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What Is Afrikaans, And Where Is It Spoken?

Afrikaans is more than meets the eye. Grab your reading glasses and join us on this journey to explore one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
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What Is Afrikaans, And Where Is It Spoken?

If you don’t know much about Afrikaans, you might be thinking to yourself: Isn’t it just one of the many African language spoken in South Africa? Unfortunately, nothing about Afrikaans is that simple.

Not only is it not a native African language, over 90% of Afrikaans vocabulary draws from its parent language — Dutch — and it’s not spoken just in South Africa: It’s also spoken in Namibia and (to a lesser extent) in Australia, Botswana, the UK, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. Let’s explore how what was once derogatorily called “kitchen Dutch” developed into a standalone language that is spoken by around 20 million people today.

What Is Afrikaans And Is It The Same As Dutch?

Afrikaans is derived from Dutch, a language in the Low Franconian branch of the Western Germanic offshoot of the the larger Germanic family tree (phew, what a mouthful). We’ve already spent some time exploring Northern and Western Germanic languages, so we’ll focus here on the familial relationship that exists between Dutch and its offspring, Afrikaans.

Though originally considered to be merely a Dutch dialect, Afrikaans is now a language in its own right. Still, Afrikaans is extremely similar to Dutch, at least in its written form. Take a look at these examples:

Afrikaans Dutch English
Hoe gaan dit? Hoe gaat het? How are you?
Wat is jou naam? Wat is jouw naam? What is your name?
Die vrugte hier smaak sleg. Het fruit smaakt hier slecht. The fruit here tastes bad.

Pretty close, right? Major differences between them are most evident in the simplified grammar structure and spelling used in Afrikaans, with it actually having more regularity than Dutch. Not surprisingly, mutual intelligibility is strong between these two languages — more so than between Dutch and its lingual sibling, Frisian. There are, of course, lexical variations that will inevitably confuse both languages’ speakers. For instance, you won’t want to casually throw around the word piel (Dutch for “duckling”) in an Afrikaans conversation, unless you’re very comfortable using profanities.

A Brief History Of Afrikaans

So how did Afrikaans fly the proverbial nest and become its own language? One could make the argument that it started off as a creole, with its simplified Dutch structure and added influence by Portuguese and French colonizers, indigenous Khoisan and Bantu languages, and other languages spoken by Asian slaves brought to Africa, like Malay.

Certainly, Afrikaans is a clear byproduct of colonialism. It’s a modified form of the 17th century Hollandic Dutch dialect that was exported to the southernmost African colony, “Cape of Good Hope,” part of what is now South Africa. The early farming colonizers living there were referred to as Boers (meaning “farmers”) — now loosely known as Afrikaners — and as a group, they were ostracized by the colonial rulers in mainland Europe (though obviously not to the same degree as the indigenous people).

Their colloquial language, Afrikaans, was originally called “Cape Dutch,” or, more offensively, “kitchen Dutch” — a “dirty” language used only for speaking to slaves. It probably evoked elitist judgments similar to those directed towards African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers or “rednecks” with “yokel” dialects in the American South. The name we use today, however, comes from the term Afrikaans-Hollands, meaning African Dutch.

In the 1800s, Afrikaans gradually gained a reputable status and was seen more often in public newspapers and other literary works. Interestingly, around the same time this Latin alphabet-based written form took hold, Afrikaans was also used in Muslim schools, making it one of the scarce historic examples of a Germanic language being adapted to Arabic script. In any case, Latin-based Afrikaans gained more popularity and in 1925 it was officially recognized as a distinct language, rather than just a variety of Dutch.

Since then it’s become the standard for educational and public usage in South Africa. Some linguistic scholars point out that nonwhite and multiracial descendants of white and indigenous people who learned Dutch as a second language played a major part in establishing Afrikaans’s lingual esteem. To add to this, Afrikaans has its own local dialects, including a secret prison jargon infused with the African language, Zulu. Today, these dialects are mainly distinguished by geographical location, but, thanks to standardization, are not particularly distinct from one another.

Where Is Afrikaans Spoken?

Most people think only of South Africa when they hear Afrikaans, which is a justifiable association. Along with English, it is one of two Indo-European languages included in the 11 languages officially recognized by the South African government. Although there exists a stark racial divide among speakers, about 7 million people (14% of the population, largely comprised of white people) speak Afrikaans natively. This lands it the third place in demographic rankings, after Zulu and Xhosa. It is also the most geographically dispersed of the official languages.

Afrikaans cannot be separated from South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid. The proportion of black South Africans that natively speak Afrikaans is lower than those who speak one of the other 9 indigenous languages, such as Northern Sotho or Tswana. Many predominantly black schools have opted to instruct in English instead of Afrikaans. This also extends to a greater activist movement pushing towards the exclusion of Afrikaans from academia, due to its association as the language of occupying oppressors. English, the other common language spoken by white South Africans, is increasingly becoming the default language for public and official communication.

Similar to South Africa, Afrikaans is spoken by 10% of Namibia’s population (most of whom are white or multiracial speakers) and is commonly used as a lingua franca. Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe all have modestly-sized Afrikaans-speaking populations. Naturally, in the age of globalization and perpetual migration, it’s easy to say Afrikaans can be found in many corners of the world, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, the UK and, of course, the Netherlands.

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