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Afrikaans

The Afrikaans language is surrounded by a history of political and social controversy thanks to its inherent historical ties to the oppressive apartheid policies of South Africa’s old Afrikaans governments. The language remains relevant, however, and has regained some prominence in South Africa in recent years.

Today, Afrikaans is spoken by an estimated 6 million people in South Africa and Namibia. Other countries where Afrikaans can be heard include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Classification of the Afrikaans Language

Although it is primarily known for its presence in South Africa, the Afrikaans language was developed from the 17th-century Dutch language. It is therefore classified as a West Germanic language.

Afrikaans and Dutch are very similar; however, Afrikaans has always retained a distinct quality that sets it apart as a different language. Major differences occur in pronunciation and the fact that, unlike Dutch, the Afrikaans language lacks case and gender distinctions.

Early Development of the Afrikaans Language

Map of South Africa

It is believed that the first Dutch settlers came to South Africa in 1652. These settlers founded the city of Cape Town and over time developed a unique culture, language, and society, helping to form a unified Afrikaner population. Afrikaners, also formerly known as Boers, historically have been defined as those Afrikaans language-speakers of European – especially Dutch – descent who have inhabited Southern Africa since the 17th century.

Derived primarily from the Dutch language dialect of South Holland, the Afrikaans language developed grammatical simplifications that made it distinct from standard Dutch. For one thing, case and gender distinctions found in the Dutch language were dropped. Thanks to the influences of other settlers in southern Africa, the Afrikaans language picked up a number of loan words from the English, French, German, and Native African languages.

Development of Afrikaans as a Written Language

Until the mid-19th century, Afrikaans existed primarily as a spoken language while standard Dutch was used as the writing system among Afrikaners. Around this time, a nationalist Afrikaans movement arose which called for the adaptation of Afrikaans as a written language.

Gradually the newspapers, schools and churches of Afrikaner populations in southern Africa came to adopt the Afrikaans language, until it officially replaced Standard Dutch as the writing system of South Africa in 1925.

The use of Afrikaans in the South African educational system began in 1914. The language’s status was further solidified when it was adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1919 and when, in1933, the first Afrikaans translation of the Bible appeared in South Africa.

British Colonization: Effects on Afrikaner Populations

The British take-over of the Dutch Cape colony in 1814 resulted in legal reforms including the abolition of slavery and increased protection for the Khoikhoi peoples who had been largely displaced by the Afrikaners. Afrikaner disagreement with British policy resulted in the Great Trek, a series of Afrikaner migrations in the 1830s and 1840s.

An estimated 10,000 Afrikaners fled from British rule, establishing independent Afrikaner states of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. British attempts to take these Afrikaner republics resulted in the First Boer War, which ended with British victory. As a result, the two Afrikaner states were made a part of the British Union of South Africa in 1910, at which point South Africa was declared a bilingual (English and Afrikaans) state.

Afrikaner Government in South Africa

From 1910 to 1994, Afrikaners controlled South African government – a difficult social and political era that remains shrouded in controversy. Although racial segregation had been apparent in South Africa since European colonization began in the 17th century, the political segregation policy known as apartheid – literally meaning “separateness” in the Afrikaans language – was not enacted until after the general election of 1948.

From this point on, the Afrikaner government continued to enact apartheid laws segregating white and black South Africans, to the detriment of the black population. Legislation such as the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and the Coloured Person’s Education Act of 1963 resulted in decreased funding and the closing of many black schools.

Controversy and the 1974 Afrikaans Medium Decree

The Afrikaans language has long been associated with the exclusionary nature of South Africa’s Afrikaner government and its apartheid policies. The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 was met with intense opposition, as it called for all black schools to use an even balance of Afrikaans and English in the classroom.

The intrinsic link between oppressive Afrikaner government policies and the Afrikaans language led black South Africans to prefer English as a medium of communication, and in the years preceding 1974 English had been increasingly used in the realms of trade, commerce, and industry. The legislation of the Afrikaans Medium Decree was seen as a way for the Afrikaner government to reverse the decline of the Afrikaans language among the black population, thereby consolidating its power.

The 1976 Soweto Uprising

On June 16, 1976, the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee and local students organized a peaceful rally protesting the fact that they were being forced to learn Afrikaans in school. Unfortunately the march turned violent and panic broke out when police began shooting into the crowd.

The rioting and violence that ensued resulted in hundreds of fatalities and thousands of wounded. The emotions stirred by the Soweto Uprising made it a notable event in South Africa’s battles against the Afrikaner government and its oppressive linguistic policies.

The End of Apartheid, and the Afrikaans Language Today

Flag of South Africa

The South African government underwent a major transition in the 1990s, first with the repealing of apartheid laws and then with the election of political activist Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa. Mandela’s election also broke the chain of Afrikaner dominance in South Africa’s government.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the Afrikaans language lost significant government support; however, it arguably remains the second most significant language of South Africa today, after English. Afrikaans still serves as one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, and it is still found in South African media and literature.

Some theorists believe that younger generations of South Africans hold a depoliticized view of the Afrikaans language, no longer seeing it as the language of oppression as their elders may have. Although Afrikaans once was spoken primarily by white colonists in South Africa, it is estimated that by now an equal number of whites and nonwhites claim the Afrikaans language as their mother tongue.


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Afrikaans Quick Facts

Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic, West, Low Saxon-Low Franconian, Low Franconian.

Official Language of: South Africa

Spoken by Approximately 6,381,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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