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 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 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 are 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 because almost every time I mention that I am South African 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, in 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 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 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!).

Some parts of Afrikaans and Dutch are incredibly similar. The written Dutch words are often comparable 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 spelling in Afrikaans, but the majority of Dutch is as difficult for an Afrikaans-speaking South African to learn and understand as it is for a German expat, for example.

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
Banana Piesang (also Indonesian) Banaan

I think the general gist here is that like my cousins, 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!

Feature Image: 534131/Pixabay.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2019 but was updated in October 2020 for your reading pleasure.

Shaakira Vania
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.

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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