There’s a lot of work being done to try and preserve disappearing cultures. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that if nothing is done to preserve endangered languages, half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will be lost. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported about the imminent extinction of Boontling, a language that used to be spoken in the Boonville area of Northern California and is one of only two homegrown American dialects. Today, only 12 people still speak Boontling. Already it is estimated that more than half of the world’s present-day population communicates in only eight different languages: English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Bengali and Portuguese. And more than 3,000 languages were spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
Languages die off mostly when small native groups coming into contact with larger, more dominant groups. Elders stop speaking and passing their language down to younger generations due to both voluntary and forced assimilation. Sometimes the languages of indigenous people are forced out by intentional national policies. Other times, indigenous people, wanting to avoid standing out as separate from the majority culture, abandon their own dialects.
Many crises we face today are fundamentally cultural crises. The cultures that used to bind communities together are eroding, stripping humans of identity, a sense of self and an understanding of place and purpose. Evolution is constant, as it should be, but sometimes it seems we would do better if the transition between past, present and future was more obvious, if our cultural evolutions were more transparent and understood, and if we did more to preserve the phases we have passed through.
The desire to be more “American” can be devastating to cultures. My friend Meja Shoba is a filmmaker studying directing at UCLA. Last year she won a Fulbright Scholarship to make a documentary about the South African music group Dirty Paraffin. There is a moment in her film where one of the musicians, says “We feel like our music is going to instill a lot of confidence to a lot of kids, because a lot of kids growing up [in South Africa] they feel like if you want to rap you got to sound American.” Meja told me that one of the main reasons she wanted to make this film about Dirty Paraffin was that “their music and what they represent is very young South Africa. Their tongue and cheek lyrics reference South African concepts, culture, humor, and language. And I think it’s great that they are not trying to make themselves and their music another duplication of American culture and music, because it happens a lot in South Africa. It’s very cool to appear and seem American.”
Shoba says that because of internet, film, tv and other media platforms, its hard to ignore the pervasiveness of American culture in South Africa. And because of that, she sees South African culture being lost among the youth. “Many put a lot of effort in following the latest American fashion trends, latest music trends, American colloquialisms, and some are even guilty of trying to speak with what is called the ‘American twang.’ Because of this infatuation with America from young people, it seems to create a bit of a generation divide between the youth and their parents. Young people take less of an interest in culture at home because they don’t feel they identify with it, and parents find that their children are pursuing a culture that is not even theirs with the danger of losing local culture over time.” Older generations know well the feeling of culture loss, the fear that history will soon be written without you in it, without your generation’s contributions acknowledged or culture preserved for posterity. Shoba says a large problem resides in the adoption of American culture without the contextual understanding of that culture. She hopes that through her documentary she can help South African youth reconnect South African culture with its context, in order to give it meaning again. “Dirty Paraffin realize they live in a country that has a lot of gold in terms of language, history, and culture, and they want to use it in a way that’s relevant, interesting, and modern.”
Davis, W. (2003). Wade Davis: Dreams from endangered cultures. TED Talks.
Fagan, K. (2013). Boonville’s quirky dialect fading away. San Francisco Chronicle.
Shoba, M. (2012). Dirty Paraffin short documentary trailer. Vimeo.