We Went Marching To Pretoria (or How I fell in love with Afrikaans in my 36th year)

For those of you who are new here, I am married to 23Thorns. He is also a blogger. We are the modern equivalent of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (but with shoplifting), Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (but with dassie corpses on the stove), Iris Murdoch and John Bayley (but with a criminally clever Chinese Crested Powder Puff in the kitchen cupboards). We celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary over the weekend and for only the third time in 8 years, we spent a night away without our children. It is a wonderfully romantic image: the hotel room, the white fluffy robes, the unbelievable stillness between 5p.m. and 7p.m, which for over 8 years of child-rearing has been the time when madness takes over. And it would have been romantic- I had investigated a bed & breakfast on the Crocodile River once owned by an artist- but for the Second Anglo-Boer War.

I have a real problem with military history. The mere mention of Delville Wood has me sobbing into a hanky and reaching for the book of war poetry. Don’t even get me started on Passchendaele with its putrid, sucking mud and rain-filled shell holes, its endless field of neat white crosses. All those young men in their scratchy khaki uniforms never going home to Mum. So, World War I breaks my heart but the Boer War which was fought all around me leaves me quite senseless. I am in a Boer War phase at the moment, so for our anniversary weekend, I booked a night away in Pretoria central so we could visit Paul Kruger’s house and the Union Buildings. Instead of a dance by the light of the moon, our dinner chairs vibrated to the thud thud thud of the passing cars’ sound systems en route to the nearest meth lab. Instead of birdsong waking us in the morning, we had the peeping of taxi hooters. But I could see the Union Buildings and the statue of Louis Botha from our bedroom window. I was in paradise.

Kruger House Museum on the afternoon of my wedding anniversary. Paul Kruger lived here until he was forced into exile.

The night away inspired me to speak Afrikaans for the rest of the weekend. It was very bad Afrikaans but something about Pretoria and the language of the doughty Boer folk who settled it is just so lekker (nice) that I couldn’t hold back on my very small tribute to their practicality, their rough toughness. And I want to perhaps pass on some of the lekkerness of Afrikaans (partly inspired by my trying to teach Australian, Metan, how to pronounce the Afrikaans name of a local lizard, the Bloukopkoggelmander) and the lekkerness of the character of a nation of settlers as hard as a leadwood. Yes, I will trade in stereotypes to do this. Before I can teach you to love Afrikaans or to even begin to pronounce a word like goggatjie (for South Africans, gogga is actually a khoisan word), we will need to take a little stroll through South Africa’s colonial history.

In a real nutshell: the Dutch were the first European settlers of the Cape of Good Hope. They arrived in 1652, quickly beat the local Khoisan into submission with a combination of gunpowder and brandy, set up farms, had an alarming number of children each, started developing their own language, became self-sustaining, and then the British arrived. They were anti-slavery; they spoke English; they were English; they drank tea and ruled the world; they had a different church. Some of the Afrikanders made friends with the Imperial imports but a gang of 12 000 Boers did not. They decided to leave the Cape to the English and set up their own republics in the interior. In the 1830s and 1840s they packed their lives and their wives into ox wagons, moved north-east, beat the local Bantu-speaking tribes into submission with a combination of gunpowder and arms deals, built their own churches, set up farms and had alarming numbers of children each. Some stopped in the Orange Free State to farm the flat interior, others kept going to the Transvaal, others went all the way to the far north-east of the country, where they died in their hundreds as they came up against the mighty mosquito and her cattle-killing cousin, the tsetse fly. Diamonds were discovered. Gold was discovered. The British arrived again. A war was fought. Another war was fought. The Afrikaans women and children died in their thousands in concentration camps. Their menfolk lost their land and their lives and still the imperial machine rolled on. The tea-drinkers came out on top.

Afrikaner Trekboers in the Karoo of South Africa.

Afrikaner Trekboers in the Karoo of South Africa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Phew…so, the Boers were tough, brutal, devout and proud; their language reflects this. And almost more than the language itself, to me at least, the names they gave landmarks and farms along the way show this. One of the towns to which those trekboers affected by malaria had to fall back to was named Lydenburg – town of suffering. The trekboers had worked out that death lay waiting in the lowlands of the north-east where the fever tree grows (although they didn’t know it was delivered by the humble mosquito) so they moved to the top of the escarpment but it was already too late for too many. It was a place of suffering, so they called it Place of Suffering. Practical I like!

I am now ready to pass on Afrikaans pronunciation 101 (with examples) for outsiders:

W is pronounced V.

Woestalleen (Fiercely Alone) is an endlessly flat spot in the Free State. If you lived there and were ever expecting visitors, you would be able to see their dust trail approaching for days before their arrival. Fiercely Alone is a good name for it.

V is pronounced F.

There are several places and rivers called Onverwacht (this one is more Dutch than Afrikaans but it means unexpected). I am completely in love with the idea that the trekboers had just marched through a barren desert and then over a mountain only to find themselves along a lush riverine forest. “Goeie genade, dis Onverwacht!”  (“Goodness gracious, this is Unexpected!”)

G is pronounced GGHHH (like the CH in the previous example). It’s a tough call for the English-speakers. My Berkshire-born friend, Jane, cannot do it. She pronounces it simply as H and I laugh. Imagine that you’ve got a hair stuck on your palate. Put the flat of your tongue on that hair and push the air between your tongue and your palate. GGGKKKHHHH…choke a little even.

Genadendal (valley of grace) was named before the trekboers passed through. It is the oldest mission station in South Africa. It was set up to be the centre of the dispersal of knowledge about God’s grace; it was in a valley- Valley of Grace. Good call, and quite poetic.

R is rolled but not like the romantic French R. It’s a short, sharp growl. It’s an ‘if you come one step closer I’ll give you a poesklap‘ (a very rude word used to describe an open-handed slap delivered with great disrespect. If you’re given a poesklap, you’re not even worth a punch)

Dwarskersbos (through candle bush) is on the West Coast. Its namers walked through the candle bushes and then there it was, Through Candle Bush.

And I think that’s it with the hard-core pronunciation. You sometimes stretch the As in a long yawn. Sometimes you’ll shorten the Es and give them a little hat. If you put two Os together, you whooooop like a hyena in the middle of a word. The wonderfully practical place names are endless, however. There is Hoedspruit (hat river) a town in the Lowveld named after its namer’s hat. I’m sure it was a very special hat. Die Hel (Hell) which is very hot and isolated. Stilfontein (quiet spring) is a town which has a very quiet river running through it. The Vaal (pale) River is pale. The province over the Vaal used to be called Transvaal – across the Vaal. The Oranje (orange) River is orange.

I just love everything about Afrikaans this week. I love the people who made it. I love the way your mouth and tongue have to really grab onto those sensible words and how you have to spit them out with great energy and force. There is no room for laziness in Afrikaans. There is no room for timidity either. It is a big, strong language. And while it is not the language of seduction, perhaps it is the ideal language for love; long love; 11 year-old love. It is steady and unyielding, like a leadwood I think I said earlier.

So husband-mine, happy anniversary and thank you for marching to Pretoria with me. It wasn’t Paris. It wasn’t even Parys but it was tjokvol (chock-full, pronounce the TJ as CH) happiness of the most practical, feet-on-the-ground sort and deep leadwood love.

For the rest of the readers, say it with me goggatjie!

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25 thoughts on “We Went Marching To Pretoria (or How I fell in love with Afrikaans in my 36th year)

  1. Wow… thank you for this. My knowledge of this portion of history is sorely lacking. You have gotten me started and I am going to do some further reading. I truly appreciate this lesson!

  2. Mooi geskryf meisie! I once went to the Kruger museum and a dear old lady in a long black dresswith a crispy white kappie was bein escourted around and she was reverently touching everything saying ‘Hy het op hierdie stoel gesit, HY het op die bed geslaap, and so on. It was obviously a pilgrimage of epic importance to her, to touch the things her hero had used!

  3. As an American I, admittedly, don’t know much about the Boers. The fact that Afrikaans is still in existence, though, that says something about their tenacity, I think. I am of Dutch descent, so I’ve always had more than a passing interest in Dutch colonialism. The Boers, were, all in all, more successful than their North American counterparts in holding off the British. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. This part of America (NJ/NY) is full of Dutch named streets/towns. That’s about it, though. No surviving language.

    • Thanks for the reminder. I often forget that the Boers were also part of a bigger picture. It is wonderful that the language survives when you see it in that context (or any really). In S.A there are still several million 1st language speakers. In my day, you had to learn Afirkaans in all English schools too. I went to liberal, multiracial schools (I was in matric – 12th grade- with Nelson Mandela’s grandson) so it was almost cool not to like Afrikaans, representitive as it was of the Apartheid regime. It is fabulous to discover so many years later that Afrikaans is actually cool. These days we have 11 official languages in South Africa. I need to start working on my Zulu. The few words that I do know are also a delight!

      • I took a great deal of African history in college (mainly because I enjoyed the professor); I have a degree in History. I remember having some exposure to Swahili and Khoi-San(the clicking is cool!)… I swear that we learned that the Khoi-San word for “rich white person” was !Benzi!Benzi… Because they drove Mercedes-Benz automobiles. I don’t know if it’s true, as my contact with speakers of Khoi-San is extremely limited(to none, LOL), but I always liked the idea of it.

  4. Dis ek, jou hardekool hartlief. The part of Pretoria we stayed in was far more interesting than any verdant artist’s valley. Paul Kruger’s house is a tidy little corrugated iron-roofed house nestled between looming skyscraper slums. The street was four lanes of endlessly hooting taxis winding past ornate sandstone gothic churches and tumbledown buildings housing hairdressers and shops like the “Almighty Laundromat”.
    Just around the corner, the German and Namibian consulates sat across a small street from a dingy little sports bar that looked like it was home to at least three stabbings a weekend. And over it all loomed loomed the imposing granite mass of the Union buildings, monument to a people whose time in power has passed.
    If we can keep finding places like that, I’m set for another eleven years. My oulike klein verskiedeniskaboutertjie.

  5. Happy anniversary! I tried to do all the pronounciation again as instructed but I suspect that I mangled it yet again. 🙂

    Have you ever looked at Forvo? It is a site where you can add words from any language and record their pronounciation. I looked for bloukopkoggelmander but it wasn’t there, I did find lekker though (http://www.forvo.com/word/lekker/#af)

    Great post! 😀

    • Thanks! Somebody reblogged one of my hubby’s blogs on some parenting site yesterday with the question to the forum of whether or not a less bubble-wrapped sort of child-rearing was, in fact, the way to go.I was completely unprepared for the vitriol that followed. I can quite genuinely not believe how mean the responses were. I stupidly waded in (I know, was I mad, right?) and as a result went to sleep crying and have woken up crying. In my state, I had forgotten about the poesklap. Now that you’ve reminded me though, I am smiling. Poesklaps all round on mumsnet and all is right with the world!

  6. I love my wife. She is Afrikaans and my return to the use of the language has been most eduational. I understand your appreciation for the language. It certainly is most descriptive, but decidedly, unromantic. My wife is ready to have seizures when I try to talk romantically to her in “Die Taal van die Liefde”. She’s Afrikaans – I thought she would find it sexy. But no. Apparently Afrikaans isn’t even sexy for Afrikaners.

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