A Case of David and Goliath: The Changing Position of Afrikaans Vis-a-Vis Eleven Official Languages. (1)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

As part of its colonial heritage, South Africa has had a history of linguistic hegemony. Originally, while it was a colony administered by the Dutch East India Company (1652-1795), Dutch was the only official language of the Cape of Good Hope. After 1806 and 1814, when South Africa had became a British Colony, English at first co-existed with Dutch, but as early as 1822 English became the dominant official language for all higher functions (state, courts, schools). In 1925, Afrikaans replaced Dutch as the second official language of the Union of South Africa. Since 1948, Afrikaans was the language of the ruling National Party and as such it played a powerful role in the political arena, in the military and police force, in the media, in the public and educational sectors. This was the status quo until 1994. South Africa was regarded as a "bilingual country" despite the fact that both English and Afrikaans were the mother tongues of minority groups. It was only with the Language Policy of the African National Congress (ANC) that the real issue of South Africa's multilingualism was addressed, and the new government of South Africa has since then made attempts to find ways how to implement this policy.

While Afrikaans was an official language, entrenched in the government and enjoying legal protection, the indigenous languages of the country posed no threat, they could largely be ignored. The emphasis was on the competition with English. In the new dispensation, however, Afrikaans not only has lost its protected position, it also has to face one of the most striking characteristics of the South African population: its linguistic diversity. The position of Afrikaans in this typically African linguistic pluralism is a radically new one in that it involves a repositioning of language and cultural identity of its speakers and the future of the language which might be in the balance.

The continent of Africa is three times the size of Europe (30 million [km.sup.2]) but it has only half as many inhabitants as Europe has. Its approx. 550 million people speak more than 800 distinct languages (Myers-Scotton 1995: 10); a less conservative estimate puts the number on well over 1000 languages. Where Europe has on average 8 million speakers per language, Africa averages 250 000 speakers per language (Knappert 1990). Linguistic pluralism is therefore a characteristic feature of the whole of Africa. Seen against this background it is not surprising that linguistic pluralism is also a specific feature of South Africa.

2. A sociolinguistic profile of South Africa

2.1. Linguistic diversity

According to the 1991 census figures and more recent updates, South Africa has close on 40 million speakers who belong to more than 28 linguistic groups (Schuring 1993; Webb 1995: 15). The national linguistic composition now consists of eleven official languages (since 1994) as well as the European immigrant and the Oriental languages (Van der Merwe 1994: 1). All the official languages have a recognised spelling and writing tradition; there are, however, at least another 18 spoken African languages, not counting dialectal differences. The 12 indigenous Bantu languages (mainly Nguni and Sotho languages) are spoken by 74% of the population, i.e. 27,8 million speakers of whom 8,5 million have Zulu as their home language, 6,6 million speak Xhosa, and 3,7 million Sesotho, to mention only the major groupings.

The former official languages -- English and Afrikaans -- are spoken by 9,2 million people. Numerically, Afrikaans ranks third in the list of first languages with 5,8 million speakers, while English ranks fifth with 3,5 million mother tongue speakers.

2.3. Major trends in the dynamics of linguistic diversity

Due to the rapid population growth during the past forty years -- an increase from 14 million in 1951 to approx. 40 million in 1995 -- all the major languages have increased numberwise (Schuring 1993). …