By: Samantha Cook
In a world where linguistic communities and cultures are part of a constant cycle of evolution, language is never a static concept but rather a constant revision of itself as it travels through different regions, societies and time periods.
As a result, the term ‘dialect’ has become vitally important in the description of the language variants that are a by-product of this evolutionary cycle. Despite their similar connotations, ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are exceedingly different concepts. ‘Language’ is fundamentally a system of words, their behaviors and their collectively-understood meanings, and is often defined by national and cultural borders (e.g.: Spanish, Chinese and Japanese). ‘Dialect’ rather refers to a state of mutual intelligibility, whereby two speakers are able to understand each other, but are not necessarily adhering to the same language system and grammatical rules. Therefore, whilst understanding is not usually possible between speakers of different languages, it is entirely possible between speakers of the same language, but different dialects.
In South Africa, where there are 11 official languages (English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, Southern Ndebele, Northern Sotho and Southern Sotho) and numerous others that are unofficially recognized, a difference in language is no longer a distinguishing factor between communities. Instead, regional dialects serve a primary purpose of cementing identity to a particular area and way of life. Africa as a continent places an unparalleled value on the concepts of community and culture, and thus African social identity is synonymous with acceptance into a particular social group. This acceptance is largely based on dialect in particular, and in this fundamental level of society, homogeneity is vital to the creation of a communal identity. Combined with evolving nature of language and dialects, South Africa has become a nation in which new dialects are constantly emerging to encompass a wide variety of social groups.
In particular, Afrikaans has undergone dramatic dialectical changes throughout the country since its inception. Originally brought into existence by the arrival of Dutch settlers to southern Africa, Afrikaans is in fact, in its earliest form, a dialect of Dutch, and even today there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility between the two languages. As this settler community became fragmented in the 1830’s, some ventured further into the country and a new dialectical generation was born. Three main Afrikaans dialects emerged from different regions of the country, namely the Northern Cape, Western Cape and Eastern Cape dialects. These main dialects then underwent further transformation as these Afrikaans speakers came into contact with other languages, including native African languages, and the mother tongues of the British, French and German colonial powers that also chose to settle in Africa.
As is the nature of language, these dialects have constantly evolved through the years, and whilst modern-day Afrikaans dialects may retain a small trace of their origins, they are unique dialects in their own right.