Languages of the World: Afrikaans


Afrikaans is the youngest language in the world. The birthing process of a language takes a bit longer than 9 months. Afrikaans started making an appearance somewhere in the middle of the 18th century but was only granted official recognition in the early 20th century.

The Parents of Afrikaans

For a long time, Afrikaans was considered an inferior language, so much so that it was called “mutilated/broken/uncivilised/incorrect Dutch.” Even though Dutch is the majority parent of Afrikaans, the two languages share about 90% vocabulary, Dutch was in no way a faithful partner.

Afrikaans has a long list of minority parents. These include German, French, English, Malay, Portuguese, Khoi, San and various Bantu languages spoken in South Africa.

It is interesting to note that this language, which is considered to be part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language, has been influenced by so many other languages that ordinarily would not rub shoulders with Germanic Indo-European!

The presence of slaves in South Africa, especially of Malay and Malagasy origin, also contributed to the shaping of this new language. As an Afrikaans speaking person, living in Madagascar, I can assure you that the rank and file Afrikaner is not aware that Malagasy slaves helped to create our beloved language.

The People of Afrikaans

White people who speak Afrikaans as home language consider themselves to be Afrikaners, perhaps translatable as “People of Africa.” Afrikaners are also known as Boeres, literally farmers. This is because farming was the primary occupation of the Boer people in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Skin color as we all know, unfortunately played a big role in the history of South Africa. Non-white native Afrikaans speakers are not considered as Afrikaners. This is such a complex issue that you will have to do some research of your own to even begin to understand it a bit.

Afrikaans was the official language of Apartheid. After receiving independence from the British, Afrikaners took over the governance of South Africa. Afrikaners were anti-English. This stems back to various historical incidents.

The most important are probably the Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881) and the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Both these wars were failed attempts by the Afrikaners to get rid of their British colonial masters.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War the British committed a series of atrocities. The 400,000 plus Colonial force could not beat the 88,000 or so Boers. The British resorted to imprisoning the families of the fighters in Concentration Camps and destroying their farms.

The conditions in these camps were horrific. Close to 30,000 women and children died in these camps. To give you an idea of the scale, only about 9000 Afrikaner, or Boer, soldiers died.

For a long time the Boers or Afrikaners considered themselves to be the victims of oppression in their own country. This makes Apartheid doubly ironic, as the oppressed became the oppressors.

The Growth of Afrikaans

In the early 1800’s Afrikaans started to be used instead of Malay in Muslim schools in South Africa. Afrikaans was also written using the Arabic alphabet. (Remark: This is something that I, an Afrikaans speaker, never knew. This is an example of how the Apartheid government manipulated information. Afrikaans was always presented as the work of the wonderful white man! The italics are to indicate irony!)

The Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (Afrikaans for “Society of Real Afrikaners”) dates back to 1875. Their aim was to help the development of the language and the Afrikaner’s identity.

These men realized that the Afrikaners could not speak “real” Dutch correctly any more. During their two hundred years in Africa, the language changed and developed into something new.

As I already mentioned, Afrikaans is the world’s youngest language. In fact, the first translation of the Bible in Afrikaans was only published in 1933, before which Afrikaans people had to use Dutch Bibles.

To put that into perspective: A Xhosa Bible (a native language of South Africa) appeared in 1859 Sesotho Bible was published in 1878, and the Zulu Bible dates back to 1883. This gives you an idea of how Afrikaans was still being developed and grown at this time.

Afrikaans has a developed literary tradition.  André P. Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, N.P. van Wyk Louw, Dalene Matthee, Hennie Aucamp, Joan Hambidge, and Ingrid Jonker are some of the most influential Afrikaans writers.

Recently, Deon Meyer, has gained a huge international following. Many of his books have been translated into English. Set in South Africa, his novels often deal with issues that society is struggling with.

Afrikaans literature and many Afrikaans writers are recognised for their opposition to Apartheid. Afrikaans authors are credited for playing an important role in negotiating a peaceful power transfer in South Africa.

Interestingly enough J.M Coetzee ,winner of the Booker Prize in 1983 and 1999 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003, is also an Afrikaner.

Afrikaans Grammar

Afrikaans employs a double negative. This is a rare thing. Some have argued that it has French or San roots. It is however unclear where it comes from.

An example:

Ek kan nie Afrikaans praat nie.

I cannot Afrikaans speak not.

Afrikaans verbs are not conjugated. The verb stays the same irrespective of the subject.

Ek is – I am

Jy is –  You are

Hy is – He is

Ons is – We are

Julle is – You (pl.) are

Hulle is – They are

Generally verb tenses are indicated by adding het (did) or sal (will) to indicate past and future tenses.

Ek het ge-eet. – I ate. (Here the translator is challenged because this sentence can be translated as I have eaten. Context must be taken into account

Ek eet. – I am eating.

Ek sal eat. I will eat.

Learning Afrikaans

Afrikaans is generally considered an easy language to learn. Some of the reasons for this are:

  • No grammatical gender. German has male, female and undetermined, for example.
  • No verb conjugation.
  • Simple phonetic spelling.
  • Generally very few exceptions.


Afrikaans is losing a number of speakers. Many Afrikaners have emigrated to the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. As you can imagine, there is not much opportunity to speak Afrikaans in Liverpool or Canberra.

In spite of this, Afrikaans is healthy. New literature appears daily. Newspapers are published in Afrikaans. The Afrikaans music industry is healthy and that is a good sign when it comes to any language.

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