1903 newspaper article: "Afrikaans is not a language, for it has no literature."

Monday, May 25, 2009

I've come across a newspaper from 1903 (The Ogden Standard, 9 April 1903, reprinted from The Scotsman) that has an article on the three types of Dutch in South Africa - these are Afrikaans, Ecclesiastical Dutch, and High Dutch. Interestingly enough the article shows that only Afrikaans is the one that people there have grown up with and consider close to their heart while the other two are kind of awkward and artificial to them, but still decides to conclude that of the three only Afrikaans is not a language, as it lacks a literature. Well, fast forward a century and it turns out that of the three, only Afrikaans has managed to thrive. I don't think this has anything to do with complexity or a lack of it (since German is an example of a language going the other way where the more complex official standard thrives while regional variants weaken) but simply the fact that the other two weren't used in daily life.

Here it is:


The Different Kinds of Dutch Spoken In South Africa.

It seems a strange thing to say, but there are three Dutch languages in South Africa. The earliest Dutch settlers at the Cape were largely Dutch sailors and others belonging to the lower orders of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other Dutch seaports. Their language was a low Dutch dialect to begin with, and although the sprinkling of Dutch officers at the Cape did their best to preserve the language of the Netherlands they could not prevent the dialect of the settlers from still further degenerating into a mere colloquial patois. Its degeneration was doubtless largely brought about by domestic servants and slaves -- Hottentots, Malays and Mozambique Kaffirs -- who spoke it very imperfectly and introduced into it many strange words and idioms. This, then, is the genesis of what is variously known as "Cape Dutch," "Kitchen Dutch," "Patriot Dutch," "Afrikaans" and "Afrikander Taal." Its basis is Dutch, but the nouns have lost their declensions and the verbs their conjugations, while grammatical gender and syntax generally have gone by the board. To the educated Hollander of today it is a literary atrocity, and he cannot away with it, but to the Afrikander it is his mother tongue, the language of his home and his childhood, the exponent of all that he knows of humor and pathos. It is full of expressive idioms, pithy proverbs and pawky expressions, like those so dear to the lowland Scot, and yet it is not a language, for it has no literature.

The second of the three Dutch languages referred to might be called "ecclesiastical Dutch," or, if you like, African Dutch. It is the language of Holland as that language was written about 200 years ago. It is the language of the dutch Bible and very much resembles our own authorized version in its simplicity and directness of style. It is the language of the Dutch psalm and Gesand books and of the devotional works of old Dutch divines, which make up the balance of the Dutch farmers' literature. In it are also written many tracts and a few devotional works by living ministers of the Dutch Reformed church. to the Boer wherever you find him it is the language of his church and of his religion. This is the Dutch language which the leaders of the Dutch Afrikander party are determined to preserve. It is never spoken by Afrikanders among themselves, however, and it is never written grammatically by them in their correspondence. The Boer has no fear that his "Huis-taal," Cape Dutch, will die out, but fears that his children will forget or neglect to learn the language of his church and of his forefathers.

The third Dutch language might be called modern literary or "high Dutch" -- that is, the language written and spoken by educated Hollanders of today. It is florid, involved in construction and very artificial in style as compared with the language of the Dutch Bible. Its pronunciation has also changed considerably in the interval, and even an educated Dutch-speaking Afrikander listening to a voluble Hollander can hardly make head or tail of what he is saying. -- Scotsman.

For more information on the history of Afrikaans (in Afrikaans), see this page on Wikipedia. If you can't read Afrikaans you can always use Google to translate from Dutch to English, which makes it about 50% legible.


Unknown said...

If a language needs to have an associated literary tradition to be considered as a language, then most languages in the world are not languages.

That would be a very weird definition of language, since there are many peoples who do not write in their languages but the members of a given people still communicate among themselves very successfully.

Any of those languages has potential to be described in a "grammar" book and taught to people who aren't native in it; this by itself shows any of them follow well-defined constitutive rules.

And no human "speak" violates the characteristics of the universal human language ("universal" as defined by the linguist Noam Chomsky; "surface" languages such as English and Mandarin are instances of the universal language which is genetically "programmed" into any normal human brain).

Of course, this is valid for socially stigmatized dialects as well, such as the various forms of peasant English, the creoles, and Brazilian Portuguese as spoken by the illiterates and poors. In principle, a foreign could learn any of them.

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