A Second Look at Afrikaans

We Find an Interesting and Diverse History -- Not Just the Dirty Linen

by Gretchen Kell

A new course is dispelling the myth that Afrikaans is simply the language of white oppressors during South Africa's apartheid era.

Several universities in the United States teach people how to speak Afrikaans. But "Afrikaans after Apartheid: Language and Culture in Conflict in South Africa," is a Berkeley course that explores the history and development of the language.

Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, a lecturer in Dutch Studies, is quick to point out that her course is not about politics, ideology or propaganda. Instead, it addresses how they influenced Afrikaans.

"What we're doing," she said, "is looking at the socio-linguistic aspects of a language that has undergone tremendous transformations and has been associated with a reprehensible ideology. Most people hear the word 'Afrikaans' and figure the next word out of the person's mouth will be 'apartheid.'"

Actually, said Van Deusen-Scholl, Afrikaans has multilingual roots and a diversity of speakers and dialects. Today, between 5 and 6 million people speak Afrikaans, and more than half of them are people of color. Many of them speak dialects of standard Afrikaans, which is spoken mainly by whites, and are part of a movement to foster appreciation of these dialects.

South Africa has 11 official languages. According to the most recent census there, the top two are the indigenous African languages of Zulu and Xhosa, with Afrikaans the third most spoken language. English is the sixth most widely spoken language in South Africa, but most bilingual people use English as a second language.

The roots of the language are controversial, but Van Deusen-Scholl said Afrikaans was strongly influenced by Dutch and other languages. She said that 95 percent of its words and vocabulary are related to Dutch.

In 1652, the Dutch arrived in South Africa to set up a base for their East India Company, known as the VOC. Within their first decade of settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, a strategic outpost on the route to trade empires in the East, they brought slaves from places including Madagascar, Angola, the south of India and the Indonesian archipelago.

Van Deusen-Scholl believes that the Dutch settlers' contacts with such a diverse population of slaves, free tribes -- especially the Khoi-Khoi, a nomadic South African group -- and French and German settlers, formed the roots of Afrikaans. By 1775, Afrikaans was "the main language of communication" and had begun spreading as people migrated beyond the Cape.

Afrikaans became an important part of the identity of the Boers, a group of Dutch farmers who also settled in South Africa.

Stigmatized by the upper classes as ignorant and non-educated, the Boers fought back by refusing to speak English and by developing a nationalistic, Afrikaner-focused identity.

"The arrival of the British led to a consciousness on the part of the Boers that Afrikaans was the language of the settlers who had been there previously," said Van Deusen-Scholl.

The nationalistic movement that arose to defend Afrikaans "can be seen as the roots of the later ideology of apartheid," she said. "While it promoted the viability of Afrikaans, the ideology was extremist."

In 1925, after centuries of development, Afrikaans became an official language in South Africa. By this time, the language also had been influenced linguistically by English.

During the apartheid era, which began in 1948 when the white National Party took leadership of the country and enforced racial segregation, the standard Afrikaans spoken by whites became associated with apartheid.

Not only did the ruling party ban mixed marriages, the black vote and relegated blacks to living and being schooled apart from whites, said Van Deusen-Scholl, but it "used the inability of many people to speak standard Afrikaans as a way of keeping them from equal educational opportunities."

"Children who spoke Zulu or Xhosa, for example, would be put in separate schools where they would be educated in their mother tongues," she said. "But the quality of education they received was poor. To attend secondary school, they were required to know standard Afrikaans or English, and those were not languages taught them at the primary level."

Since most members of the oppressed groups did not speak those two languages, said Van Deusen-Scholl, "in effect, the law said that if you lived in a poor township or area, you would never be able to go to college."

Van Deusen-Scholl said that "immediately after apartheid, people did not see a future for Afrikaans in South Africa. Today, we're seeing a new role for Afrikaans, although a more modest role, alongside the other 10 official languages."

One of the most important lessons for Van Deusen-Scholl's small class of undergraduates is how to separate controversy from the language itself.

"People have said how dare I teach this, as if I were advancing a particular ideology or South African identity," she said. "Instead, as a socio-linguist, I'm trying to look at Afrikaans in the context of society."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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