Max du Preez says the advancement and preservation of indigenous languages is only possible if the speakers themselves step up and do it.
There is broad consensus that South African society would be poorer if its indigenous languages were to wither and eventually die. And yet it is happening now, with virtually no pushback.
My mother tongue is one of those indigenous languages - and the only one still growing and developing. Afrikaans is the one indigenous language that has been liberated and blossomed with the end of apartheid.
A year or two ago, I saw a low-key documentary about an old woman in the Northern Cape who was the last person able to speak one of the oldest dialects of the Khoi family of languages. She knew the words, expressions and idioms of a language that developed over thousands of years. That knowledge was going to its grave with her.
There was no outcry. The story didn’t appear on the front pages of our newspapers. And yet it was a story of stupendous importance in terms of the cultural development and spirituality of our species. Will we one day see a similar documentary about Venda or Tsonga?
Like most South Africans, I predominantly use English in my professional life. I have written 10 books in English and only two in Afrikaans. I love the English language and have benefited greatly from its wealth of great literature and the access it has given me to other societies and cultures. I am married to an English-speaker, but I cannot imagine ever communicating with my children in English. Afrikaans is the language I learnt from my mother from the day I was born. It is the language of my heart. It is a beautiful, earthy, expressive language.
I am sure millions of South Africans will say the same of their mother tongues. Why are these languages diminishing every day? There are nine of them and they’re all recognised as equal by our constitution.
Afrikaans has its roots among the slaves brought to the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries as they simplified and creolised Dutch to communicate with their masters. It underwent many metamorphoses from a simple kombuistaal (kitchen lingo) to the sophisticated language with several dialects it is now after it was appropriated as a nationalist symbol by white people. Afrikaans gained its special status as a language of science, technology and spectacular literature (think NP van Wyk Louw, Ingrid Jonker, Breyten Breytenbach, André P Brink, Antjie Krog, Marlene van Niekerk) because Afrikaner nationalists actively promoted it above other languages and, after they gained power in 1948, turned it into the main language of state and enforced it upon others. This turned Afrikaans into a hated language, “the language of the oppressor”.
The best thing that happened to the language was when all special privileges and protection by the state were withdrawn in 1994. The stigma was removed and now the survival and further development of Afrikaans were purely in the hands of those who speak and love it.
And therein, perhaps, lies a lesson. A government can create the circumstances for the advancement of indigenous languages, but it cannot do the job itself. The speakers of those languages should step up and do it.
I attended the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn last week, a festival that has been celebrating Afrikaans language, theatre and music since 1994. It has become one of the best-attended language and cultural festivals in the world. It has led to a mushrooming of other Afrikaans festivals all over the country attended by hundreds of thousands of people, the biggest being the Aardklop festival in Potchefstroom.
There are many other initiatives too to celebrate and grow Afrikaans.
There is the non-racial Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV) with the motto “free and in full colour in Afrikaans” that runs workshops, competitions, youth programmes, provides bursaries, and publishes magazines for adults and children. There are several well-funded and prestigious writing competitions for Afrikaans books.
There are three Afrikaans-language channels on satellite television.
There are three regional daily newspapers, a Sunday newspaper and many local newspapers and magazines as well as several private radio stations in Afrikaans. The Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal has lovers of the language sponsoring words of their choice to fund the project and runs a competition to stimulate ideas for new Afrikaans words for new concepts.
The advantage that Afrikaans has, of course, is that large numbers of its speakers are middle class. Still, isn’t it time for people who love Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, Venda and Tsonga to do something themselves to care for their language?