The Death of Regionalism

As advances in technology draw the corners of the globe closer than ever before, we must take a more active role in the preservation of the regional cultures and heritages that make each place unique.

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By Joanna Meng

Hearing the voices of those who once inhabited my native Brooklyn, whether through black-and-white films or old timey-recordings, I always feel as though I’m observing a conversation between aliens. I grew up surrounded by homebred New Yorkers who dropped their r’s and never mixed up merry, marry, or Mary, and yet, I’ve never been able to speak with this famous dialect. I recently took a New York Times quiz that informed me that my idiolect most closely resembles the English spoken by the inhabitants of Southern California and Kansas City, two places I’ve never visited. I find that most young people, like myself, increasingly speak an amalgamation of American dialects that lack regional nuances. In much of Louisiana, Cajun French was once spoken in nearly every household, even when it was illegal to teach in schools. Today, Cajun is faced with a slow, painful death, as the majority of its native speakers reach the end of their lives, and only the youngest and least proficient generation is left to preserve what was once a thriving language. Throughout the nation, and to some extent the world, regional cultures are diminishing in diversity as every corner of the globe is brought together by advances in communications technology. As we carry on in the 21st century and forward, we are faced with a question that has never before required an answer: how can we protect regional language and culture in a progressively more connected world?

Culture is worth protecting. It is estimated that of the world’s 7,600 odd languages, one goes extinct every three months. Languages are cultural fixtures just like any other and constitute a unique way of thinking and of interpreting the world. When the last speaker of a language dies, they take with them a complex culture, history, and piece of the human experience that can never be brought back. Cultural preservation has real, measured effects on how people live their lives. The more one identifies with a cultural background, the happier one is likely to be. It is human nature to desire a group to be a part of. But the allure of culture comes from its exclusivity, the sense that culture is one’s own. As cultural diversity decreases, so too does the benefit that culture has on one’s perception of self and general happiness. Therefore, aside from its intangible benefits, working to preserve the cultural diversity of the nation and the world has a real, positive impact on how people live their lives.

However, for such a program to be successful, it would require the support of the people. Culture is not static; it is constantly changing. There is a fine line between preserving culture and prescribing it—just ask L’Academie Francaise, the French institution responsible for preserving the Gallic language that so vehemently resists any foreign influence that it is constantly in conflict with the reality of how it is spoken. Any effort made to preserve regional culture should focus on ensuring the retention of cultural identity and allowing culture to thrive without the encroachment of modern technology, not to regulate or change culture to make it closer to what it ‘should’ be.

Despite this vital stipulation, it is incumbent on the government to protect regionalism in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Just as the Industrial Revolution changed the dynamic between man and earth in such a way that the government was forced to intervene, creating state and national parks to preserve American nature in the face of technological advancements that posed an unprecedented threat to it, the government is now responsible for protecting the regionalisms that new technology might otherwise wipe out. The government can invest in local art, theater, and music. Economic stability should be prioritized as a means of discouraging excessive movement within the nation, which removes people from their homes and dilutes the regional character of wherever they go. The government can declare sites and buildings, as well as more intangible items such as languages and dialects, as historically or culturally significant to protect them. There is clearly no shortage of paths which can be pursued in order to protect our heritage, but each day that passes is another day more and more of our nation’s regional flairs irreversibly drift away. Still, if we make the right moves, we may yet live in a world where every land has its own story, and every city is one’s own.