Perhaps it’s time for a small guide on what not to say in Belgium or Holland for Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, as I understand it, but I might be barking up the wrong pole…
What’s the difference between Dutch and Flemish, people often ask. In a tiny nutshell, not so much except a huge difference in accent and a different way of saying some things. Flemish is spoken in Belgium and Dutch in Holland and various incomprehensible dialects are spoken everywhere, these may differ considerably within a range of 5 kilometres. In the old days, 5 kilometres was the distance to the next village and not somewhere you went every day so the language remained quite insular.
I have to shake my ears any time I go anywhere within a fifty kilometre radius of my home, sometimes the accent (not the dialect) changes to something incredibly non-understandable and a simple question has me gasping for breath for a couple of minutes, sometimes I catch on after a while and sometimes not. So how come people can’t understand Afrikaans, it’s not that different, although I’m at pains to explain that it’s not a dialect! My forefathers were a stubborn buch and so am I!
So here goes a quick guide for Afrikaans-speaking South Africans if you find yourself in the country that brought the original version of Afrikaans to South Africa. No, it’s not the same language, the grammar has been watered down over a period of three hundred years and the vocabulary has been enriched by dozens of other influences. Don’t ask me why we kept the double negative if the grammar was supposed to be easier.
These words get Dutch-speakers howling: kameelperd, bollemakiesie, moltrein, seekoei, deurmekaar, toebroodjie, hysbak, to mention a few.
These words make me cry: amper, vies, vuil, schoon. Why, because they mean almost the same but not quite and you can get yourself into knots.
The spelling also goes a long way to confuse me as I wonder why zee is spelt with a z, sap with an s and vakantie with a t? Why complicate the ou sound with an au or auw etc… In Belgium w is pronounced like in English, in Holland the same way as in South Africa. Writing something and working out whether it’s supposed to be w,v or f, or s or z is an arduous task. If I knew how to pronounce the words correctly it would go a long way to improve my written Dutch and the spoken goes without saying.
You might also hear some choice words that will make you cringe but are actually quite innocent (I think so anyway?) What am I talking about: fokkerij, doos, poes etc, I’m cringing so I won’t continue but I think I have made small headway into understanding Magritte’s ‘this is not a pipe’. Who says it is, just because you’ve been conditioned to associate a word with a certain object…
My friend tells me she received a blank look when she wanted to ask some guy on the train something and started off with: ‘verskoon my’. The right expression is: ‘excuseer’ or even ‘pardon’ because otherwise you’re asking him to wipe your behind. It’s a minefield out there, if worst comes to worst, just keep your mouth shut, play dumb. Don’t laugh as I did this morning when someone was having a ‘confidential’ conversation in the lift about how good the new receptionist is and how bad the old one was. Never assume someone doesn’t understand, or always do because it provides for much entertainment, for me anyhow. I know small things amuse small minds but you have to take your pleasures where you find them!
I no longer think that Afrikaans needs to be used as Esperanto, English is going to do the job! There are so many non-native speakers out here in the world. It is said that native speakers only use about 60% of the language they know. Add to this the fact that you’re speaking to non-natives means that you go easy on the phrasal verbs and expressions and leave out anything that you think is slang, what’s the percentage of English that you’re using on a daily basis now? I understand non-native English speakers in Belgium when they use ‘inscribe’ for ‘register’ or ‘blessed’ for ‘injured’ and so on and so on. I’m not doing anyone a good turn by letting these practices continue but I’m sure it’s happening all over the world where English is used as a lingua franca like South Africa or India. I already hear people complain about how hard it is to understand Indians who speak English, they understand each other and are developing Inglish! Or to demonstrate, we were all making an effort to speak English when my Australian niece piped up and asked: ‘Can you speak English, please.’ Oops…