Afrikaans is a superb entrance to the Germanic world for an English speaker

Thursday, April 22, 2010

That statement comes from here, probably the best site for learning Afrikaans there is. Its geographic isolation from Dutch and German and the fact that it isn't the sole language of any independent country (i.e. go to South Africa and everyone speaks English) puts it out of contention for most when considering a language to study, but its extreme ease of learning (no verb conjugation, no grammatical gender are the two big ones) is a definite advantage in the same way that a language like Papiamentu is easy to pick up but transfers very nicely to Spanish and Portuguese afterwards.

By the way, many say that Afrikaans makes up for this by having more irregularities in its adjectives, but this really isn't comparable. The reason why is this:

1) grammatical gender is something that always, always needs to be kept in mind when using a language that has it. Adjectival morphology, on the other hand, can easily be avoided when needed by altering word order ever so slightly (ex: die goeie man - the good man is the irregular form of goed, good, but you can avoid something like that by saying die man wat goed is, the man who is good)

2) irregular adjectives in Afrikaans resemble strong verbs in that yes, they are irregular, but they are very often irregular in a way that makes sense to English speakers. Ex: Reg (right) becomes regte before a noun, and this now looks more like the word right, so no problem remembering that. Hoog (high) also becomes hoë, and nuut (new) becomes nuwe.

So let's take a look at Afrikaans as a gateway to Germanic languages, specifically German. The reason for that is that Afrikaans is obviously a gateway to Dutch (the two are often mutually intelligible) but German is a bit more removed. First we will look at how Afrikaans compares to Dutch in getting an English speaker used to German, also comparing an English speaker that has learned Dutch vs. an English speaker that has learned Afrikaans. Parts that match are displayed in green.

GermanDutchAfrikaansEnglishEn + AfEn + Nl
yes, threeyes, twononononot really
Adjectives change
before nouns
Verb conjugationyesyesnoyesyesyes
'Germanic' word orderyesyesyessomewhatyesyes
Two types of past tenseyesyesnoyesyesyes

As you can see, Afrikaans has some large differences between it and other Germanic languages, such as no verb conjugation (by which is meant verbs don't change depending on the person doing the action), only one past tense (no distinction between I went vs. I had gone) and some other areas as well. However, note that most of these areas are places where the English speaker is already familiar with these concepts and thus doesn't need the extra help Afrikaans would provide if it did have these characteristics. An English speaker, that is, already knows the difference between simple past and past perfect, and is used to conjugating verbs by person (I am, you are). And while true that Dutch does have grammatical gender (which German has too) and Afrikaans doesn't, gender in Dutch doesn't match up with German (Dutch has two, German has three) so there really isn't any help here besides perhaps getting used to being aware of grammatical gender in general. But the effort required vs. the lack of transferability means it probably isn't worth it from a propaedeutic point of view alone.

Okay, so if English is your first language and you have learned Afrikaans, that means when transferring to German the only big hurdle is grammatical gender and cases. But let's also take a closer look at the vocabulary to see how frequent one comes across German cognates in Afrikaans compared to English. The site mentioned in the beginning has a reading called die Seuntjie (the boy), and one part goes like this.
Met groot weerstand verlaat ek tydelik die projek. Ek is knorrig oor die onderbreking, "Dis ontbyt!" Maar gou vergeet ek daarvan en ek toon ietwat belangstelling in die graanvlokkies, die lemoensap, en 'n bietjie roosterbrood. Na afloop van ontbyt haas ek my, "Plig roep!"
Now let's check for obvious cognates, obvious meaning that German mit and Afrikaans met are cognates, but English is not cognate even though technically the mid in midwife comes from the same source, because your average student is not going to make that connection.

Obvious cognates with German are in green, those that aren't are in red, and slightly iffy (a bit of help to the student) cognates are in lighter green.

verlassenverlaatgive up
(but knorrig means knotted)
davondaarvanabout it
Orangensaftlemoensaporange juice
beeilen (but Hast also exists)haashaste / hurry

So counting less obvious cognates as 0.5, out of 31 German words we have 23.5 Afrikaans cognates, but just 9.5 with English. Afrikaans is clearly a superb entrance to the Germanic world for an English speaker, certainly not the only one, but it is one. English used to be a part of this dialect continuum, but not anymore.

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