Afrikaans in South Africa

Written by Isabel Harmse

Afrikaans, with many similarities to Dutch, is a West Germanic language. This makes it easy to assume that its path from the Netherlands to becoming one of South Africa’s official languages was a simple one. But the reality is complex and fascinating. Afrikaans is the language most closely associated with the apartheid regime and was seen as a language that was used to oppress much of the population. But before this association, it was a language used by early settlers in the 1600s. And although it is only officially recognised in South Africa, it has origins that span across the globe.

With Afrikaans being the third most-spoken language in South Africa, it is a child of the Dutch language. Birthed from the initial contact between the first Dutch settlers and African natives on the southwest coast of modern Cape Town, Afrikaans was originally known as “Cape Dutch.” Surprisingly, Malay (spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, East Timor, Singapore, and some sections of Thailand) has had a hand in the evolution of Afrikaans’ vocabulary. Malay arrived in South Africa with the importation of South Asian slaves for their skilled labour. Thus, some Malay words made their way into the Afrikaans dictionary, although to a limited extent. Portuguese was another factor in shaping modern Afrikaans. Portuguese explorers actually were the ones who first laid eyes on Cape Town at the end of the 13th century. The Dutch and the Portuguese would fight over control of South Africa, and efforts to discourage Portuguese from being spoken were unsuccessful. Up to today, Portuguese immigrants to South Africa learn Afrikaans without too much difficulty, thanks to some shared vocabulary (

It is an extremely easy language to learn, for various reasons. For English and Dutch speakers, Afrikaans already contains familiar words. 90% to 95% of Afrikaans is derived from Dutch, yet its lexical characteristics are more in line with its Bantu roots. For any English speaker, Afrikaans is extremely easy due to their shared Germanic roots. For a non-Germanic language speaker, the challenge lies in learning the grammar, but even that is simple to comprehend.


Afrikaans has been labelled by critics as being an “ugly language” for its guttural quality.