Tracking down items in Afrikaans

The languages handled by European Collections and Cataloguing fall into three categories – languages taught in the University and very actively collected, languages formerly taught, in which we sometimes have a considerable number of items but in which few new imprints are acquired (a post on our Icelandic holdings has been written), and items in languages which have never been taught and studied, where virtually all additions are as a result of donation. Afrikaans material is a good example. Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that is widely spoken in South Africa, Namibia and to a lesser extent in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Most of the Afrikaans vocabulary is of Dutch origin but it adopted words from Portuguese, the Bantu languages, Malay and the Khoisan languages too. The First Afrikaans Language Movement, established in 1875, made a concerted attempt to establish Afrikaans as a separate language from Dutch. The first Afrikaans newspaper was started in 1876, and publishing houses specialising in Afrikaans language material began publication in 1914 and 1915. But even the Afrikaner (Boer) Republics at the time of the South African War in 1899-1902 used Dutch in their publications and official documents.

Given that publications in Afrikaans are of relatively recent date, and have never been actively collected, it is slightly surprising to realise that some 1,500 titles in Afrikaans are scattered through the Library’s collections. Approximately 10 to 15 titles are added each year. Afrikaans was never thought important enough to merit a separate number in our classification scheme for language and literature. Literary texts in and about Afrikaans are clustered with Dutch literature in class 751.


Rosenthal collection in UL

One of our key collections in this area is the private research library of Africana formed by the South African historian Eric Rosenthal. Although these books are chiefly in English and range from the 18th-20th century, there is also significant material in German. There are also over 450 titles in Afrikaans. In addition to the Rosenthal material, our Afrikaans collection has primarily been supplemented by books from the Royal Commonwealth Society (more than 300 items) and from the Bible Society (approximately 150 titles). We also used to receive generous donations in Afrikaans from the government in South Africa. There are books on a variety of topics – history titles predominate – but there is relatively little literature.


Title page of Ordonnantie raakende (RCS.Case.a.40)

It is sometimes difficult for the non-expert to decide exactly where Dutch stops and Afrikaans begins, particularly when dealing with 19th century materials in an older form of Dutch. Searching the Cambridge database, the earliest Afrikaans item in the University Library appeared to have been published in 1805 (Ordonnantie raakende het bestier der buiten-districten in de Nederlandsche Zuid-Africaansche volkplanting aan de Kaap de Goede Hoop, gearresteerd by Gouverneur en Raaden van Politie, op den 23. October, 1805RCS.Case.a.40), but on closer examination we realise this is wrongly coded and is actually in an earlier form of Dutch, an interesting ordinance of the new (Dutch) Batavian government which took over the Cape from the British during the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars. We appear to have about 30 books in Afrikaans published before 1900, but at some point will need to check the accuracy of those language descriptions.

A small number of new imprints in Afrikaans are purchased, very spasmodically, to supplement our special collections on South Africa. For example, the Library has bought books by the renowned historian and novelist Karel Schoeman, who writes mainly in Afrikaans. Schoeman has also won three of the most prestigious Afrikaans literary awards including the Hertzog Prize; in recent years his fiction has garnered much praise in France, winning the prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 2009, among others.

Afrikaans is the third most commonly spoken language in South Africa after Zulu and Xhosa. First recognised by Parliament as an official language in 1925, it is one of the 11 official languages named after the ending of apartheid. It is still a living and developing language, with an enduring and vibrant literary culture, although it does not receive the preferential status from the government that it did during the apartheid era. Afrikaans speakers are maintaining a tradition and identity. We were told recently, rather to our surprise, that one of our major vendors conducts most of his business discussions in Afrikaans when visiting librarians in South African university libraries.

Joanne Koehler

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