July is a month of filled with independence celebrations. Rather than going for the usual suspects (Bastille Day! 4th of July!), in honor of Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18 (he would have been 99), we thought we would take a moment to shine a spotlight on the linguistic richness of Mr. Mandela’s home country, South Africa.
First off, there are 11 official languages in South Africa, which means that just about everyone is at least bilingual. The most common native language is Zulu, followed by Xhosa, Afrikaans and, finally, English, which also acts as the most common lingua franca and is used in official contexts as well.
Xhosa, Mr. Mandela’s native language, is one of the click languages, and no day in the park to learn. If you thought 2 or 3 genders were a challenge, try 15 (aka “noun classes”)! On top of that, instead of verb conjugations, you’ve got affixes to mark subject, object, tense, aspect and mood. The result is a verbal lasagna with the verb root found stuffed inside all sorts of suffixes, prefixes and infixes that tell you who did what to whom, and so on. Oh boy. Not only is the language a real brain challenge, if you want to discover muscles in your mouth you never knew existed, you should take a stab at the clicks! This fellow does a bang-up job showing you how it’s done: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31zzMb3U0iY
Afrikaans, on the other hand, is an offshoot of Dutch. Although the roots of Afrikaans are clearly Dutch, the two languages are not necessarily mutually intelligible. Interestingly, it is often easier for a Dutch speaker to figure out Afrikaans than the other way around. Afrikaans and Dutch share a lot of similar vocabulary, but they’ve developed along their own paths. Dutch has a lot of ‘grammar’ that Afrikaans doesn’t such as verb conjugations and grammatical genders, both of which are absent in Afrikaans. A Dutch poet, Breyten Breytenbach, described the challenge as that between British English and Southern American English. Probably easier for a Southerner to understand a Brit than the other way around.
Afrikaans was considered a dialect, referred to by the Dutch as “kitchen” or “uncivilized” Dutch. To become a “language”, it usually has to have a written form. In the beginning of the 19th century the beta version of Afrikaans was written out in the Arabic script. No joke! The impetus to put the language into writing was to introduce Afrikaans into the schools that were conducting instruction in Malay. At the time, there was a significant population of Malay speakers (yes, Malay, as in from the former Dutch colony Malaysia) with their own schools. The Afrikaners decided to introduce Afrikaans as the language of instruction in the school and using the same script Malay, i.e. the Arabic script. In the middle of the century, Afrikaans speakers started to use the Latin script which is still the case today.
We could go on and on with another 9 languages to go, but we hope this gives you some inspiration to dig into it some more or even think about visiting this truly amazing country!
Halala ngemini yakho yokuzalwa Nelson Mandela!