Afrikaans and Dutch – what is the the history, and what are the differences and similarities between these two languages?
When my two female 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 PowerPuff Girls tank tops and shorts, or matching dresses or dungarees. At one point we played “Fashion Show” and I was the stressed-out designer, working overtime to pull out matching, cool outfits in the short time period before their parents signalled it was time to go. Clothes were being frantically pulled out of drawers, hair and makeup had to be done, the look perfected so the girls could walk the runway timeously to an incredibly critical and bemused audience (namely my sister).
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Siblings, or twins?
Chances are if you had a sibling, your parents dressed you in identical outfits at some point too. Maybe it’s some sort of parental right of passage to do so. Or your parents just want to show that if they really wanted to, they could make you twins too. More likely than not, it was probably just easier to buy the exact same outfit for however many children you have in a similar age range because anything more than that is just too much effort.
So the world assumes you’re part of a two or a three (maybe a four or five) as opposed to being a one; as opposed to being seen as your own special self. In fact, my older sister and I have been mistaken for twins many times in our teen years- and we do not look identical. We’re siblings; not twins. Similar in appearance, but not the same.
Dutch and Afrikaans, are they similar?
It’s a bit like the whole Afrikaans- Dutch debacle. I’m almost certain that the Dutch received some sort of exposure to the history of their former colony -possibly within their school curricula (Dutch readers please confirm)- because almost every time I mention that I am South African to a Dutch person (or one who has resided here for a while), I often see the look of surprise mingled with recognition as they then usually exclaim: “Oh, so then you speak Zuid-Afrikaans, right!? That’s basically Dutch.”, to which I smile, nod and respond with what is essence a white 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 similar 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 eleven official languages (yes, eleven- 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 the history of the country and the presence of Dutch colonisers from the 17th century. An important fact to note is that Afrikaans is not pure Dutch; it’s a language that is an amalgamation of Dutch, German, French and Indonesian. Interesting, right? At the risk of this article turning into a language documentary of sorts, I’ll simply sum this up by saying that 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 had it entirely wrong all this time. If you can speak Afrikaans, you will likely understand some Dutch a bit more easily, 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 (Eg: English, Xhosa, Zulu as some examples) and either speaks no Afrikaans at all, or Afrikaans to a high-school level proficiency (guilty!).
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Some parts of Afrikaans and Dutch are incredibly similar. The written Dutch words are often
likeable to Afrikaans words which means that it can be easy to grasp the gist of a sentence or what is being written about. The spoken Dutch word, however, can be mind boggling! Again, a few words here and there will be easily decipherable as these are almost the exact same in Afrikaans, but the majority of Dutch is as difficult for an Afrikaans-speaking South African to learn and understand as it is for any other expat.
That said though, the basis of Afrikaans does mean South Africans will be able to 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 popular favourite is also to do the Afrikaans-Dutch conversation exchange and see what is the same and what is different. Here’s a little taster of what I mean:
English Afrikaans Dutch
Understand Verstaan Begrijp/Verstaan
A bit ’n Bietjie Een beetje
Left/Right Links/Regs Links/Rechts
The Die Het/De
Really!? Rerig?! Echt?!
Of course Natuurlik Natuurlijk
I think the general gist here is that like me and my sister, Afrikaans and Dutch are not twins, but they are in fact sisters. One older, loves windmills and clogs, probably the parental favourite and one younger, has a sweet tooth (google an afrikaans koeksister!), likes travel and languages. Rooted together, but different. Part of the same family tree, but different branches on the tree. 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! *cue that Sister Sledge classic*.
Language is an intricate facet of culture all over the world. People have such a deep connection to their spoken words that picking up another language always seems daunting. So! With that said, if you’re not busy learning a language you can always read more about language on DutchReview.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 18 February 2019 but was updated on 14 February 2020.
Feature Image: 534131/Pixabay.