Afrikaans is South Africa’s third mother tongue, spoken by fifteen percent of the population and outstripped only by Zulu and Xhosa. English, by contrast, is the mother tongue of only nine percent of South Africans.

Signs of the emergence of a new Southern African dialect appeared as early as 1685, when a Dutch East India Company official from the Netherlands complained about a “distorted and incomprehensible” version of Dutch being spoken around modern-day Paarl. By absorbing English, French, German, Malay and indigenous words and expressions, the language continued to diverge from mainstream Dutch, and by the nineteenth century was widely used in the Cape by both white and coloured speakers, but was looked down on by the elite.

In 1905, Gustav Preller, a young journalist from a working-class Boer background, set about reinventing Afrikaans as a “white man’s language”. He aimed to eradicate the stigma of its “coloured” ties by substituting Dutch words for those with non-European origins. Preller began publishing the first of a series of populist magazines written in Afrikaans and glorifying Boer history and culture. Pressure grew for the recognition of Afrikaans as an official language, which came in 1925.

When the National Party took power in 1948, its apartheid policy went hand in hand with promoting the interests of its Afrikaans-speaking supporters. Afrikaners were installed throughout the civil service and filled most posts in the public utilities. Despite there being more coloured than white Afrikaans speakers, the language quickly became associated with the apartheid establishment. This led directly to the Soweto uprising of 1976, when the government attempted to enforce Afrikaans as the sole medium of instruction in African schools. At the same time, the repression of the 1970s and 1980s and the forced removals under the Group Areas Act led many coloured Afrikaans speakers to adopt English in preference to their tainted mother tongue.

There are few signs that Afrikaans will die out, though. Under the new constitution, existing language rights can’t be diminished, which effectively means that Afrikaans will continue to be almost as widely used as before. But it is now as much with coloured as white people that the future of the taal (language) rests.

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