Charlize Theron and the question of Afrikaans

Charlize Theron, a native Afrikaans speaker from South Africa, stirred up a political and linguistic hornet’s nest when she told a podcast interviewer that her native tongue was a “dying language”.

This produced a flurry of rebuttals from both sides. One Twitter virtue signaler triumphantly proclaimed: 

“Indeed Afrikaans is a dead language. It belongs in the past. It’s a tool once used to oppress Africans.”

Yeah, but if you had wanted to really make your point, dude, you would have written that in Xhosa or Zulu. Throw off those chains of English, why don’t you?

The tendency to view modern languages through the lens of historical grievance can get a little silly when taken to its logical ends. Should we abolish the Russian language because of what Putin is doing in Ukraine? Do we nix Arabic after the next Islamic terrorist attack?

India, for that matter, has no desire to go back to the British Empire. But Indians show no qualms about speaking English, either. In fact, they demonstrate a veritable fetish for the language of their former colonial overlords, even though there are plenty of good indigenous Indian languages: Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, and more. 

Another Twitter user, while acknowledging Afrikaans’s association with Apartheid, said of Theron’s statement: 

“I do not concur with her. As with all other languages, the Afrikaans language must be preserved.”

In all likelihood, Theron was simply making an observation. Afrikaans, a variant of Dutch, has never been a major world language. Even within South Africa, it always competed with English, as well as various African languages. 

A (British) South African friend of mine was in the Apartheid-era South African Army. He told me that the army alternated between using Afrikaans and English as its working language, so that both would get equal time.

Afrikaans is unlikely to die out in the foreseeable future. But it’s not a growth language, either. That’s the most objective, apolitical assessment I can make about it.