Afrikaans and Dutch: the differences and similarities

Afrikaans and Dutch what is the connection? Are these two languages as similar as they’re rumoured to be?

When my cousins were younger, they used to dress identically. It was so cute. They’d show up at our house for a visit with my aunt and uncle, dressed in matching dresses or dungarees. As you can imagine, outsiders often confused the two. But since my cousins were siblings and not identical twins, it didn’t take long for people to realise they were actually very different.

This is kind of what it’s like with Afrikaans and Dutch. Many people, including the Dutch, seem to have the idea that Afrikaans is practically identical to Dutch. Although there are of course many similarities, they’re officially listed as different languages for a reason.

Dutch and Afrikaans, are they similar?

I’m almost certain that the Dutch received some sort of exposure to the history of their former colony. Almost every time I mention that I am South African I often see the look of surprise mingled with recognition. They usually exclaim: “Oh, so then you speak Zuid-Afrikaans, right? That’s basically Dutch!” to which I smile and nod. My response is, in essence, a lie: “Yes! Sort of.”

But, no more white lies. No more! I’m writing this article to finally expose the truth: No. It’s not basically Dutch. In fact, much like two siblings dressed identically, Afrikaans and Dutch are from the same family but not twins.

Afrikaans: a brief history

I’ve had to invoke the use of the Google Dictionary to best explain this:

Afrikaans: a language of southern Africa, derived from the form of Dutch brought to the Cape by Protestant settlers in the 17th century. It is an official language of South Africa, spoken by around 6 million people as their first language.”

Afrikaans is a language originating in South Africa that is one of our twelve official languages (yes, twelve hello Rainbow Nation!). It’s a language tied to a lot of South Africa’s past and remains a very relevant language (despite informal arguments that it’s a dying language).

The root of the language is Dutch: a result of Dutch colonisers from the 17th century. An important fact to note is that Afrikaans is not pure Dutch. It’s an amalgamation of Dutch, German, French, and Indonesian. Interesting, right? At the risk of this article turning into a linguistics paper of sorts, I’ll make it easy. It’s not as simple as believing that Afrikaans = Dutch.

So…can you speak Dutch?

As noted by Google, Afrikaans is “derived from Dutch”, so the saving grace is that the language is still very relevant to the Netherlands. Dutchies haven’t got it entirely wrong this time. If you can speak Afrikaans, you will likely understand some Dutch. Although it’s still a challenge, even for the native Afrikaans speakers out there.

What makes it more nuanced is that not all South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language with native proficiency. Many do, but there is a high chance that the sunny South African you do meet has another first language (e.g. English, Xhosa, Zulu are some examples). Many South Africans only speak Afrikaans to a high-school level proficiency (guilty!), some not at all.

Some parts of Afrikaans and Dutch are incredibly similar. The written Dutch words are often comparable to Afrikaans words which means that you can easily grasp the gist of a sentence.

Spoken Dutch, however, can be mind boggling! Again, a few words here and there will be easily decipherable as these are almost the exact same spelling in Afrikaans. But the majority of Dutch is as difficult for an Afrikaans-speaker to learn and understand as it is for a German expat, for example.

That said though, the basis of Afrikaans does mean South Africans can pick up Dutch a bit easier so there is that little advantage. Feel free to ask any South Africans you may know for further insight into the challenges and similarities between the languages. A favourite pastime is to do the Afrikaans-Dutch conversation table and see what is the same and what is different. Here’s a little taster of what I mean:

EnglishAfrikaansDutch
UnderstandVerstaanBegrijp/Verstaan
A bit’n BietjieEen beetje
Left/RightLinks/RegsLinks/Rechts
TheDieHet/De
Really!?RerigEcht
Of courseNatuurlikNatuurlijk
BananaPiesang (also Indonesian)Banaan

In general, I think Afrikaans and Dutch are like my cousins, not twins but sisters. One older, loves windmills and clogs, probably the family favourite and one younger, has a sweet tooth (Google an Afrikaans koeksister!), likes travel and languages.

The same roots but different branches. The analogies could go on and on! I hope this musing makes it easier for South Africans to explain and for Dutchies to understand after all, in a way, we are family!

Feature Image: 534131/Pixabay.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2019 but was updated in June 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Shaakira Vania
20-something year old traveller, coconut lover (Seriously-anything coconut), and Libran. I recently made the cross-continent move to Amsterdam and spend my weekends exploring the country, meeting new people and telling myself I will finish a book every month (a promise I'm yet to keep). If I had to sum myself up in three words they would be: quirky, curious, and meme-lover.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Really nice article!!!
    I have been living in Belgium for just over 4 years.
    I have to agree with you. It is relatively easy to understand and communicate with the Dutch-speaking. But personally I have issues with construction of sentences… which does differ quite a lot.
    In terms of vocab, it definitely helps to know Afrikaans.
    Apparently it is also easier to learn Dutch in the Netherlands than it is to do so in Belgium…

  2. That is why we offer Dutch classes specially for Afrikaans speakers! They have advantages and disadvantages when learning Dutch: their vocabulary expands very fast because of similarities. Most of them understand a lot. But using the right grammar is hard: it’s not only about learning, it is also about unlearning grammar of the Afrikaans language with similarities. All together Afrikaans speakers have different challenges and strengths when learning Dutch. So it is a good idea to take a course that is aimed at Afrikaans speakers! 🙂

  3. I have a suggestion/correction. ‘Begrijp’ in the list of examples (the first line) should be changed to ‘Begrijpen’ if the infinitive is intended to be presented. ‘Begrijpen’ is the infinitive in Dutch, while ‘Begrijp’ is the imperative mood. Alternatively, if the imperative mood is supposed to be presented (which is possible since the difference in meaning in English and Afrikaans cannot, in contradistinction to Dutch, be derived from the form), ‘Begrijp’ is correct, but ‘Verstaan’ should be changed to ‘Versta’. Incidentally, strictly speaking it should be changed to ‘Versta’/’Verstaat’ (and ‘Begrijp’ should be complemented by ‘Begrijpt’), but most Dutch speakers would probably consider the latter form outdated; it is – strictly speaking – the plural variant but this is only (extremely) rarely used at present and would presumably not even be recognized by many speakers of Dutch and thus be deemed incorrect by them. So either ‘Begrijpen/Verstaan’ or ‘Begrijp/Versta’ would be correct.

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