Languages of the Rainbow Nation

Published 27th September 2017
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This month, we welcome back our 2012 blog competition winner, Emma Wilberforce, as she writes about an inspiring visit to South Africa.

South Africa, also known as the rainbow nation, is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries I have ever visited and is home to no less than 11 official languages. The country has a well-documented and interesting history which is still very much a part of its identity. With this in mind, it is no surprise that there are so many languages to be found here.

A complete A to Z of languages form part of the official group, from Afrikaans to Zulu. With its Dutch roots, it is no surprise that both German and Dutch speakers have little difficulty understanding the Afrikaans language and interestingly my German travel companions could figure out signs in Afrikaans before I even had chance to get out my phrase book.

Dutch and English started out as the official languages of South Africa and then Afrikaans was added as part of Dutch, before Dutch was replaced by Afrikaans when the country became a republic. With around 7 million native speakers, Afrikaans is the third most spoken mother tongue in South Africa.

I was fascinated by the way South Africans we met could switch so easily between English and Afrikaans, or English and Xhosa. Sometimes, I was unsure altogether of what language they were speaking.

Prior to travelling to South Africa, I had only met a couple of South Africans who, as well as being extremely friendly, were also bilingual, putting my A Level language skills to shame.

Although I enjoy trialling out my German, my attempts at speaking Dutch whilst in Amsterdam last year didn’t go well. Needless to say my efforts at Afrikaans amounted to saying ‘dankie’ in an extremely anglicised way, so much so that it ended up sounding almost the same as ‘thank you’.

There is no doubt that language is a true reflection of a country’s society. Just as English has changed from Shakespeare’s day to modern vocabulary additions such as the much-hyped ‘twerking’, so too has South Africa’s rich mixture of languages. For those of you who have visited this nation, it is clear that its people are just as diverse as its languages or should we say that the languages are as diverse as the people, after all it is human influence that change and shape language.

There is no way that this blog can do justice to this fantastic country’s mixture of languages but it does make you think that anyone who is determined to try and make one common world language is definitely not going to succeed in South Africa.

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