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Number of Speakers: 6,200,000

Key Dialects: Cape Afrikaans, Orange River Afrikaans (or Northwestern Afrikaans), East Cape Afrikaans (or Southwestern Afrikaans)

Geographical Center: South Africa

Of the approximately six million speakers of Afrikaans, 4,000,000 speakers use Afrikaans as a second or third language. Afrikaans developed as a variant of the Dutch spoken by the colonists who arrived in the Cape in 1652, with some lexical and syntactic borrowings from Malay, Bantu languages, Khoisan languages, Portuguese, and other European languages.

Afrikaans is descended from the Holland variety of Dutch, which is a member of the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Cape Afrikaans is considered to be the standard dialect. Northwestern Afrikaans differs in that the singular form of nouns can be substituted for the plural; third person singular masculine and feminine pronouns are neutralized: hy = ‘he/she’, hom = ‘him/her’; it contains a large number of Khoikhoi lexical items – typically for local flora and fauna and cultural phenomena; the final nie in the Afrikaans double negative construction is lacking. Southwestern Afrikaans differs from the standard in having a larger amount of Malay, English, and Portuguese lexical items; loss of [r] in syllable codas; intrusion of [d] > [r], such as gedra het > gedradet > gedraret ‘have carried’.

Afrikaans is written in the Latin alphabet with twenty-six letters. C, q, x, and z are rarely used. A circumflex is used to mark long open ê and ô.

Afrikaans has twenty-two consonants, twenty vowels, and nine diphthongs. Most vowels have long and short variants.

The Dutch distinction of common vs. neuter genders for nouns is lost in Afrikaans. A single definite article die is used for all nouns, singular and plural. An indefinite article ‘n is used for all singular nouns. Afrikaans has no inflection for case. The genitive is expressed periphrastically using the particle se – sy vader se huis ‘his father’s house’. The indirect object for personal pronouns is marked with the preposition vir – gee vir die kind ‘give to the child’. Vir can also be used for the object – Jan slaan vir Piet ‘Jan strikes Piet’. Adjectives precede the noun. When either article is used, an –e is added to the adjective: die Nederlandse taal ‘the Dutch language’.

Verbal inflection in Afrikaans has been lost, except for the ge- prefix for most past participles. Composite tenses are formed using auxiliaries such as het, is, sal, and word. Verbs with separable prefixes create a fixed order of elements of the verbal tense structure. Afrikaans has a double negative construction. The negative particle nie is reiterated after the verb – hy het nie gekom nie ‘he didn’t come’, and hy het niks gedoen nie ‘he didn’t do anything’. Word order in Afrikaans is SVO for the main clause, SOV for the subordinate clause. If the subordinate clause precedes the main clause, the word order for the main clause is VSO.

Afrikaans developed as a means of communication between Dutch settlers, local Africans (Khoikhoi), and African and Asian slaves. Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Afrikaans was primarily used by farmers and rural dwellers. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries High Dutch was used as the language of government and of culture. In the nineteenth century English came to be used for these purposes as well. Afrikaans came to be established as a language of government and culture in the twentieth century as a response to increasing English dominance. In present-day South Africa, Afrikaans is once again being marginalized in favor of local African languages.

Some scholars claim that Afrikaans was formed as a pidgin, creating a means of communication between the Dutch landowners and the African slaves. These claims were based mainly on the simplification of final consonant clusters and other phonological simplifications, and the loss of certain syntactic features.

Afrikaans does not exhibit many of the features common to pidgins and Creoles, however. It still retains the basic syntactic structure of Dutch, with loss of only a few features that were also lost in several other Germanic languages. The lexicon of Afrikaans is still for the most part Germanic, as is the system for forming new words. Most of the Khoisan and Bantu vocabulary relates to native plants and cultural phenomena.

Many scholars currently hold that Afrikaans was not a pidgin, but that the development was seriously influenced by the contact situation and the large numbers of non-native speakers of Dutch in the Cape. By the mid-to-late eighteenth century Afrikaans had become significantly different enough from Dutch that we are able to speak of it as a separate language. This would be too quick of a change to have happened without the language contact affecting the changes. The influx of a large number of English immigrants during the nineteenth century led to the marginalization of Afrikaans. As a response to the increasing dominance of the British, Afrikaners began in the early twentieth century to revitalize and elevate Afrikaans.

Various newspapers began publishing in Afrikaans, some creating new orthographies so that Afrikaans could be more easily acquired and used by the general population. In 1914 the first steps were taken in adopting Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. The first Afrikaans high school was opened in 1920. Also in 1920 the Church gave permission for the Bible to be translated into Afrikaans, and in 1925 Afrikaans was declared the official language of South Africa. By 1939 most civil servants conducted business in Afrikaans. The literary revival of the 1930s was the final step in the ‘elevation’ of Afrikaans to a viable national language. With the fall of Apartheid, however, Afrikaans is once more being marginalized, and is spoken mostly as a second or third language in South Africa.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Ponelis, Fritz. 1993. The Development of Afrikaans. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Verlag Peter Lang.

Roberge, Paul T. 1994. The Formation of Afrikaans. Stellenbosch, South Africa: SPIL PLUS.

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