For ten days every March, thousands of visitors flock to the oak-lined alleys of Stellenbosch, a college town nestled in the bucolic Jonkershoek River Valley east of Cape Town. Stellenbosch is home to the Woordfees (“Festival of Words”), an arts festival celebrating the rich (if complicated) history of Afrikaans, with live music, theater productions, poetry readings, and more. This year, a team of U-M researchers, including ASC director Andries Coetzee (Linguistics, LSA), participated in the Woordfees with a screening of the award-winning documentary, Boers at the End of the World, followed by a lively Q&A session. Coetzee was accompanied by U-M colleagues Nicholas Henriksen and Lorenzo García-Amaya (Romance Languages and Literatures, LSA) and PhD student Micha Fischer (Program in Survey Methodology, ISR), as well as by Richard Gregory, the director of the documentary.
The U-M team, supported by a grant from the Humanities Collaboratory, has been documenting the linguistic and cultural practices of a 120-year old Afrikaans-speaking community in Patagonia, Argentina, since 2014. Their work has enjoyed great public interest and has been featured in the popular media in South Africa, Argentina, Europe, and the US.
At the Woordfees, the documentary was screened to a packed room of about 80 audience members, all of whom stayed for a lively 90-minute Q&A session after the screening. The discussion focused on the complicated relationship between language and identity/ethnicity, and the origins of Afrikaans in the contact between Dutch, Malay, Khoisan, and Bantu languages during the 17th-century Dutch colonial settlement of the southern tip of Africa. In modern South Africa, two distinct socio-ethnic varieties of Afrikaans are spoken, so-called “White” and “Kleurling” Afrikaans. The U-M team’s research on Patagonian Afrikaans, however, has found that this variety shares many features with both of these modern Afrikaans varieties, an observation confirmed by the audience members during the Q&A session. This points to the possibility that the White and Kleurling speech communities may have been more integrated at the onset of the 20th century—when the ancestors of the modern Patagonian Afrikaans community left South Africa—than in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.