How to learn languages – Afrikaans

We are cheating a little as the final stage of our journey around European languages, because of course Afrikaans is profoundly not European (hence its name).

29 B Bangor

Spoken natively by the majority of whites and coloureds in South Africa and some neighbouring regions (notably in Namibia), including by a plurality of the population in some western provinces, Afrikaans is an extraordinary linguistic phenomenon because it provides a clear view of what would have happened to other languages had the process of language change not been slowed down by standardisation – with all the grammatical regularisation (and arguably simplification, although linguists dislike that term) that entails. Alongside English, Dutch (from which Afrikaans is derived) in fact remained the official language of the Union of South Africa until 1925 and retained that status alongside Afrikaans until 1961. Television was only introduced to the country in 1975. This means that Afrikaans is now a standard national language, but became so centuries later than any of the ones we have looked at in Europe.

So, what is it like?

Phonology

Afrikaans is immediately and clearly not Dutch upon hearing it. It retains some Germanic harshness, but rather less; it has also often overtly dropped final consonants and other complex clusters.

It is, nevertheless, obviously Dutch-derived and many of the fundamental sounds (and similarities with English, helpfully) are the same.

Standard

Afrikaans was standardised remarkably late, although before the most recent reforms in Dutch. Therefore, since 1925, both languages have moved away from what was then Standard (written) Dutch.

Afrikaans simplified spelling from Dutch, notably by removing letters outright (so [z] always became [s]; [v] often became [w]; [ch] became [k] or [g]; etc).

The Afrikaans standard also removed final letters, notably -n and often also -t, where they are not (clearly) pronounced. That seems a sensible move (the spelling sewe ‘seven’ does reflect pronunciation in Afrikaans and arguably even in Dutch bettter than the Dutch zeven), but it does lead to some confusion in grammatically derived forms where it usually reappears (e.g. sewentien ‘seventeen’; also notably plurals and adjective forms, see Grammar below).

This loss of -(e)n has profound grammatical implications elsewhere.

Theoretically all vowels in Afrikaans can take an acute accent, a diaresis or a circumflex (although in practice not all do). These are generally used to show emphasis or distinction (e.g. sê ‘say’ versus the possessive particle se).

One marked peculiarity of Afrikaans is initial apostophes, notably for the indefinite article ‘n, which see the following letter written lower case even if at the start of the sentence, in which case the following word takes the capitalisation: ‘n Appel het ik geëet ‘(it’s) an apple (that) I ate’.

Vocabulary

Afrikaans vocabulary is overwhelmingly shared with Dutch, particularly if we allow for natural progression of the language in a new setting (in much the same way as English developed to describe new things its speakers encountered in the American Wild West or the Australian Outback).

Key numbers:

  • 1 een, 2 twee, 3 drie, 4 vier, 5 vyf, 6 ses, 7 sewe, 8 agt, 9 nege, 10 tien;
  • 11 elf, 12 twaalf, 16 sestien, 17 sewentien, 20 twintig, 24 vier-en-twintig;
  • 100 eenhonderd, 1000 eenduisend;
  • 456789 vierhonderd sesenvyftigduisend sewehonderd negen-en-tagtig

Nevertheless, some core terms are taken from elsewhere, perhaps most notably baie ‘very, much’, borrowed from Malay (often covering any of Dutch heel, zeer, veel). There is also a greater tendency towards borrowing English or French terms (notably plesier, said in preference to Dutch alstublieft when responding to a said or implied dankie ‘thank you’).

Key personal pronouns (subject, object [if distinct] – 1st; 2nd; 3rd person):

  • Singular ek, my; jy, jou; hy/sy/dithom/haar/dit;
  • Plural [no subject/object distinction] ons; julle; hulle.

The polite ‘you’ form in either singular or plural is in all cases.

Informal Afrikaans does also allow some reduced forms (as in Dutch), notably ‘k (ek) and ‘t (dit).

Afrikaans is also notable because all possessive adjectives take the same form as the object personal pronoun: my ‘me, my’; hulle ‘they, them, their’ with the sole exception of sy ‘his’ (not hom; noting haar ‘her’).

For possessive use, dit tends to be used alongside the possessive particle se: dit se ‘its’. Dit is also merged, in all registers, with is ‘is’ to form dis ‘it is, it’s’.

Grammar

As in English, nouns in Afrikaans no longer display inherent grammatical gender at all. The most common plural marker is the ending -e (hond ‘dog’, honde ‘dogs’; huis ‘house’, huise ‘houses’), with relevant consonant doubling (kop ‘head’, koppe ‘heads’) and any final -g in the singular generally removed in the plural (dag ‘day’, dae ‘days’). Another common plural ending, notably for family terms or borrowings from English, is -s (dogter ‘daughter’, dogters ‘daughters’). There are also notable irregularities (e.g. kind ‘child’, kinders ‘children’). Typically the -e plural matches -(e)n in Standard Dutch and -s matches -s, but this far from universal.

Verbs in Afrikaans are perhaps the most remarkably reduced element of the language. Only the auxiliary/modal verbs distinguish between an individual present and an individual past form: the auxiliary wees ‘to be’ has present is and past washê ‘to have’ has present het and past had; the modals kan ‘can/be able’ has past kon; wil ‘want/would like’ has past woumoet ‘must/have to’ has past moes; and sal ‘will’ (effectively the future marker) has past sou ‘would’ (effectively the past marker); the auxiliary word ‘become’ also exists but its past form werd has fallen out of common use. All other verbs have only two forms in common use, a base form (e.g. werk ‘work’) and a past participle (gewerk ‘worked’); in fact, those with a prefix have only one (e.g. bestel ‘order, ordered’). Additional meaning is conveyed by combining the past participle with het to form the past (ek het gewerk ‘I worked’) or with word to form the passive (dit word bestel ‘that is ordered’); or by combining the base form with any modal (ek sal werk ‘I will work’; hulle wou bestel ‘they wanted to order’). A more recent innovation is the use of gaan ‘to go’ as a (near) future auxiliary, more or less as in English and French: ek gaan bestel ‘I am going to order’.

The definite article is die and the indefinite article ‘n in all cases – the latter is now pronounced as a schwa sound (in other words as a neutral vowel, not unlike its equivalent in English when unstressed). Adverbs do not generally take an ending in Afrikaans. However, most adjectives do add an ending when appearing predicatively (i.e. before a noun); this ending almost always required for single-syllable adjectives and occasionally for others and is typically -e, although there are many common cases where further modifications are required (often removal of a final consonant; thus koud ‘cold’ becomes koue, laag ‘low’ becomes lae; or an addition of one where it once existed, e.g. sleg ‘bad’ becomes slegte), as well as a few outright irregulars (oude ‘old’ becomes ou; this die hond is oude ‘the dog is old’ versus die ou hond ‘the old dog’).

Word order is essentially as in Dutch – V2 in main clauses (i.e. the verb always appears as second element), and SOV in subordinate. Ek het die ou hond gesê, want ek in die koue huis was ‘I saw the old dog because I was in the cold house [I-have-the-old-dog-seen-because-I-in-the-cold-house-was’. Negation is complex (and, interestingly, linguists are unclear as to why it has become so!), typically involving double negation except where the negative particle nie is already final – ek het die ou hond nie gesê nie ‘I did not see the old dog’ [I-have-the-old-dog-not-seen-not]; there is also the peculiar negative imperative moenie (derived from moet nie), to which the same rule applies – moenie sê die koue huis nie Do not see the cold house’.

 

Character

Afrikaans broadly retains the character of Dutch, but arguably in a more exotic way. It remains primarily nominal, but is of course considerably less conservative (Dutch already being considerably less so than German) in almost every way.

Despite the language’s original basis on the vernacular of people from South Holland, Afrikaans speakers do generally report that they understand Belgian Dutch (or Vlaams ‘Flemish’) better than that of the Netherlands.

What next?

That is our circuit of national European Latinate and Germanic languages complete! Next up I will round up the Germanic languages, and then do an overall review.

Please let me know any queries (and corrections) you have!

Ons Vader in die hemel, laat U Naam geheilig word. Laat U koningsheerskappy spoedig kom. Laat U wil hier op aarde uitgevoer word soos in die hemel. Gee ons die porsie brood wat ons vir vandag nodig het. En vergeef ons ons sondeskuld soos ons ook óns skuldenaars vergewe het. Bewaar ons sodat ons nie aan verleiding sal toegee nie; en bevry ons van die greep van die Bose. Want van U is die koninkryk, en die krag, en die heerlikheid, tot in ewigheid.

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One thought on “How to learn languages – Afrikaans

  1. […] also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not […]

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