COLUMN ONE : Afrikaans: an Idiom in Danger : The world’s youngest national language, spoken by 13 million, is richly expressive. But if a new South African constitution fails to declare it ‘official,’ it could wither away.


The keepers of the parliamentary record were stumped when a white member rose recently in debate to warn his colleagues about the “hand-in-bosom” policy they were considering.

As Parliament’s official reporters rushed to save the day’s speeches for eternity, they had to chuckle: What, they wondered, did the member of Parliament really mean?

It turned out that the speaker, like so many before him, had been tripped up by the literal English translation of an Afrikaans expression. He was calling on his colleagues to search their souls--or, in Afrikaans, “Put your hand in your own bosom.” With a little editing, another bilingual crisis was narrowly averted.

Rich in idiom and emotion, Afrikaans was born 340 years ago in the homes of South Africa’s white Dutch, German and French settlers. Not only is it the world’s youngest national language, it is one of the smallest, with just 13 million speakers.


For 67 years, Afrikaans has been preserved by law as one of South Africa’s two official languages, earning it the enmity of many blacks. Now, as the edifice of apartheid is being breached, and blacks and whites begin to build a new society together, the future of Afrikaans is up in the air. And that has spawned one of the most emotional debates in the country’s history.

South Africa’s two official languages--English and Afrikaans--can make the simplest forms of communication a chore.

Want to catch the television news? Well, the state-run South African Broadcasting Corp. airs the 8 p.m. newscast in Afrikaans on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; it airs in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The languages take turns on alternate Sundays.

Everything from road signs to canned dog food labels comes in one or the other language in equal measure. And only bilingual listeners can understand most of President Frederik W. de Klerk’s speeches, which routinely switch from Afrikaans to English and back again.

The debate over Afrikaans rises from South Africa’s deep racial divisions.

In the black townships, Afrikaans long has been the language of the oppressor, of the riot police and of the legal statutes that created the best-known word in the Afrikaans vocabulary: apartheid-- literally apart-hood, or separateness.

Among white Afrikaners, though, the language represents a rich cultural tradition of self-sufficiency and Calvinist morality. And, to a great extent, the uncertain fate of Afrikaans fuels the right-wing movement, which believes President De Klerk’s reform initiatives will silence his--and their--mother tongue.

But Afrikaans skips across ideological boundaries even among whites, 58% of whom speak the language at home. An abiding passion for the language binds friends and mortal enemies, from the right-wing orator Eugene TerreBlanche to Andre Brink, the anti-apartheid author of “A Dry White Season.”

South Africa has a crowded linguistic landscape, and neither Afrikaans nor English is the predominant language.

More than 8 million of the country’s 39 million people speak Zulu, and nearly 7 million speak Xhosa (pronounced KO-suh). Afrikaans is third, with 6 million, and English is a distant sixth, with 3.5 million. The other 13 million South Africans speak Tswana, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tsonga, Swazi, Ndebele, Venda and a variety of other African and European languages.

Besides speaking one or more African languages, many blacks learn some English and Afrikaans at school. And 83% of mixed-race Coloreds speak Afrikaans at home.

The battle for control of this Tower of Babel has become part of the struggle to write a new national constitution, and no one has yet hit on a way to protect the multitude of languages.

“The new political flexibility means that language power is up for grabs,” said Elwyn Jenkins, president of the English Academy of Southern Africa. Jenkins warned recently that language could replace race as a convenient tool for separating people.

Everyone agrees that designating 11 or more languages in South Africa as official would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

“What the new constitution will bring, nobody knows,” said Charles Cilliers, who oversees the bilingual parliamentary record. “Are we going to have 12 or 13 official languages? I think we’ll eventually have to opt for one.”

Some suggest that, as a compromise, English be made the sole official language. But that raises objections from all sides. Right-wing whites and left-wing blacks alike resent the colonial heritage of English: Britain once ruled South Africa as a colony.

After months of study, the African National Congress, the country’s largest anti-apartheid movement, decided that there should be no official language in the new South Africa. Instead, the ANC argued, the law should protect all languages but single out one or more of them in each region to handle administrative matters. (The ANC, by the way, uses English as its working language.)

Not surprisingly, that worries Afrikaners who believe that Afrikaans would wither and die without the protection of “official” status.

“I feel very strongly that Afrikaans should remain as an official language,” said Henno Cronje, head of the Federation of Afrikaans Culture, the chief proponent of Afrikaans. “I’m not saying Zulu, Xhosa or Sotho cannot also become official languages. But it could become pretty difficult to preserve our language, especially under an antagonistic government.”

Just maintaining two official languages makes for some nearly incomprehensible collisions on the country’s airwaves.

State-run TV airs a hodgepodge of English, Afrikaans and bilingual programs. Viewers who speak only English or Afrikaans have little hope of understanding the many bilingual sitcoms, soap operas and news shows. The typical talk shows feature questions in Afrikaans and answers in English, or vice versa. Some American shows, such as “Misdaad in Miami” (“Miami Vice”) are dubbed in Afrikaans; English speakers are left to hunt for the original soundtrack on their radio dials.

Local newspapers are filled with letters to the editor rife with complaints that television favors one language over the other. And not long ago, a TV producer was fired for allowing too much English to creep into his talk show.

The government also operates a second TV channel, with news in Zulu and Xhosa and entertainment in a variety of languages. And the vast state-run radio network devotes at least one frequency to each of the country’s 11 primary languages.

The historical roots of Afrikaans date to the first Dutch settlement on the southern tip of Africa in 1652. Dutch was the official language of that colony, but, within 150 years, it had been supplanted by Afrikaans, the only Germanic language born outside of Europe.

Afrikaans was derived from 17th-Century Dutch. But it also reflects the influence of Malay, Portuguese, German, French, English and native African languages. And while modern Dutch speakers find many similarities with Afrikaans, the South African language differs significantly in pronunciation and grammar.

For many years, Afrikaans was itself an oppressed language, embraced by the Afrikaners who trekked inland to escape British colonial rule. But it joined English as the country’s official language in 1925 and, from then on, earned a reputation among blacks as the language of oppression.

Black anger boiled over in 1976, when hundreds of thousands of Soweto students left their schools in a march through the township streets to protest the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing several dozen, and the ensuing black riots countrywide left hundreds more dead.

A few years later, English replaced Afrikaans as the primary medium of instruction in black schools, though younger pupils were taught in their native black language. Today, Afrikaans remains a required subject in English-language public schools for blacks as well as whites, and English is required in Afrikaans-language schools.

With the radical changes occurring in South Africa today, Afrikaans is slowly seeing a resurgence of interest in the black townships and elsewhere in the country.

Mary Selebogo, a black woman who teaches Afrikaans in Soweto high schools, said that just two years ago “if you wanted to become a hated teacher, the quickest way is to teach Afrikaans. It’s a difficult language. The students disliked it, and they didn’t have any interest in it.”

That has changed, though. Selebogo says students are beginning to realize that speaking the language of white South Africans may one day help them get a job.

Time and President De Klerk’s rising popularity in the townships have helped remove some of the stigma of Afrikaans. But so has Nelson Mandela, the ANC president and liberation leader venerated by millions of blacks.

While serving 27 years in apartheid’s prison, Mandela studied Afrikaans and Afrikaner history. When he was released in 1990, Mandela took home a large collection of Afrikaans books and an appreciation of the language, which he uses occasionally in speeches aimed primarily at white South Africans.

A growing band of liberal white Afrikaans speakers also have contributed to the language’s new reputation. Pro-government Afrikaans newspapers have in the past two years become an important force in persuading whites to abandon apartheid and negotiate their future with blacks.

And a left-wing newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, or Free Weekly, has been a courageous anti-apartheid crusader, publishing investigative pieces that have embarrassed the authorities in their own language. Max du Preez, the Vrye Weekblad editor and an Afrikaner, says he started the publication to redeem his native tongue, which he argues had been hijacked by the perpetrators of apartheid.

“Afrikaans is my passion, and I’m resentful of what has happened to it in the past century,” Du Preez has said.

P. J. O’Rourke, the Rolling Stone writer, says Afrikaans sounds like “a Katzenjammer Kids cartoon,” and, indeed, the language contains many strange concoctions, such as snesies for tissues.

Ous koeie int die sloot hoal, or “Don’t dig up old cows out of the ditch,” is the Afrikaans equivalent of “Don’t open up old wounds.” When an Afrikaans speaker cautions someone to “let sleeping dogs lie,” he is likely to say Hase opjaag, or, “Don’t chase up hairs.” And the popular expression ja-nee, literally “yes-no,” means maybe; it is usually accompanied by a shrug of indifference.

Afrikaans also has many words with emotional meanings for which there are no proper English equivalents. For example, the veld is, literally, the fields. But it carries an emotional connotation of open spaces, not unlike what Americans feel when they refer to “the West” or “the prairie.”

The author Andre Brink once wrote exclusively in Afrikaans. But when his books were banned in the late 1970s, he had to begin writing in English to find a broader audience and survive as a writer. His latest book, “An Act of Terror,” was published in English in the United States but in both English and Afrikaans in South Africa.

Now Brink uses his two languages as part of the creative process, switching between the two depending on the subject matter.

“When I’m writing about a personal emotional experience, I may decide to use Afrikaans, which for me is more of an intimate language,” Brink explained. “But when I’m trying to evaluate that experience and look at it objectively, I may use English. Sometimes, it just depends on the mood I’m in.”

Home Languages Spoken in S. Africa

Proportion Language Number of People of Population Zulu 8,541,173 21.61% Xhosa 6,891,358 17.44% Afrikaans 6,188,981 15.66% Tswana 3,601,609 9.11% Northern Sotho 3,437,971 8.70% English 3,432,042 8.68% Southern Sotho 2,652,590 6.71% Tsonga 1,349,022 3.41% Other languages 942,697 2.39% Swazi 926,094 2.34% Ndebele 799,216 2.02% Venda 763,247 1.93% Total 39,526,000 100%

Source: Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria