The jubilee – and most inclusive – edition of the authoritative Afrikaans dictionary, ‘HAT’, is a living monument to the language of Bishop Lavis as much as Bloemfontein, writes Michael Morris.

Cape Town - Afrikaans, it could be said, has always had youth on its side. Africa’s youngest indigenous language came into being by a kind of wayward devising, and, for all the staid traditions of some of its sterner guardians since, it has remained lively, adaptable, likeably cheeky, irrepressible.

Not unlike English, it borrows promiscuously, invents audaciously, and sustains its usefulness by embracing every opportunity to be its vividly expressive self.

Crucially, though, as lexicographer Fred Pheiffer, co-editor with Jana Luther and Rufus H Gouws of the new 1 632-page HAT 6, pointed out this week, the language lives and evolves in the mouths and minds of the people who use it, from farm to boardroom, leafy suburb to township backstreet, people who are collectively its custodians and, as time passes, the progenitors of its new forms and vocabulary.

And it is in the express acknowledgement of this wider community of everyday linguists, their contribution to the language and the way they use it, that the 50th anniversary edition of the Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal is set apart from its predecessors.

Census figures suggest that the number of first-language Afrikaans speakers is growing in all nine provinces, bringing the total to some 6.8 million people, just under a million more than a decade earlier.

Afrikaans, at 13.5 percent, is the third most-spoken language in South Africa after Zulu (11.5 million speakers, or 22.7 percent) and Xhosa (8.1 million, or 16 percent). English follows, with 4.8 million speakers (9.6 percent).

Yet, for reasons not only associated with apartheid, Afrikaans has not always been loved.

From the annals of the Argus, for instance, a report of September 13, 1877 on the second annual meeting of the Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikanders in Paarl is bald – and racist – in its ridicule.

“An attempt is being made by a number of jokers near Cape Town to reduce the ‘Plat Hollands’ of the streets and the kitchen to a written language and to perpetuate it. They are carrying on the joke well. They have a newspaper, have published a history of the colony, an almanack and to crown the joke – a grammar. It is impossible to read these productions without laughing, because one cannot help feeling that the writers are themselves laughing while they write. The spelling, the words, the idioms, the grammar – all is such as may at any time be taken phonetically from the mouth of any old Hottentots.”

But the Argus correspondent was right in identifying something of the origins of Afrikaans among the early Cape under-class. (Pheiffer cites the estimation of his late father and mentor, the long-time professor of Afrikaans and Dutch linguistics at UCT, Roy Pheiffer, that the first recognisable Afrikaans was being spoken between 1750 and 1800).

The first published Afrikaans, by Cape printer MC Schonegevel, was Sheikh Ahmad al-Ishmuni’s Kitab Al-Qawl al-Matin Fi Bayan Umur al-Din (The Book of the Firm Declaration Regarding the Explanation of the Matters of Religion) of 1856. It was phonetic Afrikaans rendered in Arabic script.

Emerging on the restive fringes of Cape society, Afrikaans had an element of resistance embedded in it. It was some irony, then, that, 100 years later, the crudely scrawled words, “To Hell With Afrikaans” on the placard borne by one of the thousands of young Soweto school children who swarmed the streets in protest against the taal in June 1976, reflected the fate of the language in appearing to have become the voice of a repressive Afrikaner nationalism.

In 1925, when the language achieved official status in Parliament, one of its key promoters, Senator CJ Langenhoven – author of Die Stem – had a more generous vision when he spoke of the capacity of language to reveal the content of “our hearts and souls”. The Argus quoted him as saying, to cheers, “We shall the more readily recognise underlying virtues than the faults of all human kind. We are doing work which is in the higher interests of the country… an achievement that in days to come will live when the contentions of today have vanished from the memories of our children and our children’s children.”

And, perhaps, in the context of a growing language whose community is not sectarian by any racial or religious definition, Langenhoven was close to the mark.

After half a century of struggle, it is telling that in HAT 6, “Struggle” has officially become an Afrikaans word, and that the standard authority on the language has been comprehensively renovated to reflect contemporary constitutional values, and the spirit of common, indivisible citizenship.

But it goes further than that.

The introduction to the new dictionary notes that “a HAT from the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, even a HAT from 2005, reflects a bygone era”.

Pheiffer said that for most of the language’s formal existence, Afrikaans “was seen to be owned by the establishment, and any usage that was not considered standard or pure, tended to be disdained or considered comical, not fit to be written or taken up in the HAT”.

The latest edition had the lexicographers going through the text from head word to head word and ensuring they were identifying 21st century Afrikaans.

As the HAT is considered the standard, this process required balancing prescription (how the language should be used) with description (how it is actually used).

“Over the years, the dictionary has cloaked itself in authority and what we are trying to do is to soften that brittle shell to enable us to describe the language community in its entirety, and Afrikaans as it is spoken.”

While Pheiffer acknowledged that it was an intuitive enterprise, lexicographers have a rule of thumb that you cannot include a word on the basis of just one example.

“We say a word must exist for five years, and it must be found in five different sources and five times in each source. Then you have something that’s not ephemeral or fleeting.”

The comprehensive list of several hundred names in the acknowledgements section – including newspapers, magazines and politicians – gives an indication of the range of sources.

This search sometimes yields serendipitous finds.

“If you page through Die Son, you get these lovely words. I came across the word ‘tiep’ (associated with ‘tip’, both tilt and rubbish heap) to describe the after-effects of a binge and I thought, ‘Jirre jong, I have to include this’. I started looking for other examples, and found them. So this is a new entry.”

The world of new technology is an obvious, but often, tricky trove of new words. The challenge is two-fold; is it justifiable to create a new Afrikaans word – or just stick to the English one – and is the technology going to be around long enough to warrant including it?

“It’s not cut-and-dried. There’s a big debate about the word ‘app’, for instance, which we have adopted in HAT. Some practitioners prefer ‘toep’ (for ‘toepassing’). But one has to be conscious of the peril of creating a word that’s never used.”

The political sphere has also spawned new terminology – from “openbare beskermer” (public protector) to “grondhervorming” (land reform), “rassekaart” (race card) and “vrygeborene” (born frees).

The HAT 6 includes morally, socially or racially objectionable or offensive words, but is more pointed than its predecessors in delineating what is currently acceptable, and addressing the implicit power of language in affirming rejected constructs – as in the case of words like “volk”.

The same is true of its reflecting an ecological consciousness absent from earlier editions. For instance, “kleinwild” (small game) used to be defined purely in terms of hunting. It is now defined in terms of its role in the health of an ecosystem.

With the help of Professor Frank Hendricks at UWC, the team sought out Kaaps words and phrases.

Pheiffer regards Kaaps as the oldest and most established – perhaps even the only really distinctive – dialectical variety of Afrikaans.

The dictionary includes words such as “gattas” (police), “gabba” (friend), “kappityt” (dance), “laaitie” (boy), “mang” (prison),“piemp” (rat on, from impimpi), “sharp” (right, and good), and “sjarrap” (shut up).

“HAT 6 is probably one of the first publications in Afrikaans that includes Kaaps on this scale,” Pheiffer said.

By virtue of a lifelong interest in comics, Pheiffer met Mahdi Abrahams of Cape Town’s pre-eminent comic shop, Reader’s Den, who, over the years has proved an invaluable source and collaborator in expanding the body of Muslim words of Arabic or Malay origin in the Afrikaans corpus.

Among them, in HAT 6, are “sjoekran” and “trammakassie” (thanks), “kanalla” (please), “ghoema” (a distinctive style of music), “nasara” (Christians, after Nazareth) and “tamaf” (excuse), along with various terms for prayers and traditional Muslim fare.

The HAT 6 also reflects changes in mainstream Afrikaner society.

“In earlier editions, the Afrikaans speaker was identified as an agrarian person, bonded to a farming tradition, whereas, now, Afrikaners have moved to the city, they are young and urban, they enjoy social media and are fully immersed in the wider world – and the dictionary reflects this.

“An interesting example is Afrikaners’ expanding palate – instead of the emphasis on ‘stowevleis, stoweappels, stowepatat’ of the past, you now have a word such as ‘teppanjaki’ (a style of Japanese cooking), or ‘terroir’ in reference to winemaking.

“Broadly, part of our purpose is to make sure the language doesn’t die by being too firmly rooted in old-fashioned ways. There is no prescribing how that should be done – it’s intuitive and it requires the lexicographer to be well read and in touch with the living world of the language. It’s a human project, and, in a sense, a humbling one. You have to be prepared to go into the backstreets to find how the language lives. And, for all the anxiety among some in the establishment about the loss of rigour, one has to avoid the risk of condescension to new vocabulary or usage.

“Afrikaans today is a bond that goes far deeper than skin colour and we hope that with the new HAT we are affirming that diversity in a way that is inclusive, a coming together. This really is a book for the new South Africa, which might sound a little hoary, but it’s true.”

Back in 1877 – or, for that matter, 1977 – the prospects for Afrikaans may not have seemed especially propitious. Today, the growing number of Afrikaans-speakers might well respond, in a phrase: “Kyk hoe lyk hy nou.”

Weekend Argus