I was born into a community where four languages were current. English was the language I spoke with my family and friends. I was educated in it and it was the language closest to my heart. Next, a bad second, came Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, which became a distinctive language in nineteenth century South Africa.
Third and fourth in my repertoire were Yiddish and Hebrew. Although my mother spoke impeccable English, she frequently resorted to Yiddish whenever she felt the need for an ‘adult’ exchange with my father, or when her emotions got the better of her, at which point English would suddenly become inadequate for the purpose and she would fall back on her own childhood first language. Naturally, my eager little ears flapped whenever I heard Yiddish being spoken and I soon acquired a fine range of Yiddish imprecations and hyperbolic expressions of disapproval, but I never learnt to read Yiddish or to conduct a civil conversation in the language.
Hebrew was a different matter. My father was a teacher and a keen Hebraist. He taught me to read Hebrew at an early age and coached me through matriculation Hebrew – not a high bar, but enough to give me a solid grounding in Hebrew grammar and Biblical Hebrew. Later, I acquired a modicum of spoken Hebrew in Israel but my fluency in the language has remained lamentably limited.
Returning to Afrikaans: as a city boy, I seldom fraternized with Afrikaans children. ‘Country’ Jews, as my rural peers were called, had more opportunity to mix with their Afrikaans counterparts. But I took to the language as soon as I began to learn it at school. I must have had good teachers and I was eager to please and an apt little fellow to boot. A few adventure stories in Afrikaans strengthened my bond with the language and I was innocently oblivious of the political context which tainted the language for many South Africans.
The Afrikaners, or Boers, as they were called, were devout Protestants who regarded black people as being outside the pale of humanity and therefore undeserving of the rights accorded to white people. From this primitive perception, reinforced by bloody clashes with tribes whom they encountered during their ‘Great Trek’ into the interior of the country, sprang the pernicious doctrine of Apartheid, and the main proponents of Apartheid were Afrikaans speakers.
Driven by a beleaguered mentality, the Boers proclaimed their language as the voice of Afrikaner national pride. By the same token it came to be viewed by black people as the language of oppression, imposed on them by a people who had no respect for their own culture.
It was in this cultural and linguistic conflict zone that I received my education. When I started my schooling, all white children had to learn both English and Afrikaans. They could enroll either at an English medium school, where all subjects were taught in English, or an Afrikaans medium school, where the reverse obtained.
Unfortunately, Afrikaans was dogged by its association with Apartheid, in much the same way that many Jews shuddered at sound of German, a resonance which has taken several decades to fade.
I often ask myself how I managed to dissociate myself from the racist connotations of the Afrikaans language. Perhaps it was because I discovered, early on, that there were Afrikaans writers who abhorred Apartheid, or perhaps I could differentiate between the literary content of Afrikaans writing and the use of Afrikaans as a medium for propaganda.
A more cogent reason, probably because it is more personal, is that my father studied at an Afrikaans university, where he was tutored in Semitic languages by a distinguished Afrikaner scholar who was great admirer of Hebrew literature and who worked together with my father on a translation of Hebrew short stories into Afrikaans.
Following my father’s example, I learnt to focus on the content of a text rather than the political overtones of the language in which it was written.
I am pleased to learn that Afrikaans today is far from a ‘dying’ language. It is spoken as a first language by more than eight million people and there is a thriving population of Afrikaans speakers worldwide. I feel vindicated in my love for a language which once carried with it the shameful aura of Apartheid.