A Traveler’s Guide to Afrikaans

A group of friends barbecuing on the beach in South Africa

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If you’re headed to South Africa, you may be wondering what the locals will speak when you get there. With 11 official languages to choose from, the answer is that you’ll probably encounter several different dialects on your travels—but one of them is likely to be Afrikaans. Here's what you need to know.

History of Afrikaans

Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that began with the arrival of the first Dutch settlers in South Africa in 1652. As the settlers’ native Dutch was passed onto slaves and migrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa throughout the 18th century, it developed unique characteristics and eventually became its own distinct language. Although somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of Afrikaans words are of Dutch origin, many other languages contributed to its development, with German and Khoisan being particularly influential. This has led some linguists to refer to Afrikaans as a form of creole Dutch while others have called it “kitchen Dutch,” a derogative term that refers to its more simplistic morphology and grammar. There are so many similarities between Afrikaans and its mother language that it’s easy for Dutch and Afrikaans speakers to make themselves mutually understood.

Afrikaans was first recognized as a distinct language in 1925, when the Official Languages of the Union Act included it as a variety of Dutch. The Constitution of 1961 saw Afrikaans replace Dutch as an official language of South Africa. During the apartheid era, the government introduced Afrikaans as the official medium of instruction in schools. This decision led to the Soweto Uprising, which saw some 20,000 students take to the streets in protest on June 16, 1976. At least 176 protestors were killed by police, making the uprising one of the most infamous events of the apartheid years. Afrikaans is still viewed by many Black Africans as a symbol of white oppression and in 2015, students protested violently to have it removed as a teaching language in South African universities. English has now replaced Afrikaans as the primary language and lingua franca of South Africa. 

Where Is Afrikaans Spoken?

As one of 11 official South African languages, Afrikaans is the mother tongue of roughly 13.5 percent of the population (almost seven million people). Many other South Africans can speak and understand it as a second or third language, making it the third-most spoken language in the country. It is also one of the five languages featured in the South African national anthem, and of all the official languages, it has the widest geographical and racial distribution. Afrikaans is spoken by roughly 50 percent of the population in the Northern and Western Cape provinces. Seventy-five percent of Cape Coloureds speak Afrikaans, as do 60 percent of white South Africans. It is far less popular with Black South Africans, with only 1.5 percent of the demographic claiming it as their first language. 

Afrikaans was also an official language of Namibia along with German and English during its period of South African administration. Both Afrikaans and German were demoted from official status when Namibia gained independence in 1990, although Afrikaans is still constitutionally recognized as a national language. However, only three percent of Namibians speak English, the official language, as their mother tongue. Oshiwambo is the most widely spoken first language, but Afrikaans is the closest thing the country has to a lingua franca. It is the native tongue for 10 percent of Namibians, and 60 percent of the white community. Smaller numbers of Afrikaans speakers can be found in neighboring Botswana and Zimbabwe

Many South Africans and Namibians who have emigrated to other countries across the globe speak Afrikaans. Australia has the largest number of Afrikaans speakers outside Africa: almost 44,000 people, or 0.61 percent of the population according to 2016 figures. In the same year, the United States and Canada had the fourth and fifth highest number of Afrikaans speakers, with the language spoken by 0.39 percent and 0.32 percent of the population respectively. 

English Words of Afrikaans Origin

Many words that have been adopted into the South African English vocabulary are of Afrikaans origin, which means that even if you make no conscious effort to learn the language you’re likely to pick up a few words during your time in South Africa. Some of the most common include bakkie (pick-up truck), braai (barbecue), lekker (awesome), naartjie (tangerine), and babelas (hangover). Many traditional South African dishes were brought over by Cape Dutch settlers and are known by their Afrikaans names regardless of the speaker’s ethnicity. Go for dinner at your South African friend’s house and you’re likely to sample boerewors (farm sausage) or potjiekos (meat and vegetable stew), perhaps with koeksisters (plaited deep-fried dough) for dessert. 

Some Afrikaans loanwords are used by English speakers all over the world. These include aardvark, trek, commando, spoor, veld, and apartheid. 

Basic Words and Phrases 

Hello  Hallo
Good morning Goeie môre
Good afternoon Goeie middag
Good evening Goeienaand
Goodnight Goeie nag
Goodbye Totsiens
My name is... My naam is..
I'm from...  Ek kom van...
What's your name? Wat is jou naam?
Pleased to meet you. Bly te kenne.
Please Assebleif
Thank you Dankie
You're welcome  Dis 'n plesier
I'm sorry Ek is jammer
Excuse me Verskoon my
Welcome Welkom
How are you? Hoe gain dit met jou?
I'm very well, thank you. Baie goed dankie.
Good luck Sterkte
Congratulations Geluk
Have a nice day Lekker dag
This is delicious Dit is heerlik
Making Yourself Understood
Do you speak English? Praat jy Engels?
Do you understand? Verstaan jy?
I don't understand Ek verstaan nie
My Afrikaans is bad My Afrikaans is sleg
Please speak more slowly Praat stadiger asseblief
Please say that again Herhaal dit asseblief
How do you say… in Afrikaans? Hoe sê jy… in Afrikaans?
One  Een
Two Twee
Three Drie
Four Vier
Five Vyf
Six Ses
Seven Sewe
Eight Age
Nine Nege
Ten Tien
Stop Stop
Watch out Passop
Help Help
Fire Brand
Go away Gaan weg
Call the police Bel die polisie
I need a doctor Ek benodig 'n dokter
Other Essential Phrases
Yes  Ja
No Nee
Maybe Misikien
I don't know Ek weet nie
How much is it? Hoeveel kos dit?
How do I get to...? Hoe kom ek by...?
Where is the toilet? Waar is die toilet?