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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

South Africa features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

A first-timer's guide to Kruger National Park

A first-timer's guide to Kruger National Park

Kruger, South Africa's first national park, has been part of the national psyche for as long as anyone can remember. The name alone conjures images of crackling…

12 Jul 2018 • Georgia Stephens insert_drive_file Article
Podcast: meet the South African women battling against poaching

Podcast: meet the South African women battling against poaching

A safari without rhinos? That’s the sad future we may be facing. Right now South Africa is home to eighty percent of the world’s rhinos, but poaching is red…

18 Jun 2018 • Rough Guides Editors volume_up Podcast
Exploring Johannesburg: the graffiti capital of Africa

Exploring Johannesburg: the graffiti capital of Africa

Johannesburg is a much-misunderstood city but despite misconceptions it’s one well worth visiting too, with a wealth of museums and galleries, world-class ja…

13 Apr 2018 • Rebecca Hallett local_activity Special feature
View more featureschevron_right

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Mandatory - can not be deselected. Necessary cookies help make a website usable by enabling basic functions like page navigation and access to secure areas of the website. The website cannot function properly without these cookies.

PHPSESSID,aelia_cs_selected_currency,cookie_notice_accepted,RS,bp-message,bp-message-type,id,UIDR,w3tc_logged_out,__cfduid
__cfduid

Statistics

Statistic cookies help website owners to understand how visitors interact with websites by collecting and reporting information anonymously.

__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid,__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xt
__utma,__utmb,__utmc,__utmz,_ga,_gid
__atssc,__atuvc,__atuvs,di,dt,ssc,ssh,sshs,uid,uit,xtc

Marketing

Marketing cookies are used to track visitors across websites. The intention is to display ads that are relevant and engaging for the individual user and thereby more valuable for publishers and third party advertisers.

__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID,__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll,c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs
__gads,PISID, BEAT, CheckConnection TempCookie703, GALX, GAPS, GoogleAccountsLocale_session, HSID, LSID, LSOSID, NID, PREF, RMME, S, SAPISID, SID, SSID
__utmv, _twitter_sess, auth_token, auth_token_session, external_referer, guest_id, k, lang, original_referer, remember_checked, secure_session, twid, twll
c_user, datr, fr, highContrast, locale, lu, reg_ext_ref, reg_fb_gate, reg_fb_ref, s, wd, xs