The Afrikaans Language of South Africa: The Local and European Origins of an African Tongue

The Afrikaans language of South Africa tells the varied history and culture of the country in its unique blend of Dutch, Bantu, and many other languages.

Languages can tell the story of a country, especially when its history is as varied as in South Africa. One of the country’s dominant but most controversial languages is Afrikaans, a variant of the Dutch language. It has grown from being a foreign tongue imposed on the local people to become an integral part of the speech and culture of the country, spreading far beyond its original culture and boundaries.

The Vocabulary and Spread of Afrikaans

According to Reinhold F. Hahns of the Lowlands website of Dutch culture and language, Afrikaans began to develop in the seventeenth century as a variant of Dutch and other Lowlands languages brought to Africa by European traders and settlers. Local languages such as the Bantu and Khoisan tongues contributed vocabulary, and eventually even English, French, Portuguese, and Malay left their marks.

Although most commonly associated with the ruling white population of South Africa’s apartheid days, Afrikaans is spoken by people of all races and is still widely used in South Africa and elsewhere. The Omniglot website even traces the use of the language to such African countries as Namibia and Lesotho and places as far away as Canada, Australia, and Belgium.

The Afrikaans Language Monument, Western Cape

The History and Development of Afrikaans

The linguistic ancestry of Afrikaans traces back through Dutch and Low Franconian to the Germanic languages, of which English is a part. Like English, however, Afrikaans has incorporated words from so many different languages that the original roots can be hard to see. Over the three hundred years since the language first began to develop, it has incorporated so many African and foreign terms that although speakers of Afrikaans are generally able to understand Dutch, Dutch speakers are unlikely to be able to comprehend Afrikaans.

Throughout its history, Afrikaans has risen and fallen in importance, taking over from other languages and being overtaken by others. The Omniglot website traces how in about 1815, the Latin alphabet of Afrikaans displaced the Arabic alphabet of Malay in Muslim schools, and how the language eventually rose from the status of local dialect to a recognized language.

Afrikaans Literature and Status as a Language

One of the important criteria distinguishing a language from a dialect is the existence of literature in the tongue. Afrikaans began its journey from the “Cape Dutch” dialect to an independent language when a group of people formed the Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaanders (Society for Real Afrikaners) in 1875 and began to publish dictionaries and other books in Afrikaans, also producing a periodical, Patriot, in the language. In 1925, the government officially recognized Afrikaans as a language of its own, separate from Dutch.

The Decline of Afrikaans

For years, the language was the official tongue of South Africa, dominating local African tongues as the language of power. The end of white minority rule in the country greatly diminished the status of Afrikaans, but the language is still widely spoken in South Africa and around the world, used even by leaders like Nelson Mandela. Throughout the world, approximately six million people, mainly in South Africa, use Afrikaans as their native language.

Afrikaans has come a long way from its beginnings as a dialect of Dutch to its status as the main language of South Africa to its recent decline in importance. As the politics and culture of South Africa continue to change, Afrikaans will change at the same time.