What is Afrikaans?

Brendan McGuigan

Afrikaans is a language spoken predominantly in South Africa. Derived from Dutch, it shares many similarities with this language and is therefore also similar to English in many respects. There are more than 12 million speakers, with roughly half of them speaking it as their first language, and the other half speaking it as a second or third language.

The flag of the Republic of South Africa.
The flag of the Republic of South Africa.

The main population base for Afrikaans is in South Africa, where it is spoken by a sizable portion of the population. It is also spoken by a substantial number of people in neighboring Namibia. It is additionally spoken by smaller amounts of people in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Outside of Africa there are pockets of speakers found in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Afrikaans, which is derived from Dutch, is mostly spoken in South Africa.
Afrikaans, which is derived from Dutch, is mostly spoken in South Africa.

Although the Cape region was known by Europeans as far back as the late-15th century, it was first settled by Europeans when the Dutch began to establish bases in South Africa in the mid-17th century. The Dutch brought large numbers of Protestant settlers to manage the lands, under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, and enslaved locals and imported additional slaves to work the land. These settlers and slaves began to speak a specialized dialect of Dutch, which formed the basis for what is now recognized as Afrikaans.

Afrikaans was spoken loosely as a dialect, and perhaps as a number of different dialects, for many decades. In the early 19th century, the language began to supplant Malay in Muslim schools, and began to be written using the Arabic script. For many years, although Afrikaans was spoken widely among Afrikaners, the language of the written word for non-Muslims continued to be standard Dutch. By the mid 19th century, it was also appearing in various newspapers and religious tracts, using the Latin script. In the late 19th century, the language began to be treated more seriously, and a number of grammars and dictionaries were published.

In the early 20th century, Afrikaans continued to develop credibility, and started to be studied more extensively by linguists. In 1925, the government recognized it as an actual language, rather than simply a dialect. Dutch is usually completely intelligible to speakers of Afrikaans, while Afrikaans is comprehensible by most Dutch speakers after a small bit of study.

Similarities between Dutch and Afrikaans abound. For example, the Dutch word for “nine” is negen, while in Afrikaans it is nege. The Dutch for “bird” is vogel, while in Afrikaans it is voël. The Dutch word for “welcome” is welkom, the same in the other language. In other cases, the Afrikaans may seem closer to English, especially in spelling. For example, the Dutch word for “my” is mijn, while in Afrikaans it is simply my. In other cases, the vocabulary seems to have little connection to either Dutch or English. For example, the Dutch word for “giraffe” is giraf, while the Afrikaans word is kameelperd. In this case the word instead draws from the Dutch words for "camel," kameel, and for "horse," paard.

In general, Afrikaans has a simpler phonetics than Dutch, dropping many consonants and sticking to a more intuitive phonetic structure. The language gets more than 85% of its vocabulary directly from Dutch, with the rest made up mostly of words from Portuguese, Malay, Bantu, and Khoisan.

Afrikaans is spoken in parts of the Netherlands.
Afrikaans is spoken in parts of the Netherlands.

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Discussion Comments


It's worth noting that the Soweto Uprising in 1976 was in part spurred by the decree to use Afrikaans as the language of instruction in South African schools.

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