Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Charles Darwin in the western Cape and the wonders of Afrikaans

Did you know that Charles Darwin visited the western Cape during his Beagle voyage and wrote quite extensively about our ‘botany, zoology, geography, environmental aesthetics, economy, urban planning and transportation systems’? I didn’t, and thanks to Ryno for providing this information, from the November/December 2009 South African Journal of Science.

‘Charles Darwin spent most of his time geologising at the Cape – as he did everywhere else on the voyage of the Beagle,’ the journal reports. ‘He kept a special geological notebook in which he described in considerable detail his geological and geographical observations of the road from Simonstown to Cape Town, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Rump, the Sea Point Contact, the road to Paarl, Paarl Rock, the Drakenstein Mountains, Franschhoek and the pass to Houw Hoek, Sir Lowry’s Pass and the Cape Flats. He also collected insects, frogs, plant and other specimens of interest, most of which are housed at British institutions.’

He also remarked on language use and revealed ‘a perhaps unsurprising degree of chauvinism and colonial joy at the growth of English. He thought the Dutch were crude, far too direct and lacking in refined etiquette.’

Which brings me to a lovely essay (and thanks, Michele, for this one) on the wonders of Afrikaans. For those who don’t know, Afrikaans is a relatively young language, having developed out of the various Dutch dialects spoken by 17th-century immigrants to South Africa. Originally called ‘kitchen Dutch’, it borrowed words from several local cultures (including Khoi, Malay and Portuguese) and more recently has been influenced by South African English. Although it’s the mother tongue of only about 13% of South Africans today, it has the widest racial and geographical distribution of any of the country’s 11 official languages.

As the primary medium of instruction in schools during the Apartheid years, Afrikaans was widely loathed both as a subject and as a language by those for whom it wasn’t their mother tongue. (I nursed a dirty little secret during my high-school years: I discovered the writing of the brilliant natural-historian Eugene Marais, and grew to really love Afrikaans. But I’d sooner have had my eyes sucked out by a giant squid than admit it to my peers.)

The Afrikaners have always been very protective about their language, and in 2005 South African billionaire Johan Rupert withdrew advertising (which included for Cartier, Montblanc and Alfred Dunhill) from British magazine Wallpaper after a South African English journalist described Afrikaans as ‘one of the world’s ugliest languages’.

The essay Michele sent me contained a few of the fabulously expressive Afrikaans words and terms that either have no equivalent in English, or a flabby approximation, for instance, ‘gatvol’ (fed up), ‘lekker’ (nice), ‘jol’ (play for grownups), ‘snotklap’ (really hard smack) and ‘kak en betaal’ (cough up payment). Many South African English-speakers use these words and terms so frequently and naturally that they’ve become part of South African English. Then there’s ‘sommer’, which roughly translates as ‘just because’ and ‘ja-nee’ (literally, ‘yes-no’), which is really just a thoughtful space filler; ‘moffie’, which is a fond word for homosexual; ‘gogga’ for bug or insect; ‘babbelas’ for hangover; ‘loskop’ for absent-minded; ‘skelm’ for a baddie (which can be used fondly, for a mischievous child, or otherwise for a real adult baddie); ‘moer’ and ‘bliksem’ (hurt really badly); and ‘voetsek’ (get away).

For more South African English expressions, many of which have been nicked from Afrikaans, click here.

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