11 Facts About Afrikaans: The Script, Apartheid and the Dutch

Afrikaans is a Southern African Dutch (partially-)creole language that serves as the official language of South Africa and a recognized minority language of Namibia. Afrikaans is highly mutually intelligible with Dutch and even shares up to ninety-five percent of its vocabulary with the European language! The main differences come only in morphology, structure, and grammar.

This language is a living part of our cultural history. It was a vernacular spoken by colonists and their slaves which eventually evolved into something of its own. Learning about Afrikaans is learning about how culture and peoples can survive the worst.

A Few Thought Provoking Facts about Afrikaans

1. There are around 7.5 million first-language Afrikaans speakers. In South Africa alone, there are also over 10 million second-language speakers.

This language is the majority in the Northern and Western Capes of South Africa. 

2. Racial groups are still extremely important in South African culture, and there’s an interesting language disparity within them

The following list roughly rounds up the percentage and numbers of Afrikaans first-language speakers by group.

  • 76% of Bruinmense (“brown people” or “coloreds”), those who have multiple ancestors of Khoisan, Bantu, European, Austronesian, South Asian, and East Asian descent. Around 5 million people.
  • 61% of White South Africans, those descended from White Europeans (including the Dutch). Around 3 million people.
  • 5% of Indian South Africans, those descended from British-colonized Indian indentured servants and migrants. Around 60 thousand people.
  • 1.5% of Black South Africans, those descended from the original inhabitants of the area. Around 600 thousand people.

3. Afrikaans developed from Indo-European languages that were fused with native Khoisan languages

For linguists, Afrikaans is considered a daughter of modern Dutch.

4. Afrikaans is mostly written in Latin script using a 26-letter alphabet similar to the Dutch alphabet. It also uses diacritic marks and combination digraph and trigraph letters.

In the 1830s there was also an Arabic Afrikaans script consisting of 36 letters, which has mostly fallen out of use.

5. There are some words used in both Afrikaans and Dutch that mean different things in both languages

These are just some of them!

WordAfrikaans meaningDutch meaning
LolTo make trouble, to be troublesomeTo have fun
BrommerBluebottle flyMotorbike or motor scooter

Some words are even perfectly normal in one language and harsh expletives in the other.

6. Nouns in Afrikaans don’t inflect for case and do not have grammatical gender.

Nouns are pluralized with -e or -s as a suffix, or one of several irregular plural suffixes. There are no grammatical cases for nouns, adjectives, or articles.

7. The word order in Afrikaans is considerably more strict than other languages.

While most work on a varied combination of subject, object, and verb which can be placed in order (English, for example, is usually SVO), Afrikaans strictly follows what textbooks describe as the STOMPI structure.

SubjectFirst verbTimeObjectMannerPlaceSecond verbInfinitive
Youwillsoonthe articlefullyherefinish readingto learn

Of course, not every sentence contains every element. The present tense does not have a second verb, and when it is used in future and past, it is always the main verb of the sentence while v1 is the helper verb.

Main clauses in Afrikaans are V2-structured, meaning the verb always comes second, with any modifiers afterward. Subordinate clauses usually follow an SVO structure.

8. Since 1994 and the fall of apartheid, Afrikaans shares its official language status in South Africa with ten other languages

The official languages of South Africa are below. Each population number has been rounded to the nearest 1,000 and the percentages are rounded to the nearest whole. Totals may be slightly higher or lower.

  • Zulu – 11,587,000 – 23%
  • Xhosa – 8,154,000 – 16%
  • Afrikaans – 6,855,000 – 14%
  • English – 4,893,000 – 10%
  • Northern Sotho (Sepedi) – 4,619,000 – 9%
  • Tswana (Setswana) – 4,067,000 – 8%
  • Sesotho – 3,850,000 – 8%
  • Tsonga (Xitsonga) – 2,277,000 – 5%
  • Swati – 1,297,000- 3%
  • Venda (Tshivenda) – 1,209,000 – 2%
  • Ndebele – 1,090,000 – 2%

Most people also speak Afrikaans as a second, third, or further additional language on top of their own native tongue.

9. As well as a significant influence on the development of South African English, some Afrikaans words have influenced the vocabulary of Modern Standard English

They’re mostly descriptors of animals and plants, though others exist too. Some of the most recognizable of these are:

  • Apartheid – literally “apartness”, meaning segregation
  • Aardvark – literally “earth pig”
  • Wildebeest – “wild beast”
  • Meerkat – “lake cat”
  • Trek – literally “draw, haul”, meaning a long journey or hike.

10. Many native South Africans of color still object of Afrikaans as an “oppressor language”, especially Black South Africans

As a language imposed by slavers and colonists, there’s increasing pressure to remove it as an official teaching language. In 2015, there were huge number of bloody student revolts against compulsory Afrikaans education. When given the choice, 96% of Black South African schools choose English over Afrikaans.

11. Pronouns in Afrikaans are fairly straightforward but vary from their Dutch counterparts

There are a number of similarities in both form and pronunciation between Afrikaans, Dutch and English pronouns.

Final Thoughts

While still quite historically problematic overall, Afrikaans has been reclaimed by many Southern Africans of color in a way that shows the vivacity of language. It’s important to learn about how the past affects the present so that we can learn from it and live a better future.

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