The Afrikaans Language

Afrikaans is a language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Namibia. In Namibia it was previously an official language, being replaced by English after independence in 1990. According to the 2001 Namibian Census there are just over 200,000 Afrikaans speakers. In South Africa Afrikaans is currently one of eleven official languages. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of Afrikaans speakers to be just under 6 million, making it the third largest language group. Afrikaans speakers predominate in two South African provinces – the Western Cape and the Northern Cape. Significant numbers of Afrikaans speakers can however be found in all provinces. The cities with the largest concentrations of Afrikaans speakers are Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. There are also small concentrations of Afrikaans speakers in neighbouring states – notably Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique. In recent years a considerable number of Afrikaans speakers have migrated to other countries, particularly Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Afrikaans is generally classed as a West Germanic Indo-European language, descended from Low Franconian. It is therefore most closely related to Dutch (in the Netherlands) and Vlaams (in Belgium). The language traces its origins to the Dutch settlement of the Cape of Good Hope (the region around Cape Town) in the years after 1652.

As Dutch speakers came into contact with other language speakers, "Cape Dutch" increasingly diverged from its European counterpart. There is however considerable debate among linguists over the manner in which this process occurred. At the heart of the debate is the historical significance of non-European languages in the development of Afrikaans. These were the languages of the slave communities at the Cape: the indigenous Khoi and San languages, as well as Malay. In terms of grammatical structure the language has many characteristics in common with Creole languages in other former European colonies. On the other hand a very high proportion of the vocabulary is clearly related to Dutch. Afrikaans can therefore best be described as a semi-Creole.

Afrikaans is not quite mutually intelligible with Dutch, but speakers of each language can acquire the other with relative ease. Afrikaans is grammatically far simpler than Dutch and vocabulary items are generally truncated in a clearly patterned manner (e.g. vogel = voël (bird); regen => reën (rain)). There is also considerable evidence to suggest that Afrikaans has developed through contact with English in South Africa. Similarly, South African English vocabulary bears the hallmark of Afrikaans influence, as evidenced by words such as braai (barbecue), bakkie (pickup truck) and tekkies (trainers). A number of Afrikaans words have also become established in British and American English, notably "veld" and "trek." Examples of phrases in the language include: Hullo (hello); Hoe gaan dit? (How are you?); Ek is goed (I am fine). The relative linguistic proximity of English and Afrikaans is evident in the following sentence, which reads identically in both languages: “My pen is in my hand.”

Afrikaans remained a predominantly spoken language until the twentieth century. There is evidence to suggest that Afrikaans was first codified by Cape Muslims. One of the earliest Afrikaans texts was Bayaan-ud-djyn, an Islamic tract written in Arabic Script by Abu Bakr. The first Afrikaans language movement is nevertheless traced to Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners [the Fraternity of True Afrikaners], which was founded in Paarl in 1875. From this time onwards the term "Afrikaner" began to take on a narrower association with "white Afrikaans speakers." The desire to develop a distinct literary tradition in Afrikaans grew with the establishment of the two Boer Republics, the subsequent war with the English and the emergence of Afrikaner nationalism.

With the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, Dutch was granted official status alongside English. The Dutch language taught in schools nevertheless differed considerably from the spoken language used by most "Dutch" speakers. Consequently, the movement advocating the establishment of Afrikaans as an alternative written medium grew considerably after the unification of the state in 1910. In 1925 Afrikaans obtained official recognition, when it was subsumed under Dutch by an Act of Parliament. The Bible was translated into Afrikaans in 1933. Between 1925 and 1948 Afrikaans developed rapidly as both a literary medium and a medium of science and technology. By 1948, when the predominantly Afrikaans speaking National Party took power, there were four Afrikaans speaking Universities. After 1948 the language became increasingly tainted through its association with apartheid. The Soweto uprising of 1976 was, in part, a response to the Government's attempt to assert Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools.

Although Afrikaans retained its status as an official language following the democratic election of 1994, the official recognition of eleven indigenous languages has had serious consequences for the public status of Afrikaans. The decline of Afrikaans as a public sector medium has not, however, been matched by a significant increase in the use of African languages. Rather, English has increasingly been established as the dominant lingua franca and medium of public discourse. This has produced considerable consternation and debate within Afrikaans speaking circles over the future development of the language. The decline of the language in the public sector medium has to some extent been counteracted by its growth in the private sphere. Relative to the African languages, Afrikaans remains a highly developed economic medium. By way of an example, the Afrikaans speaking market for music is larger than its South African English counterpart.

There has also been considerable debate on the linguistic identity of Afrikaans speakers. Although apartheid is historically associated with white Afrikaner nationalism, more than 50% of current Afrikaans speakers are not classed as white. Most of these are "coloured" Afrikaans speakers living in the Western Cape and Northern Cape. While many white Afrikaans speakers still refer to themselves as "Afrikaners", there are a growing number of people who prefer the terms "Afrikaanses" or "Afrikaanssprekendes" (Afrikaans speakers). This debate is fuelled by deep class inequality within the Afrikaans speaking community, and within the country as a whole.

Famous Afrikaans speakers include: the former president and Nobel laureate, F.W. de Klerk; the pioneering heart transplant surgeon, Chris Barnard; and the golfer, Ernie Els.

For translation services into this language please visit > South African Languages Translation Service.

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