In 2011, research suggested that the world’s 6,000 modern languages all derive from an ancestral language spoken in Africa 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. The linguistic history of Africa is difficult to track as it has always been inhabited by several thousand different ethnic groups, each with its own culture, language, religion, and history.
This blog focuses on Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa and a recognized language in Namibia. Interestingly for a language spoken in Africa, it is the only Germanic language with roots outside Europe's borders. A number of well-known people speak it, including Hollywood actress Charlize Theron and comedian Trevor Noah.
1. Afrikaans language more than diluted Dutch
Although 90% to 95% of Afrikaans is of Dutch origin, it has always incorporated bits of other languages. It can be traced all the way back to the 16th century when Dutch seafarers sailed to South Africa and met the Khoi-Khoi – an indigenous people of Southwestern Africa whose Khoisan languages are now almost extinct.
When the Dutch arrived, to be able to communicate and trade effectively both sides came up with a mutually understandable lingo. This evolved through time and became what is known today as Afrikaans - or Cape Dutch. Afrikaans also bears traces of Malay, Yiddish, French, and other languages.
2. Written and spoken Afrikaans are different
During the scramble for Africa, many battles were fought between the Dutch and British to establish a dominion over South Africa. These battles extended to the literary field whereby ‘disseminating knowledge about the region’ via books was an effective propaganda weapon. It is also through this literature that the term ‘Afrikaans’ first appeared around 1866.
This literature was a constant criticism of each other’s colonization methods, and even more so of Black Africans. To this written war, Black South Africans responded with a linguistic shield, and spoken Afrikaans followed its own path, distancing itself from the written form - considered the oppressors’ language. The written language is mutually intelligible between Dutch and Afrikaans speakers to a high degree.
3. It's Africa's third most spoken language
South Africa has 11 official languages and Afrikaans, spoken by seven million of the country’s 50 million people, is only the third most widely used after Zulu and Xhosa. It is the dominant language in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape and is the most common language spoken by white South Africans on farms and in rural areas, as well as by many of South Africa’s Muslim communities.
4. Afrikaans - language of the elite?
During the Soweto riots of June 1976 students protested against the government’s introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in local schools. This forever linked the language to the apartheid regime. As of today, the country has 11 traditional universities, of which four are teaching in Afrikaans only. There were five of them, but the university of Pretoria removed Afrikaans as a medium of instruction last year. The remaining four face growing pressure to do the same.
5. There is an Afrikaans monument
Afrikaans is one of the few languages in the world that has a monument dedicated to it. Situated on a hill-top overlooking Paarl, in the Western Cape province, it is a reflection of Afrikaans’ history: a giant curve made up of stone pillars (its architect compared the evolution of Afrikaans to a hyperbola, a rapidly rising curve). The monument was officially inaugurated on 10 October 1975, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Real Afrikaners which helped reinforce Afrikaners’ identity.
Afrikaans remains a controversial language in South Africa since it seems inextricably linked to apartheid. This has led to the rise of English in the country, with even Afrikaans universities now under pressure to use English as the language of instruction. This guarantees a fascinating next chapter in the language’s relatively short history.