All you need to know about Afrikaans

Seeing as it’s Christmas, I thought I’d share with you all something very special. This is going to be the first in a series of posts about specific languages, in which I will go through some basic background info, crash-course some grammar, give you a few example phrases and put up lots of pretty pictures on the way. Today’s language is one of my absolute favourites. In fact, it’s probably one of my first loves, although it seems to be fairly unloved as languages go. It is, of course, Afrikaans.

Iconic Table Mountain presides over Cape Town, South Africa’s third city and the birthplace of Afrikaans

I first came across Afrikaans when I was 14, in 2006, when there was a huge wave of immigration going on from South Africa to London, where I was living at the time. For several years, Afrikaans became one of the most prominent of all the languages spoken in London, and rarely a day would go by when you wouldn’t hear some bright-faced, cheerful South Africans sitting on the tube, chattering away, making observations about you and other passengers. This period didn’t last too long though, as these people soon realised that in fact, little Afrikaans, while there was even speculation about whether it would survive as a language, was thriving in the UK, and at any one time someone on that train could probably understand every word you were saying. I decided to join them.

For political and historical reasons, Afrikaans has often been seen as a contraversial language. However, over the past twenty years it has made a phenomenal image transformation, with the help of a vibrant new Afrikaans-speaking generation emerging from South Africa with enormous cultural influence. Nowadays Afrikaans is a dynamic non-racial language, with only 40% of its native speakers being white.

The origins of Afrikaans are very diverse, and its vocabulary reflects this by containing words of European, African and South-East Asian derivation.

A bit of context

Afrikaans is largely derived from Dutch, and its simple grammar has led in the past to its being declared the easiest language for English speakers to learn. It’s hard to say exactly how the language came about, as again, previously this has been highly politicised, but one of the more popular theories at the moment is that it was created by Dutch colonists trying to speak to the Malay slaves they had brought across to work in their new colony in the Cape. The Malays couldn’t really speak Dutch properly, which led to the simplification of the grammar, and they soon started throwing their own words into the mix. This is why you might have been surprised to discover that the word for ‘banana’ is not ‘banaan’, or ‘banana’ or ‘banane’ or any of those nice easy words offered to you by other European languages, but in fact ‘piesang‘. We also have the Malays to thank for introducing the word ‘baie‘, which is one of the best and most useful Afrikaans words ever, meaning ‘very’ or ‘a lot of’, and which can still be found (apparently) in use on the other side of the planet, in Indonesia. As Afrikaans speakers spread across what is modern day South Africa, they came into contact with neighbouring African languages, such as Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho, which also greatly influenced the way they spoke. Nowadays Afrikaans is spoken by roughly 6½ million native speakers, and between 15 and 23 million second language speakers across South Africa, Namibia, and ex-patriate communities around the globe.

So let’s talk grammar

Without a doubt, Afrikaans has the simplest grammar of any language I’ve ever come across. Here are some reasons why:

  1. There is no gender. This is particularly nice for English speakers, as I know this can be a point of confusion for some. Everything gets the definite article die, singular and plural alike, and indefinite article ‘n, pronounced a bit like ‘a’ in English. Therefore: die boom, die man, die vrou, die kinder, die piesang, die sonsak, die tyd, die regering, die oorsaak, ‘n appel, ‘n dag, ‘n droom, ‘n land.
  2. There are only 3 tenses. Yes, that’s right. Past, present and future was enough for Afrikaans speakers, so there’s no need to start learning imperfect, pluperfect, the habitual, or anything like that. What’s more, verbs don’t decline.
    Present: Ek maak, jy maak, hy/sy/dit maak, ons maak, julle maak, hulle maak.
    Past: Ek het gemaak, jy het gemaak, hy/sy/dit het gemaak, ons het gemaak, julle het gemaak, hulle het gemaak.
    Future: Ek sal maak, jy sal maak, hy/sy/dit sal maak, ons sal maak, julle sal maak, hulle sal maak.
    That really is it.
  3. There are no irregular verbs. (Well, almost. As in a lot of languages, ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ have irregular forms in the future and past, but if you’ve studied German and Dutch, these won’t come as a shock to you. As for the rest of them, what you see is what you get.)
    To be (Pres/Past/Future): Ek is/Ek het gewees/Ek sal wees
    To have (Pres/Past/Future): Ek het/Ek het gehad/Ek sal hê

There are a few aspects that might be a bit trickier if you’ve not studied a Germanic language before. Sentence structure tends to be quite similar to German and Dutch (i.e. verb as second idea in the sentence, second verb coming at the end of the clause, etc.), but is a bit less stringent. There are also a number of words that you can’t really translate, but that Afrikaans speakers use a lot in their speech, like maar, mos, wel, net, tog and the list goes on. Mastering these is particularly important for coming across as a native speaker.

One of the most striking feature of Afrikaans is the way it forms the negative. You insert the word nie after the verb (c.f. niet/nicht in Dutch/German), but then if the sentence carries on, you have to say it again at the end:
I don’t want to: Ek wil nie.
I don’t want to eat biltong with Uncle Piet: Ek wil nie biltong met Oom Piet eet nie.

Some vocab and phrases

I’ve mentioned that Afrikaans can be a lot like English, and I think the best way to make this point is with the following two phrases. On this occasion there is no prize for correct translation, but I might offer one to the person who can pronounce them the most convincingly:

My pen is in my hand.
My arm is in warm water.

Don’t worry, it’s not all that easy. Here are five sample sentences that you may find useful or interesting:

  1. Somebody’s stolen my car! What’s the phone number of the insurance company?
    Iemand het my kar gesteel! Wat is die nommer van die versekeringsmaatskappy?
  2. My son works in London. He’s got a very beautiful wife and sends me pictures of their two little children every week.
    My seun werk in London. Hy het ‘n baie mooi vrou en elke week stuur hy vir my fotos van hul twee klein kindertjies.
  3. I ate so much Nando’s this weekend. Now it’s very difficult for me to walk to the fridge.
    Hierdie naweek het ek soveel Nando’s geëet. Nou vind ek dit baie moeilik om na die yskas toe te loop.
  4. Excuse me, do you know if there’s a shop round here where I can buy pumpkins?
    Ekskuus tog, weet jy of daar ‘n winkel hier rond is waar ek pampoene kan koop?
  5. I’ll try and convince him, but he will never go and visit his grandfather again.
    Ek sal hom probeer oorreed, maar hy sal nooit weer by sy oupa gaan kuier nie.

Final thoughts

Afrikaans is great. It’s a really vibrant language, and learning it will open up a whole new world of music, books and history to you. It’s really satisfying to learn, because the grammar is so simple that it doesn’t take long for you to be able to just start speaking it. It’s also one where you can cheat a lot: South Africans regularly use English words while speaking Afrikaans, known as Kombuis Afrikaans, or kitchen Afrikaans, which is useful for making yourself understood, although you might annoy some language purists.

I used ‘Teach Yourself Afrikaans’, which is actually one of the best of the series. It goes into really good depth and there is a lot of audio material as well, which I used to play at night sometimes until I fell asleep, to get used to pronunciation. I then kept it going by listening to Afrikaans music, of which there is some good stuff, and also this. I also watched some comedy videos on YouTube, such as this one by Casper de Vries, where he points out the difference between Dutch and Afrikaans. Then two years after I started learning, I read my first book in Afrikaans: Ander Lewens by André Brink, who also translates his stuff into English. There are a lot of good Afrikaans websites, such as nuus24.com, and a lot of podcasts as well – Afrikaans even has its own word for podcast: potgooi.

So here’s a load of reasons to learn Afrikaans. I hope you get a chance to do so, if not least so to improve your South African English, and try and understand what on earth your South African friends and colleagues are talking about.

Merry Christmas! Geseënde Kersfees!