Much of our knowledge of language evolution is speculative, after all – theory. When you can actually see it happening on a more-or-less modern historical stage with clear examples and references, it’s thrilling. And that’s what I’ve seen with Afrikaans.
Dutch South Africa
Today Afrikaans is still unfortunately linked with the racial politics of Apartheid, but of course a language cannot be guilty of anything – only the people using that language. Afrikaans is a wonderful language, spoken by about six million people, mainly in South Africa and Namibia, but also in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
The Dutch came to South Africa in 1652 at the height of the colonization boom where European powers claimed vast stretches of the world for themselves. At first of course these “Afrikaners” or “Boers” spoke pure 17th-century Dutch, but the language began undergoing a simplification process in the spoken form. While the written form remained formal Dutch, the spoken form began doing away with complex features such as gender distinctions and importing a large number of loan words from the myriad of other cultures in the area at the time.
Until the middle of the 19th century, this dual situation persisted, with Afrikaans developing as a distinct spoken language while the written language in South Africa was still the original Dutch. A nationalist movement sprang up, calling for a more coherent national identity. One component of this was the adaptation of a written form of the Afrikaans language that more accurately represented what was actually spoken. This became an official reality in 1914 when the language began to be taught in schools, and culminated when the first bible was printed in Afrikaans in 1933. Afrikaans had arrived!
English and Afrikaans
In 1804 the United Kingdom took over the area, and many Boers fled from British rule. They even attempted to form two independent states, and this resulted in the First Boer War, with the British won. During this period English was the “official” language of South Africa. In 1910 South Africa achieved independence of government from the U.K., and in 1948 the traditional segregation of the country was formally legislated, beginning what is known today as the Apartheid era, which persisted until 1994.
For some time after the fall of Apartheid, Afrikaans was deprecated as a language. Today English has surpassed Afrikaans as the most important language in South Africa, but Afrikaans remains a strong part of the country’s culture and history.