. Then, finally, they arrive at their destination, a small village in the central corridor of Patagonia: Sarmiento. 


Castalina Dickason (top image), holding a portrait of her ancestor on horseback, and Agustin Dickason (above) are members of a community of Afrikaans speakers living in Patagonia. They are the descendants of people who initially immigrated from South Africa to South America after the turn of the century.

For over a hundred years, Sarmiento has been home to a number of Afrikaner families whose grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to Argentina from South Africa after the turn of the century. Sarmiento’s linguistic situation is unique. Because the community was isolated for 50 years, their language didn’t change in the typical pattern most immigrant communities follow. And because the group left Africa before Afrikaans was standardized, the language they speak is different in many ways than the version of the language spoken in South Africa today. 

The slow adoption of Spanish as a standard spoken language, the archaic form of spoken Afrikaans that the community speaks, and other factors make the community a treasure trove of linguistic data that the professors are analyzing with support from LSA’s Humanities Collaboratory. 

But time is running out to document this unique variety of Afrikaans. 

“This community lived in isolation for about 50 years,” says Henriksen, an associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, “and they’ve spent another 50-plus years assimilating. Usually, right away in communities like this, there’s integration. Here it’s taken a lot longer, and that has allowed us to communicate with them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with typical third-generation speakers. 

“But the generation that is now between 60 and 90 years old are the last ones to speak this older form of Afrikaans. There are only about 40 of them left, and we wanted to meet and record as many of them as we could while we still can.”


In 1902, about 600 Afrikaans-speaking families fled unrest in Africa to settle in Patagonia. Two years later, half of them went back. 

British and Boer colonies in southern Africa were in conflict throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. As the British moved into the south, many Boers moved north, eventually discovering diamonds and gold in the areas where they settled and lived until 1899, when more than 400,000 British troops fought against the much smaller Boer army. The British eventually took control of two areas the Boers had occupied: the Orange Free State and South African Republic.

In 1902, when a formal peace was struck between British and Boer authorities, 600 Afrikaans-speaking families left Africa for South America. The Argentinian government had promised fertile farmland to entice disaffected Boers to settle across the Atlantic, but the land they found when they got there was dry and difficult to farm. About half of the original 600 colonists eventually returned to South Africa. The rest remained, and persevered.

The Boer colonists spent their first 50 years in Patagonia in relative isolation, which meant their linguistic evolution didn’t follow the typical pattern linguists see in immigrant communities.

Typically immigrant communities lose their language in about three generations. The first generation speaks the native language fluently. The second generation is usually still fluent because they speak it at home. The third generation knows a few words, but mostly speaks in the language of the larger community or society. But since the Boers were isolated for their first 50 years, that typical three-generation process has lasted five generations, leaving a community who speaks an archaic form of the language. After a century of living in a new land, the community is a kind of linguistic time capsule.

“They didn’t begin to speak Spanish until industry came to the area,” says Coetzee, a professor in LSA’s Department of Linguistics and director of U-M’s African Studies Center. “Then there was mining and drilling and suddenly they needed Spanish.”

The research team has been able to document the way economic factors have fueled a new pattern of language assimilation. The community is also the only place in the world where communities of Afrikaans and Spanish speakers have come into direct contact with each other, and the ways in which the languages have affected and influenced each other are absolutely unique.  

The community’s amalgam of identities — African and South American, Boer and Argentine — also created a unique social environment. The conversations that the team was having with members of the community touched on powerful ideas about race, culture, history, religion, community, connection, and personal identity. These stories were fascinating, but they were also far beyond these professors’ expertise as language specialists. The group began to wonder what they could do to take advantage of the data they were collecting, and how they could expand their project to include research on regional culture, national histories, and religious studies.

One thing was clear: They needed a bigger team.


Thenis “Ty” Dickason (left) and his brother Osvaldo (right) were featured in the 2015 documentary Boers at the End of the World, which recorded the community and the LSA research team’s efforts to study the version of Afrikaans still spoken in Patagonia.

The team brought on two additional LSA faculty members and a graduate student to help explain and explore the in-depth interviews they were collecting: linguistic anthropology Ph.D. candidate Joshua Shapero; Paulina Alberto, professor of history and Romance languages, who researches racial identity and race relations in Argentina; and Ryan Szpiech, professor of Romance languages and Judaic studies, who offered insights into the community’s Dutch Reformed Church traditions — especially as they interacted with predominantly Catholic Argentinians.

Alberto and Szpiech have worked to help the linguists craft more directed and thorough interviews with community members, and the interviews themselves have become source material for new research by Alberto and Szpiech.

“In the beginning, I kind of thought that my role would be a little more contained,” Alberto says. “I thought I would point out a few things that the team could think about and give them a few reading suggestions. But the more I read the documents and the more I listened to the transcripts, the more interested I became in the ways that the community talked about their own and other people’s races and identities, and how these ways of describing themselves and others changed over time. And I thought, that’s great. That’s really the stuff that I’m interested in.”

“The Dutch Reformed Church, the Calvinist Afrikaans church most community members belong to, is pretty conservative,” Szpiech says. “And in the middle of this sea of Catholicism, it’s really the only group like this in all of South America. I expected them to be kind of like this island apart from their neighbors, but they’re really hybrids. Most of the younger generations are losing the Dutch Reformed Church’s view, and that was really unexpected.”

To support this larger research group and a set of even more ambitious project goals, the team applied to and was awarded a spot in LSA’s Humanities Collaboratory. The Humanities Collaboratory supports multidisciplinary projects touching on various areas of the humanities that look for innovative ways to conduct and communicate scholarship. The Humanities Collaboratory provides a walk-in office and lab space on the first floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library and two years’ worth of project funding.

With Alberto’s help, the linguistics group crafted a new approach and a new set of questions to take back for another round of interviews in Patagonia. The group used archival material, pulling out quotes and photos and newspaper clippings from the settlement’s early years to prompt more fully developed reflections from members of the community. And almost immediately, it became clear that the collaboration was producing more together than it could have separately.

“I was interested in designing questions that would help make visible some of the internal, tacit assumptions that people sometimes have about people from other ethnic or cultural groups,” Alberto says. “Thanks to the fact that the team filmed the interviews, and guided partly by Lorenzo [García-Amaya], whose work has to do with the quality of people’s intonations and hesitations, you can really see when they’re pausing, when something is really hard to explain. And that’s something that a historian might have a harder time seeing if it were just a printed source.”

“The community isn’t monolithic,” Coetzee says. “They don’t have one conclusion about their identities as Afrikaners or Argentinians, but identity is very important to all of them. They are all of them actively working to make sense of it.”


LSA professors Andries Coetzee (second from left), Lorenzo García-Amaya (third from right), and Nicholas Henriksen (second from right) sharing a meal with community members. “It was always coffee and dessert,” says García-Amaya. “We would have dessert five times in a day because that’s what they gave us when we visited. We always felt welcome.”


“We’re doing ten different research tasks at a time,” Henriksen says, laughing. “But if you ask any other Humanities Collaboratory team, they’re all doing ten things. What I think is unique about our project is that in addition to all of this great intellectual work, we are also trying to reimagine how we can do undergraduate education in the humanities.”

From the beginning, undergraduate students have been involved in the Humanities Collaboratory phase of the project. Students tagged, labeled, and organized linguistic data for faculty review. They processed and reported statistical results. In all, more than 30 students have contributed their time, skill, and expertise to the project, and many cite their experience as helpful or necessary to positions that they’ve since taken at Amazon, Apple, and highly competitive graduate programs. Ella Deaton (A.B. 2017), who contributed to the project before she graduated, now works as a project employee, working closely with faculty and co-writing some of the group’s papers. LSA senior Sean Lang wrote his Honors thesis on linguistic research that he did with the group — work he largely conducted on his own with the help of two other undergraduate students and under the supervision of a graduate student and faculty members.

“All of the undergraduates are doing important work and they’re all getting a chance to have responsibility,” says Lang. “Discomfort is such a cornerstone of growth. This project has meant a lot of autonomy, a lot of responsibility, and, for me, not always when I wanted it. But I think it’s a good thing to adjust to.”

“I was having trouble finding a lab position,” says LSA junior Tony Tran, who worked with the research team as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. “There were a lot of labs where you just do one thing and it’s very repetitive. And sometimes you don’t even meet the professor. I was really surprised by how close everyone was and how often I was having conversations with Nick [Henriksen] and Lorenzo [García-Amaya].”

“What makes us really different from other labs is the idea of community,” Henriksen says. “There are labs where hierarchy is necessary. But in our case, we think that it’s really important for all of us to understand the big picture. And I think that having everyone on the same page about this has really helped us do great work.

“I also think that this approach is part of what has made our students so successful after they leave,” Henriksen continues. “Employers are looking for graduates who are broad thinkers, who can work collaboratively, who can be mentored and who can also mentor others. Our students learn how to take directions from faculty. They learn how to be organized. They learn how to negotiate when they feel like the work isn’t on the right track. All of these are vital skills for success in employment and in life.”


Songs, celebrations, and religious heritage remain a part of the Afrikaans-speaking community’s life, but the language is disappearing. It is estimated that fewer than 50 speakers of this version of Afrikaans are alive today.


The research team is working to get its thoughts down on paper now, writing a series of academic articles documenting their research findings but also working to record the process of their collaborations so that other programs and teams can benefit from their expertise.

“How can this become a model for other people who are doing something similar in the humanities?” García-Amaya asks. “I don’t think we have the full answer yet. We know what worked for us, but I hope we can think about it a bit more and then extrapolate what we are doing to give some guidelines to other people.”

“Collaboration isn’t easy,” Coetzee says. “It takes conscious thinking and negotiation between all participants about the process. And in a humanities project, what you’re talking about are ideas. You have to be open to hearing those ideas, to participating in in-depth discussions, and to confronting things you’re uncomfortable with.”

“It’s really important to have outreach,” Henriksen says, “to talk to people and to make them realize what it is that we do. I think a lot of people don’t realize what we do in the humanities.

“Of course we want students to develop critical thinking skills, to be able to see beyond a text, to read something and say, ‘Well, this person said this today, but they really meant that.’ But on a higher level, the humanities are really about realizing the importance of the human experience, and we have gotten our students to do that. We have been able to give them the context to think more broadly, to expand their viewpoint beyond their own personal perspective.

“I think that sometimes gets missed in the way that the humanities gets pitched,” Henriksen says. “Because if we’re not able to have empathy toward other people, then it’s very difficult to make change.”



Photographs by Richard Finn Gregory 


Release Date: 04/25/2018
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: Anthropology; History; Linguistics; Romance Languages & Literatures; Judaic Studies; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Brian Short