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Migrating Voices: Languages in Unexpected Places

Welsh PatagoniaFrom the dawn of time to the present day, we as a species have roamed the world – and not just as individuals and families, but as communities. Whether escaping unfortunate circumstances in the places we leave behind or chasing a dream away from home, we continue to move from country to country and take our languages with us.

Often these languages are lost; they integrate into their new home and don’t pass their mother tongues onto future generations. However, when the language is preserved, you end up with communities speaking languages sometimes thousands of miles from where they originate. Of course, you’ll always find communities of expats, but here are some languages you’ll find in slightly unexpected places, having survived against more dominant languages for a hundred years or more.

Patagonian Welsh

The Welsh arrived in Patagonia (the southern tip of South America) in 1865, feeling that their language and culture was under threat in Wales. They named the colony Y Wladfa Gymreig (don’t ask me how to pronounce that!), which simply means The Welsh Colony. The Welsh can be a very blunt people.

There are somewhere between 1,500 to 5,000 Welsh speakers in Patagonia today. In 2004 Welsh speakers in Argentina asked if they could have access to Welsh TV – an excellent way to improve their language skills, but hopefully they didn’t change their minds once they saw Welsh soap-opera Pobol y Cwm (People of the Valley).

Texas German

Around the same time people were leaving Wales for Patagonia, Germans were settling in Texas. Texas German mixes English with the 19th century German the original settlers would have spoken. According to Dr. Hans Boas, who is studying the language at the University of Texas, hardly any of the Texas Germans sound the same. Sadly, for a number of reasons, the number of Texas German speakers has declined and it isn’t being passed on to the younger generations, so it is near extinction.

Pennsylvania Dutch

Despite the name, Pennsylvania Dutch is actually another German dialect and has nothing to do with the Dutch language or people. “Dutch” probably comes from an older meaning of the English word, used to refer to anyone speaking a West Germanic language in Europe.

Pennsylvania Dutch isn’t just spoken in Pennsylvania – you’ll also find speakers in Ohio and Indiana, as well as Ontario, Canada. Like Texas German, it isn’t exactly like the German spoken in modern Germany and, like Texas German, it also appears to be on the decline.

Canadian GaelicScottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia

Ok, so maybe you’d expect to find Gaelic in Nova Scotia – it is called New Scotland, after all. Scottish Gaelic made its way over to Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances, when many people in the Scottish Highlands were forced out of their homes in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is mainly spoken by elderly people now, in Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada, with only a few hundred native speakers left.

To preserve or not to preserve?

There are efforts in all of these areas to keep these languages and dialects alive. Should they be supported or left to slowly fade away?