The origin and history of Afrikaans

The story of Afrikaans – a tale of many tongues, twists and turns

The story of Afrikaans is a rich and diverse one with a complex history and a sense of cultural distinctness. Afrikaans, also known as Cape Dutch, is a West-Germanic language. In South Africa alone, Afrikaans is spoken by about 7 million as a first language and by approximately 10 million people as a second language. It is also spoken in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia as well as other continents as a home or second language.

Important dates in the history of Afrikaans, the language:

1595 First developed by the Khoi-Khoin and used when trading with the seafarers, the beginnings of Afrikaans was born from the need to communicate across cultures.
1860 The Muslim community in the Bo-Kaap established a school. Fragments of an exercise book found contain text written in Cape Malay dialect.
1866 Afrikaans got its name. Arnoldus Pannevis, a teacher at a Dutch school in Paarl, realised that the language spoken by the people was far removed from Dutch. He called it Afrikaans.
1914 Afrikaans was elevated to an official language of instruction at school level.
Before 1925 Afrikaans was seen as part of Dutch. The official languages of the Union of South Africa were English and Dutch.
1925 Afrikaans replaced Dutch as an official language parallel to English.
Post 1994 Afrikaans is one of eleven official languages of South Africa.

A family of dialects

Afrikaans is a family of dialects or variants which developed due to contact with different immigrant groups and indigenous local languages. There are three general dialects:

  • Cape Afrikaans (Kaapse Afrikaans) – influenced by the language of the Malay slaves who came here to work on sugar plantations,
  • Orange River Afrikaans (Oranjerivierafrikaans) – influenced by the Khoi languages, and
  • East Cape Afrikaans (Oos-Kaapse Afrikaans) – developed as a result of contact between Dutch and English settlers and the Xhosa tribes of the Southern and Eastern Cape areas.

Informal or spoken Afrikaans is strongly influenced by English. Standard Afrikaans (written Afrikaans) has hardly been influenced due to strong anti-English sentiments in prior centuries.

When did it all start?

Not in 1652, it seems. The language originated as far back as 1595! That’s when the Khoi-Khoin and the Dutch seafarers were forced to find common ground to speak to one another for bartering purposes. The interesting fact here is that this proves that the Khoi’s Afrikaans could not have originated from Dutch. They never spoke Dutch. This is discussed in-depth by Prof. Christo van Rensburg in a research article about the earliest Khoi-Afrikaans. (There are more useful resources on this topic at the end of this article.) See pdf.

You can read an abstract of the article here.

Join us on a short journey through Afrikaans

Afrikaans is a creole language that evolved during the 19th century. The majority of its roots can be found in Dutch. While the rest is a mixture of seafarer variants of Malay, Portuguese and Indonesian and the indigenous Khoi-Khoin and San languages.

  • The first Afrikaans was spoken by the Khoi-Khoin in 1595 when trading with Dutch seafarers. They were forced to communicate in a language that would be understood by both parties. This initial Khoi-Afrikaans slowly replaced the Khoi-Khoin’s mother tongue.
  • In1671 visitors to the Cape remarked that the language spoken there did not sound like any European language.
  • In the 18th century, two groups of Afrikaans speakers moved inland. The Khoi who spoke Khoi-Afrikaans and a group of livestock farmers (Veeboere) who spoke Veeboer-Afrikaans. It was at this Frontier where a new language with its own identity originated – namely Afrikaans!
  • The 19th century marked an era when Afrikaans came in contact with English and the languages of the various black tribes. All of these languages played a role in the development of Afrikaans.

One of the first Afrikaans schools

In 1860 the Muslim community established a school (madrasah) in the Bo-Kaap. Fragments of an exercise book (called a ‘koplesboek’ then) that survived the times, contain text written in Cape Malay dialect. Cape Malay dialect was the colloquial language of the time. The writing style is phonetic spelling and written in Arabic script. Afrikaans readers will recognise this as a form of modern Afrikaans. Arabic-Afrikaans was also used in daily communication. During this time several Islamic religious texts were translated into Arabic-Afrikaans. The first Afrikaans translation of the Quran came from this school and was done by Achmat van Bengal.

For Cape Dutch speakers, their language was one of learning, writing and upper-middle-class culture. Though this sentiment was not shared by everyone. Chief Justice Lord JH de Villiers described Cape Dutch as “poor in the number of its words, weak in its inflexions, wanting in the accuracy of meaning.” (Source: The Afrikaners: Biography of a People by Prof Hermann Giliomee).

Afrikaans NOT Dutch

In 1858 a private school, De Gimnasium, with Dutch as the language of instruction, was established in Paarl. This school was for the Afrikaans-speaking children. In 1866, a teacher called Arnoldus Pannevis realised that the language spoken by the people were far removed from Dutch. Pannevis was the first person to call it by its name: Afrikaans. He wanted to establish Afrikaans as a written language too. The deeply religious Pannevis was eager to translate the Bible into Afrikaans. The Bible Society instructed SJ du Toit to look into this.

GRA – Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (The Society of True Afrikaners)

Around 1870 the first steps towards the battle between various views on the nature of Cape Dutch were taken. This lead to the establishment of The Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners(GRA) in 1875. The objective was to promote Afrikaans as a language and to support the Afrikaans culture as a whole. The GRA declared their own version of Cape Dutch as “Burger Afrikaans”. They wanted to write Afrikaans as it was spoken and drafted a set of spelling and grammar rules. The newspaper, “Die Patriot” (The Patriot), originated in 1876, to be a spokesman of these language rules. Worth noting is that the first Afrikaans newspaper was published in 1859 already. The newspaper, “De Bode”, was published by the Moravian Mission station in Genadendal. It already then printed articles and letters from readers in Afrikaans.

In 1882, an Afrikaans school, the Gedenkschool der Hugenoten, was established on the farm Kleinbosch in Daljosafat, Paarl. This gave Afrikaans an important boost and was an important step towards recognising Afrikaans as the official language of instruction at school.

Many Afrikaans-speaking people still believed that Afrikaans was an inferior language, though they themselves did not speak Dutch. To them, Dutch was a status symbol – a connection to a world of literature and science outside of South Africa. In 1906, Eugene Marais trumped the argument of the pro-Dutch that Afrikaans had no literature value with his poem Winternag. Jan FE Celliers followed with Die Vlakte as did many other writers and poets.

From 1908, Afrikaans flourished in the arts. In 1909 the Zuid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Lettere en Kunst deur Afrikaners was established. Their objective was to establish Afrikaans as a higher-order language. They managed to regulate language matters through a Spelling Committee, later called the Die Taalkommissie (The Language Commission). Gone were the days of the GRA’s write-as-we-speak. The first Woordelys en Spelreëls was published in 1917. Through this, the pro-Dutch got what they wanted. Afrikaans displayed a strong Dutch influence in the way sentences and words were constructed. Afrikaans dialects and the language as spoken by the so-called workers class were deemed inferior. The result of this pro-Dutch movement is that even today many Dutch words can be found in Afrikaans, which creates the impression that Afrikaans originated from Dutch – though untrue.

In 1931, Afrikaans also made its mark in the film and music industry with the Afrikaans film Moedertjie and Chris Blignaut’s records with hits like Ou Ryperd.

On 27 October 1932, the first Afrikaans judgement was passed in the Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein.

Despite many challenges, the Afrikaans translation of the Bible was published in 1933. Although still under influence of Dutch this translation has set the stage for further Afrikaans translations.

1942 – 1959 – Afrikaans is flourishing

Afrikaans was established as the scientific language at four universities. It was also the language used in the civil service, courts, in literature, films and for broadcasting.

The Afrikaanse Taalmonument in Paarl was inaugurated in 1975 – 100 years after the founding of the GRA. The idea to build a monument for the Afrikaans language was first mentioned in 1942. However, construction only started in late 1972 and was completed at the end of 1974.

Afrikaans reviled as “the language of the oppressor”
Following a policy decision where Afrikaans was imposed as a language of instruction on black, non-Afrikaans speakers in 1974, the Soweto uprising took place on 16 June 1976. (That day was later declared as Youth Day.)

These were indeed dark times and the image of Mbuyisa Makhubo with a dying Hector Pieterson in his arms will forever be etched in our memories of this highly emotional and unfortunate time.

Soweto uprising.

Photograph: Sam Nzima.

Photograph: Juda Ngwenya – REUTERS.

1994 – present

After 1994 Afrikaans was one of the 11 official languages. In 2010 Prof. Kwesi Prah from Ghana described the development of Afrikaans as one of the three language wonders of the world. In only 50 years, Afrikaans evolved from the vernacular, or so-called kitchen language to a higher order academic and economic language that can hold its own on the world stage.

2015: The language debate intensifies and protests against Afrikaans as the language of instruction at Afrikaans universities take place across South Africa.

Afrikaans today

  • Afrikaans is the third largest language group in South Africa after Zulu and Xhosa (seven million Afrikaans speakers).
  • Afrikaans is also used in various other countries and continents.
  • Afrikaans literature is extensive and can compare with the best in the world, covering all spheres of culture, industry, science and technology.
  • At present Afrikaans boasts approximately 1 million words with neologisms being added regularly, like rymkletser (rapper), gladdejantjie (smoothie) and hommeltuig (drone).
  • The Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal (WAT) (Dictionary of the Afrikaans Language) is the most comprehensive Afrikaans dictionary currently available. It is primarily aimed at Afrikaans usage today, although is yet incomplete due to the scale of the project.
  • The one-volume dictionary used in many households is the Verklarende Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaans Taal (HAT).
  • The official orthography of Afrikaans is the Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls, compiled by the Taalkommissie. (The updated 2017-edition is now available.)

World languages – About Afrikaans.
Wikipedia – Afrikaans.
Article by Hein Willemse, professor of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria: Afrikaans language: black and white.

Article: Citizen – Coloured people reclaiming Afrikaans.

The Afrikaans language debate

The Afrikaans Language Monument