Participate in an online community while researching cultural heritage

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The regional language, ranging from local dialects to an iconic accent, is an important part of cultural heritage and identity. Therefore, dialects and accents are also important to many online communities. This article is about one such community: the Brabant people who engage online with their regional language.

The regional language, ranging from local dialects to an iconic accent, is an important part of cultural heritage and identity.

As a teacher of linguistic and cultural diversity, I participate in this online community to share my expertise on linguistic variation and cultural heritage. Yet, at the same time, I also do research within the community and tap into the knowledge of the participants to acquire new knowledge about their regional language and pass it on to the community.

Political work for a regional language community

By working on a new regional language policy for the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant as part of an external research chair with the Department of Cultural Studies at Tilburg University – which is funded by this same province -, one thing became very clear: it was necessary to find new ways to connect volunteers, professionals and other people interested in Brabant and to keep them involved through new media. In my conviction, to achieve this objective, the policy had to be centered on the regional language in the broadest spectrum; from regional accents to “old” local dialects.

The regional language is important because it connects the groups of our societies to the geographical space, that is to say the region or the place that they associate with this language. A regional linguistic community is therefore built on a feeling of belonging: feeling at home in Noord-Brabant.

A regional linguistic community is therefore built on a feeling of belonging: feeling at home in Noord-Brabant.

We needed to come up with approaches that could help preserve a regional language, raise awareness of its value, and empower the community of regional language speakers. In this sense, the new policy aimed to improve the image and prestige of Brabant, to increase knowledge of Brabant and to strengthen the underlying knowledge network. We believed that these goals could be pursued through professionalization and digitization, developing a knowledge network and doing research, and through rejuvenation, talent development and platform provision. This may sound rather abstract, which is why I’m going to talk about some of our work.

A new community

In May 2021, the heritage advisers of Erfgoed Brabant (the cultural heritage foundation of the provincial authorities) and I launched ‘Brabanders en hun taal’ (the Brabantons and their language). “Brabanders en hun taal” contains a Facebook group, an e-mail newsletter and a twitter account. Additionally, we host bi-weekly publicly accessible sessions in Microsoft Teams, in which we talk about the value of native language, arts and regional language, document dialects and more, and in which we present performances, presentations or lectures.

In the Facebook group, community members post questions about dialects and humorous stories, poems or memes in dialect. Age does not seem to be a threshold; older members are not afraid to join. It may be a small advantage of the calamity called Covid; nowadays, we are all used to digital communication.

Some of the members of “Brabanders en hun taal” are old acquaintances, such as amateurs who work on a dialect dictionary or singers who interpret a work in dialect. Often, these “experienced” language lovers already know each other at events such as festivals or competitions. But the majority of Brabants who now choose to get involved in their language on social networks were unknown to us. Experience or not, just the will to get involved and share an interest is enough to be part of this community (cf. Blommaert & Varis (2013) on ‘enough’).

Add and retrieve knowledge

As a scholar, I often answer questions and add information to ‘Brabanders en hun taal’ social media discussions. But being part of such a community also provides opportunities for citizen science (Ciolfi et al. 2017). All the members of such a network provide very valuable complementary knowledge. Each member has their own interests and expertise and is willing to exchange knowledge and experiences.

And even more: opportunities for online interaction could allow groups and individuals to exercise more power over research. For example, by proposing new objectives or directions for research — in the case of this research; suggesting that we ensure that Brabantian survives as a regional language – or by providing new contextual information. In this sense, cultural heritage research within online communities could be transformed into empowerment research (Cameron et al., 2020).

In June 2021, colleagues from Erfgoed Brabant and I studied the knowledge of certain agricultural terminologies as part of Erfgoed Brabant’s thematic months on farm life and dialects, and in July 2022 I tested the knowledge of certain ethnozoological terms, within the framework of Erfgoed Brabant’s theme. -month on Nature, Landscape and Dialects. Using the affordances of Facebook and Instagram, we also engaged followers of Erfgoed Brabant’s social media accounts, who share an interest in local history and folklore.

We posted photos of agricultural subjects (barbed wire, rakes, etc.) and birds and asked what they were called in the dialects of our subscribers. With the answers, made up of answers (dialectal word) and place names (localization of the word), we were able to compare the current situation of ethnolinguistic knowledge with previous documentation, for example data from the 1930s to 1960s from databases data from the Meertens Institute (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences KNAW) in Amsterdam.

The results of these small surveys have been shared via social media and have been or will be published on the Brabants Erfgoed website and in an edited volume of the Meertens Institute (Van Oostendorp & Wolff 2022).

In this way, we have returned the knowledge accumulated on these topics to the participants and integrated it into this two-way online exchange of heritage participation. We made the knowledge available to the online community by drawing on the knowledge of individual participants from that same community, which strongly reinforced these small studies but also the interest of our individual participants.

“Brabanders en hun taal” connects a large number of people with common interests in the regional language and culture, offers many opportunities to contribute and participate, and stimulates citizen science. The main objectives of the new regional language policy in Noord-Brabant have not yet been achieved, but a first step has been taken; a growing online community of Brabançons displays their appreciation of Brabant on social media and, in doing so, contributes to the preservation and development of the regional language.

References

Blommaert, J. & P. ​​Varis (2013) Enough is enough. The heuristic of authenticity in superdiversity. In J. Duarte & I. Gogolin (eds) Linguistic superdiversity in urban settings (pp. 143-158). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cameron, D., Richardson, K., Frazer, E., Harvey, P. and Rampton, MBH (2020). Language search. Taylor and Francois.

Ciolfi, L., A. Damala, E. Honecker, M. Lechner, L. Maye (eds) (2017) Cultural heritage communities. Technologies and challenges. London: Routledge.

Oostendorp, M. van & S. Wolff (eds.) (2022) Het Dialectendoebook. De schatkamer van 90 jaar Meertens Institute. Gorredijk: Sterck and De Vreese.

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