As Heritage Day approaches and we cast around for tokens of South African essences, the youngest of Africa’s indigenous languages – despite the recent remarks by Panyaza Lesufi about Afrikaans – recommends itself for celebration.

Not unlike English, I wrote a few years ago, Afrikaans borrows promiscuously, invents audaciously, and sustains its usefulness by embracing every opportunity to be its vividly expressive self.

Could you possibly beat ‘brugkettie’ for ‘bungee’, or ‘Loer Broer’ for ‘Big Brother’?

Having come into being by a kind of wayward devising, it has remained – for all the staid traditions of some of its sterner guardians – lively, adaptable, likeably cheeky, irrepressible.

My article of August 2015 was occasioned by the publication of the new mammoth 1 632-page HAT 6, the jubilee – and most inclusive – edition of the authoritative Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal, a living monument to the language of Bishop Lavis as much as of Bloemfontein.

What is remarkable about this slab of a book is that represents not an august prescription of suiwer usage, but – as my informant at the time, lexicographer and co-editor of the dictionary Fred Pheiffer, explained – the sum of a language that lives and evolves in the mouths and minds of the people who use it, from farm to boardroom, leafy suburb to township backstreet, who are collectively its custodians and, as time passes, the progenitors of its new forms and vocabulary.

Some might be tempted to think of Africa’s youngest indigenous language as the continent’s doomed Latin, a tongue bound for the linguistic morgue.

For all its detractors, however, Afrikaans is in fact a growing language.

The latest census figures show that the number of first-language Afrikaans speakers is increasing in all nine provinces, bringing the national total to some 6.8 million people, slightly short of a million more than a decade earlier.

Afrikaans, at 13.5%, is the third most-spoken language in South Africa after Zulu (11.5 million speakers, or 22.7%) and Xhosa (8.1 million, or 16%). English follows, with 4.8 million speakers, representing about 9.6% of the population.

More telling, perhaps, is Wikipedia’s observation that Afrikaans ‘has the widest geographical and racial distribution of all the 11 official languages of South Africa …(being the) the first language of 75.8% of coloured South Africans (4.8 million people), 60.8% of whites (2.7 million); 4.6% of Indians (58 000 people), and 1.5% of blacks (600 000 people).’

There’s no dispute, of course, that it has often been a contested language, mocked and even vilified.

Quite by accident some years ago, I came across a baldly ridiculing Cape newspaper report of 13 September 1877 on the second annual meeting of the Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikanders in Paarl.

‘An attempt is being made by a number of jokers near Cape Town,’ the correspondent wrote archly, ‘to reduce the “Plat Hollands” of the streets and the kitchen to a written language and to perpetuate it. They are carrying on the joke well. They have a newspaper, have published a history of the colony, an almanack and to crown the joke – a grammar. It is impossible to read these productions without laughing, because one cannot help feeling that the writers are themselves laughing while they write. The spelling, the words, the idioms, the grammar – all is such as may at any time be taken phonetically from the mouth of any old Hottentots.’

And, of course, this mockery had a telling foundation in pinpointing the gestation of Afrikaans among the under-class of the early Cape. Lexicographer Pheiffer’s late father – long-time professor of Afrikaans and Dutch linguistics at the University of Cape Town, Roy Pheiffer – estimated that the first recognisable Afrikaans was being spoken between 1750 and 1800.

Fascinatingly enough, the first published (though not by any means the first written) Afrikaans – by Cape printer M C Schonegevel – was Sheikh Ahmad al-Ishmuni’s Kitab Al-Qawl al-Matin Fi Bayan Umur al-Din (The Book of the Firm Declaration regarding the Explanation of the Matters of Religion) of 1856. It was phonetic Afrikaans rendered in Arabic script. (Beginning in about 1815, according to Wikipedia, Afrikaans began replacing Malay as the language of instruction in Muslim schools in South Africa, written with the Arabic alphabet.)

Fittingly, the latest HAT captures the long association between Afrikaans and Islam in words such as ‘sjoekran’ and ‘trammakassie’ (thanks), ‘kanalla’ (please), ‘ghoema’ (a distinctive style of music); ‘nasara’ (Christians, after Nazareth) and ‘tamaf’ (excuse), along with various terms for prayers and traditional Muslim fare, as well as words from Kaaps, which Pheiffer regards as the oldest and most established dialectical variety of Afrikaans.

So, for instance, we find in the dictionary words such as ‘gattas’ (police); ‘gabba’ (friend); ‘kappityt’ (dance or revel with vigour); ‘laaitie’ (boy); ‘mang’ (prison); ‘newwermaind’ (despite, notwithstanding); ‘piemp’ (rat on, from impimpi); ‘sharp’ (right, good); ‘sjarrap’ (shut up), and ‘shanghagha’ (that’s fine, okay – also rendered as ‘oukei’).

From its origins on the restive fringes of Cape society, Afrikaans had an element of resistance embedded in it, which doubtless remains true today.

Of course, Afrikaans has faced its fair share of resistance, too. A century after that mocking 1877 report, the crudely scrawled words, ‘To Hell With Afrikaans’ on the placard carried by one of the thousands of young Soweto school children who rose up in protest against the taal on June 16, 1976 reminds us – as Panyaza Lesufi did just a few days ago – of how the language of the early Muslims of the Cape and the independent-minded farmers of Paarl had appeared to have become the voice of a repressive Afrikaner nationalism.

And who could doubt that the origins of that nationalism were resistant in nature, too. Afrikaans advocates had to wait until 1925 before the language achieved official status, and even then in a state that doffed its cap to London.

Back then, one of the language’s leading promoters, Senator C J Langenhoven, author of Die Stem, had a much more generous vision when he extolled the part of language in revealing ‘the content of our hearts and souls’. He was cheered in parliament for saying: ‘We are doing work which is in the higher interests of the country … an achievement that in days to come will live when the contentions of today have vanished from the memories of our children and our children’s children.’

Some of those contentions, of course, live with us still. On the other hand, in the context of a growing language whose community is not sectarian by any racial or religious definition, Langenhoven was closer to the mark than he himself might ever have realised.

Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations. This column draws on an article written for Weekend Argus in August 2015.

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