All About the Afrikaans Language

You may have seen monuments that celebrate famous events, global celebrities, or even animals, but have you ever seen a monument dedicated to a language?

Located in South Africa, the Afrikaans Language Monument celebrates the complex history and continued life of the Afrikaans language. In this blog post, we look more closely at the origins of Afrikaans, its usage throughout the world today, and its relationship to Dutch.

History and Origins of Afrikaans

Afrikaans, drawn from the Dutch word for “African,” is a West Germanic language that originated in the late 17th century. Once called “Cape Dutch,” the language evolved from a Dutch vernacular spoken by settlers in the Dutch East India Company colony, which colonized a sizeable portion of Southern Africa. Here, colonists of Dutch, German, and French origin mingled with Indigenous populations, most notably the Khoisan people, as well as with enslaved Africans and Asians. This diverse linguistic contact caused Afrikaans to develop into its own unique language, which continued to grow and change throughout the 18th century.

In 1925, the South African government recognized Afrikaans as a language, rather than as a dialect of Dutch, and designated it an official language of South Africa. Afrikaans went on to be used as an official language, alongside English, throughout the apartheid era (1948-1994). In 1994, English and Afrikaans were joined by nine African languages given equal status as official languages, as part of an attempt to move on from apartheid and encourage multilingualism.

Afrikaans in the World Today

Although recognized as an official language, Afrikaans does not have an uncontroversial history. Today many black South Africans characterize Afrikaans as a language of oppression, since it was imposed in “whites-only” schools and used by other institutions, such as law enforcement, to maintain the violently racist system of apartheid.

Afrikaans’ contentious history has generated some fears that the language might be in danger of dying out. Yet numbers suggest that Afrikaans is by no means vanishing. It is spoken by about 7 million people in South Africa, about 13.5% of the population, as well as some 200,000 people in Namibia. Around the world, there are approximately 8.3 million Afrikaans speakers, including sizable communities in Australia and New Zealand.

Is Afrikaans the same as Dutch?

Afrikaans and Dutch are close enough to be mutually intelligible languages, especially when written, but there are notable differences between the two—in fact, it’s said to be easier for Dutch speakers to understand Afrikaans than the other way around.

While there are phonetic and spelling differences between the two languages, the gap is most obvious when it comes to grammar. For example, Afrikaans utilizes a simplified version of certain Dutch grammatical features, doing away with grammatical genders as well as many of the tense forms of verbs—there is almost no use of the simple past in Afrikaans. Afrikaans is also unique in its usage of the double negative, which is very uncommon in standard Dutch.

Finally, although the languages share some cognates, they also share several “false friends.” In Dutch, for instance, the word eventueel means “possibly,” but in Afrikaans it is often translated as eventual or eventually. This is a perfect reminder that when dealing with languages that are close but certainly not identical, a professional translator can help avoid any awkward mistakes—or any political and cultural missteps.


Photo by Taryn Elliott