Stop what you are doing for a moment and teleport yourself back to that History class in grade 7 or 8 when you first heard the word ‘apartheid’. The teacher spoke of discrimination, of coloured skins, of great heroes like Nelson Mandela. But ironically, little was said about the language from which originates this word ‘apartheid’ that caused such a major turmoil in world politics in the second half of the historically loaded 20th C. Read on to know more about this language- Afrikaans, its people and its transformation from being a language that bore the guilt of oppression to becoming an official language of South Africa.
Ok, tell me more!
A Western Germanic language spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Afrikaans is basically a daughter language of Dutch. It was spoken by Dutch settlers in present day South Africa and the language started to develop distinguishing characteristics of its own only in the 18th C. An important landmark in the development of the language is the translation of the Bible into Afrikaans in 1878. The language has adopted words from Portuguese, the Bantu languages, Malay, German and the Khoisan languages but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin.
Afrikaans and the Apartheid
Unfortunately for the language, it was associated with the oppression by the Afrikaners, the descendants of the Dutch settlers. Nelson Mandela, when imprisoned in 1963 during the heydays of the Apartheid movement, learnt Afrikaans as it was “the language of his oppressors.” Till as recently as the early 21st C, Afrikaans had to struggle to shake off this taint of apartheid that it bore.
Some linguists, however, argue that the roots of Afrikaans have been misunderstood. Though it is based on Dutch, it was shaped by the ethnic groups of the Cape, including Malay slaves and indigenous Africans. They believe that Afrikaans is a beautiful composite of Europe, Africa and the East.
Afrikaans on the globe
Today, it is one of the official languages of South Africa and the third most spoken language there with about 7 million speakers. It is the majority language in the western half of the country and is taught to about 10.3 million learners of second languages in schools. The neighbour Namibia, however, doesn’t recognise Afrikaans as an official language anymore but uses it widely as its lingua franca.
Afrikaans and me
“But why should I learn it?” ask humans who look at life as a profit and loss statement. To start with, Afrikaans was declared as the easiest second language for English-speakers to learn. And knowing a second or a third language is always gratifying. Apart from the obvious cultural doors that it would open, learning Afrikaans would be a smart move considering the pace at which globalisation is shrinking borders. Personally, Afrikaans is on the top of my wish list. I worship AB de Villiers, the South African cricketer, and could kill to have a conversation in Afrikaans if I ever meet him.