Is Afrikaans a dying language? Let’s take a look at the facts

Charlize Theron. Picture: DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS

Charlize Theron. Picture: DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS

Published Nov 22, 2022


Actress Charlize Theron, an Oscar winner, has come under heavy fire in South Africa for declaring that her native Afrikaans is “a disappearing language".

The “Monster” and “Tully” actress said that the language she grew up using was disappearing on Monday’s episode of the “Smartless” podcast.

There are “about 44 individuals still speaking Afrikaans”, said Theron, 47, who then admitted that she only became fluent in English after moving to the US at the age of 19.

She told hosts Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett that the language was “certainly fading” and “not a very helpful language.”

Theron's comments quickly generated a discussion on social media in South Africa. Her lack of knowledge was criticised by some, but others concurred that Afrikaans was a “dead tongue.”

One Twitter user said: "Charlize Theron is a legend! Afrikaans is indeed a dead language. It has a place in the past. It was previously a tool used to subjugate Africans.“

In a statement, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), which was established to encourage multilingualism in the nation, referred to Theron’s remarks as “disturbing", noting that statistics indicate Afrikaans to be the third most spoken language in the nation.

Despite the fact that 60% of Afrikaans speakers are black, Theron's remarks “perpetuate the widespread misunderstanding that Afrikaans is solely spoken by white 'boere' South Africans,” according to the statement.

The PanSALB continued by noting how highly regarded Theron was in South Africa and how she should “continue the commendable work of using her platform to highlight some of the critical socio-economic issues that affect the continent, including the importance of participating in public life using one’s mother tongue.”

In South Africa, the past of the Afrikaans language is still up for debate. This has come up again due to the dispute over the language of instruction at historically Afrikaans universities such as Stellenbosch. Should it be written in English, Afrikaans, both, or a mix that incorporates several South African languages?

The institution must devise strategies for advancing Afrikaans while avoiding impressions and realities of racist behaviour connected to dominant and early Afrikaner nationalist practises. It is crucial to take into account both the history and present reality of Afrikaans.

The foundation and growth of the language have been greatly influenced by South Africans of all colours. Apart from the well-known hegemonic apartheid history propagated by white Afrikaner Christians in national education, propaganda and the media, Afrikaans also has a “black past".

Afrikaans is a creole language that developed in southern Africa during colonisation in the 19th century. With influences from native Khoekhoe and San languages as well as seafarer dialects of Malay, Portuguese, Indonesian and Dutch, this creolised, simplified language has its roots mostly in Dutch. Peasants, urban proletariat of all ethnicities, and even the middle class of public servants, traders, and teachers spoke it.

According to South African literary scholar Hein Willemse, Afrikaans is a language from southern Africa that is “more black than white". In a study titled ”The hidden histories of Afrikaans“ that was released by the University of Pretoria in 2018, Willemse claims that ”Today, six in 10 of the roughly seven million Afrikaans speakers in South Africa are thought to be black.“ All signs point to a large growth in this number over the ensuing 10 years.

Afrikaans, like a number of other South African languages, is a cross-border tongue with substantial numbers of speakers in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, states Willemse in his research. It is spoken by members of all social classes in South Africa and Namibia, including the rich and the poor, rural and urban residents, the undereducated and the educated.

However, the white Afrikaner nationalists brought a set of beliefs about society, social structure, the economy, culture, and language when they took power in South Africa in 1948.

According to South African History Online (SAHO) in its massive archives, language was used as a tribalist instrument during apartheid to further this divide-and-rule ideology.

Unquestionably, one of the achievements of Afrikaner nationalist supremacy was the dissemination of the idea that they alone represented those referred to as “Afrikaans”.

Additionally, their world-view was the sole notable manifestation of their Afrikaans language proficiency. The Afrikaner community was stifled by oppositional and alternative thought by these nationalist culture brokers. Additionally, they downplayed the importance of black Afrikaans speakers in the larger speech group.

The frequent portrayal of Afrikaans as the language of racists, oppressors, and unreconstructed nationalists in socio-political history is therefore not surprising. However, it also reflects a tenacious history of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, all-encompassing humanism, and anti-apartheid activity, says Willemse in his dissertation.

A student who was descended from slaves and attending an Islamic madrasah in Cape Town in 1860 copied a prayer into his exercise book. The pieces of the book that have survived today reflect a past that the vast majority of South Africans are still unaware of. The exercises in that book, which is also known as a "koplesboek" (head lesson book), are written in the then-common language known as “Cape Malay dialect.”

Author Fallou Ngom claims in a thesis titled “Introducing the Ajami Literatures of Islamic Africa” that, aside from the phonetic spelling, any speaker of modern Afrikaans would recognise it as being close to modern Afrikaans.

Arabic script is used in this instance. This is only one illustration of the well-known history of a'jami scripts created in the Cape Muslim community in the second half of the 19th century and far into the 1950s.

In Achmat Davids’ groundbreaking work, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims (2011), a comparable "koplesboek" from 1806 was discovered. For some historical context, the SAHO archives reveal that this occurred as early as the second British occupation of the Cape Colony. Shaka was just a young man of 19 at the time, on the cusp of becoming a renowned military leader, great Zulu monarch, and conqueror.

Ngom claims that political leaflets, daily correspondence, and the creation of grocery lists all used Arabic-Afrikaans. This language was the conduit for the most private thoughts and religious beliefs of the literate Cape Muslims.

This language’s splinter groups referred to themselves as “Oorlams.”

In a 2012 paper titled “Is there a Namibian Afrikaans: Recent trends in grammatical variation in Afrikaans varieties within and across Namibia's borders,” Gerald Stell, a linguistics Master’s student at Stellenbosch University, claimed that they spread what was known as Cape Dutch during the late 1780s and early 1800s to the north-west Cape Colony, the present-day west coast of the Northern Cape, and southern Namibia. They significantly contributed to its emergence as the language of commerce, culture, and education.

Not everyone, however, agreed that the Cape Dutch could convey knowledge, the ability to write, or upper-middle-class culture. The Cape Colony's elite, whether Dutch or English-speaking, ridiculed it. According to Chief Justice Lord JH de Villiers, this language was “poor in the number of its words, weak in its inflections, lacking in correctness of meaning,” as stated in Herman Giliomee’s The Afrikaners: Biography of a People.

The conflict between opposing viewpoints on the nature of Cape Dutch, or what would later be known as Afrikaans, began to take shape around 1870. Some of the most prominent members of the 1874–1890 "first language movement" vehemently refuted the language's creole origins. For them, Afrikaans possessed "purity, simplicity, brevity, and vigour" and was "a true Germanic language" (quoted in Giliomee).

Giliomee continues by pointing out that The Genootskap van Regte Afrikaanders (GRA, the Society of True Afrikaners), which was founded in 1875, actively worked to promote nationalism among white Cape Dutch speakers. They adopted “Afrikaans” as their language, and “Afrikaners” as their designation. Writing a nationalist history of oppressors and victims was their goal.

The GRA actively worked to distinguish “their language,” even to the point of undermining and demonising other speakers’ claims to it. They branded their own variation of Cape Dutch as prestige “Burger Afrikaans,” also known as the “language of the white man.”

They were tenacious in their efforts to modify, standardise, and modernise a spoken language, as were their predecessors. Their decisions had far-reaching effects because of the middle-class prejudice and racial prejudice that drove many of them.

Denying the shared characteristics of their fellow Afrikaans speakers who were poor, indigenous, or descended from slaves, they elevated the language to a specific ethnic nationalist cause. The idea of Afrikaans as a “white language” with a “white history” and “white faces” was propagated.

SAHO claims that in 1974, black non-Afrikaans speakers were forced to take Afrikaans classes, which was a terrible policy choice. The 1976 Soweto revolt and the accompanying distrust of its speakers were both ignited by the impact.

The phrase “the language of the oppressor” was used to describe Afrikaans. The phrase was, understandably, an emotional, visceral reaction to Afrikaner ethnic nationalism and the accompanying oppressive governmental power. According to Willemse, it also masked the histories, experiences and lives of black and non-nationalist Afrikaans speakers.

Today, after more than 20 years of democratic rule in South Africa, Afrikaner nationalism and the status of Afrikaans in the public sector have both significantly declined. However, Afrikaans has had an exponential rise in the private sectors of culture, private education, the media and subscription television.

Willemse asserts that despite its numerical dominance by speakers with black and brown skin, Afrikaans has a complex nature.

Today, Afrikaans is understood as an amalgam of different forms, speakers, and histories rather than being seen through a single lens. In order to decolonise the Afrikaans language, the discussion over the preferred medium of instruction at Afrikaans-speaking universities like Stellenbosch, The University of Pretoria, and The University of the Free State must be held in this spirit.

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