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:
|A bit||’n Bietjie||Een beetje|
|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.