Today, as our hopes are with Nelson Mandela who is spending his 95th birthday isolated in a Pretorian hospital room, I decided to show my respect towards him by presenting something “South Africa-related”. I have always been interested in the history of the Afrikaans language and the extent of its mutual intelligibility with the parent language, Dutch. For those of you who are even less familiar with the topic than I am, Afrikaans (or ‘Cape Dutch’) is actually a dialect of the well-known West Germanic language, which happens to be considered a separate standard language rather than a national variety for a number of historical reasons. So how has Afrikaans developed? And what makes it so unique?
In the late 17th century, South Africa was colonised by the Dutch who brought their language and other aspects of their culture to the area. During the 18th century, the Dutch language was significantly altered in South Africa due to factors such as the phonological capabilities of the inhabitants and the impact of the Khoisan and Bantu languages. To a lesser extent, the dialect also acquired some borrowings from Malay, Portuguese and South African English. The Dutch, however, considered it as being “beneath official Dutch standards” and referred to it as ‘Kaaps Hollands’ or mutilated, broken, uncivilised Dutch (according to Wikipedia). The worst insult was, however, the phrase ‘verkeerd Nederlands’ (‘incorrect Dutch’), which – in my opinion – did not sound very equitable from those who introduced the language in Africa. Up until the early 20th century the official language of South Africa was Standard Dutch, since the local variant was still thought to be a dialect. At this point, the term ‘Afrikaans’ came into use, soon replacing ‘European Dutch’ as the official language of the state. For a better summary of all this, please read ‘An Introduction to Afrikaans‘.
So let’s talk about the characteristics of this beautiful-sounding language. Firstly, it is worth noting that despite the influence of other languages spoken in South Africa, an estimated 90 to 95% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. However, it is not only the vocabulary of Afrikaans that must be taken into consideration: the language has its own morphology, spelling and even grammar. Secondly, Afrikaans is nearly as spoken as Standard Dutch, mainly due to the fact that the Dutch Cape Colony covered an incredibly large area and that the language spread across an even larger territory (including today’s Namibia and Botswana). Thirdly, Afrikaans is significantly regulated. Since the development of this daughter language did not occur simultaneously and in the same way in all parts of Southern Africa, Afrikaans was a collection of numerous separate dialects originating from Dutch. With the help of some linguists, the Cape Dutch dialects were standardised into one language, today’s Afrikaans.
I am sure that whoever has read the above introduction has at least one question regarding the similarity of Afrikaans and Dutch on their mind. It is even more certain that whoever has read it thinks I am the most boring person ever to have been born, but let’s concentrate on these two languages for now! So Wikipedia has an excellent article named ‘Comparison of Afrikaans and Dutch‘, which goes through quite a lot of differences in detail. Undoubtedly, some features of Afrikaans are quite funny. For instance, it uses regular patterns to simplify Dutch orthography, similarly to how I reformed French spelling by converting ‘y’ into ‘i’, ‘ou’ into ‘uu’ etc. at the age of 12. Although some of these modifications are a result of phonetic evolutions, in some cases it was just a matter of style. The Dutch ‘ij’ became ‘y’; the hard ‘c’ turned into ‘k’; the trigraphs ‘tie’ and ‘cie’ were both simplified to ‘sie’; ‘ou’, ‘ouw’, ‘au’ and ‘auw’ were all merged into ‘ou’ and voilà, it looks completely different! Since the phonology of Afrikaans also differs from that of European Dutch, modifying the orthography for this reason was necessary. This is why ‘ch’ and ‘g’, which are both pronounced /χ/ in Afrikaans, have been given the single grapheme ‘g’.
Another interesting observation is that the grammar of the Afrikaans language has undergone a lot of changes since its separation from Dutch. If I had to summarise the differences in two words, I would be likely to say “It’s simpler.” Afrikaans has no grammatical gender, so instead of having to decide on whether it should be ‘de’ or ‘het’ (or even ‘den’ in South Holland), the speaker can use ‘die’ whenever a definite article is needed. And one last thing: after having memorised the Dutch phrase “Ik spreek geen Nederlands” (“I don’t speak Dutch”) I was very surprised to learn that in order to say “I don’t speak Afrikaans” in the dialect, I would have to say “Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie”. Double negative? Using the same word before and after the… subject? Interesting!
There’s one more thing that really interests me, and regardless of whether it interests you too or not, I’ll write about it. Where does the remainder of Afrikaans vocabulary come from? First of all, it may be quite surprising that the word for ‘banana’ is ‘piesang’. It doesn’t sound similar to the Dutch ‘banaan’ at all, does it? As soon as the Cape Malay community formed in Cape Town, loanwords from Malay began to be used in not only Afrikaans, but other South African languages as well. But some of the more basic words are also strange for a Dutch-speaker: ‘insect’, for example, would be ‘gogga’, originating from the Khoisan word ‘xo-xo’. Other languages which have influenced Afrikaans (and South African English) to some extent include Portuguese and the Bantu languages, such as Zulu.
Enough about words, especially because this article seems to be too long already. But fortunately, we have just arrived at the most exciting part: mutual intelligibility. Alex Rawlings, a hyperpolyglot who speaks both languages concerned (and whom I have previously introduced in my article ‘Alex Rawlings, Europe’s human phrasebook‘) said the following in his 11-language video: “So I learned Afrikaans, as I wanted to see how Dutch had turned into another language. I find that process very interesting.” I find it interesting too, indeed. But that’s not the reason why this quote has a place in my article. I wonder how hard it was for Alex – or anyone who has gone through the process – to follow the route that connects Dutch with Afrikaans and become a confident speaker of the latter one after having built up some additional knowledge on top of what he had already learnt for Dutch.
All my respect goes to Wikipedia, as now I can be sure that there is a large degree of mutual intelligibility between the two languages, which means that the speaker of one can understand text in the other one reasonably well. On the other hand, it does not matter which language is “one” and which is “the other one”: the intelligibility is mutual, but it tends to be asymmetrical. This is most visible in written form, as Dutch-speakers find it easier to understand written Afrikaans than the other way around. Surprising, isn’t it? We would expect it to be easier for an Afrikaans-speaker to understand Dutch because it is the parent language, from which the dialect has developed, whereas a Dutch-speaker is expected to struggle a little bit when they encounter words from Malay or Zulu in the framework of an Afrikaans text. The reality, however, is that since Afrikaans is far less complex than her mother and it applies clear patterns for the alteration of vocabulary items (e.g. ‘vogel’ becomes ‘voël’, ‘regen’ turns into ‘reën’), we may say that a Dutch-speaker is gifted with a simplified version of their language when having to understand Afrikaans. Wikipedia explains the fact that mutual intelligibility is asymmetric by stating that “Dutch-speakers are confronted with fewer non-cognates when listening to Afrikaans than the other way round.” Let me tell you something else: research proves that the intelligibility between Dutch and Afrikaans is better than between Dutch and Frisian, or between Swedish and Danish. So in other words, Dutch is closer to its daughter language which developed on another continent over 300 years ago than to a West Germanic language spoken in the Netherlands. They’ve grown up together, so how is this possible? Simply because Frisian is not close enough to Dutch. Afrikaans has developed from it, so they must be close, but a language belonging to another branch of the same family could be less intelligible with it, regardless of the geographical location in which they are spoken.
I know, I must finish this post by now, so I’ll try and keep it short. The very last issue I would like to talk about is whether the close relationship could have a negative impact on the speaker of both languages. By this I mean: is it easy to mix them up? Alex Rawlings, who has a habit of associating his languages with certain personalities, says “I rarely confuse Dutch and Afrikaans because, although the words are similar, their personalities are very different. I think Afrikaans is very poetic and expressive, while Dutch is more formal and reserved.” In my opinion, being aware of the phonological and orthographic differences is enough for a learner or speaker to keep their knowledge of the two languages separate and never get confused. Finally, I would like to show you a video in which a Dutch-speaking Flemish reporter interviews South African actress and fashion model Charlize Theron who, of course, understand him perfectly and gives her answers in Afrikaans. Who knows, in 10-20 years time I may be able to understand the conversation without subtitles!