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A brief look at the history of Kaaps and the origins of Afrikaans
Most people who know anything about South Africa (and even those who don’t) are familiar with Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s (SA) 11 official languages and a tongue generally accepted as a localised form of Dutch that was born in SA after the Hollanders settled in the Cape.
What the majority of people don’t know, though, is the largely untold story of Kaaps, or Cape Dutch as it’s also known, and the controversy that exists surrounding this language’s right to be respected and its role in the evolution of Afrikaans.
Historically speaking, Kaaps preceded the form of Afrikaans that’s officially accepted today, but as it was mostly used by the slaves and workers of past, it was undermined by a certain class of people.
This vernacular is still widely spoken throughout the Western Cape, and efforts are being made to rekindle and restore speakers of the language their rightful dignity.
What is Kaaps?
This vernacular was born in the 17th century out of a need to communicate in the Dutch-dominated colony that was to become Cape Town. During those early days, the region was filled with a mixture of cultures from all over the world, from the indigenous Khoisan and Malays to West African and Madagascan people. Many of these groups were enslaved by the Dutch East India Company and other affluent Netherlanders, and, as a form of revolt, they refused to assimilate and speak the language of the colonists and rather created a new creole to not only communicate with each other, but to also keep their conversations private.
And so, Kaaps was born.
As it was partly influenced by a large and devout Cape Muslim population, the first recording of this fledgling language was written in phonetic Arabic and dates back to the early-to-mid 1800s.
Regarded as lesser than pure Dutch and often termed kombuis taal (kitchen language), this ‘slave tongue’ carried very little status in the social hierarchy. What’s interesting to note is that kombuis means ‘kitchen’ in modern-day Afrikaans, but in Dutch it refers to a galley, which also indicates its use on the ships.
Needless to say, because most of the population of the Cape colony at that time was made up of slaves, the language became widespread. As a result, this vernacular gradually became the mother tongue of the newer generations, eventually outpacing Dutch as a primary language in the area.
Kaaps vs. Afrikaans
Decades after in 1875, once the descendants of the first Europeans to colonise the Cape had started referring to themselves as Afrikaners (people from Africa), the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (GRA), or the Society of True Afrikaners in English, made one of the first attempts at standardising the language.
The organisation was established in Paarl by a collection of middle class farmers, small entrepreneurs, artisans and budding professionals to promote the Cape Dutch vernacular as the lingua franca of the nation in a move that was likely a response to British imperialism. Distancing itself from the language’s origins in the slave quarters, the GRA and its founders made a point of marketing their new standardised dialect (Afrikaans) as the pure language of the Afrikaners, thus branding the Kaaps that it was based on as slang and once again characterising it as a second-class tongue.
Even though the standardising process cut out many of the colourful phrases, Afrikaans today is still littered with words, like eina, gogga, kwagga, aitsa, from the Nama languages spoken by the Khoisan and words, like piesang (the original spelling is pisang), from the Malay.
This standardised version of the language became an elitist tool of discrimination even though slavery was abolished, and when the National Party came into power, it quickly became the language of the oppressor. To this day in South Africa, this stigma still maintains regardless of the fact that it’s been nearly two decades since the nation’s liberation from the Apartheid regime.
Meanwhile, despite the standardisation into Afrikaans and the compulsory language of instruction laws created by the Apartheid government, the community that used the original form of the language still held onto its ancestral background and continued to speak Kaaps, with most not even realising the heritage of the language.
According to the 2011 South African census results, approximately 49.7% of Western Cape dwellers speak Afrikaans, and the majority of these speakers are from coloured communities. While this statistic refers to the Afrikaans in its standard form, in reality, Kaaps is what is widely spoken in these communities.
Despite its pervasiveness though, the perception of Kaaps in modern society remains negative: it is considered an uncouth and vulgar version of Afrikaans, and it’s often noted that speakers are unfairly judged based on this historic language.
This attitude doesn’t exist unchallenged though. In an attempt to relay the history of Kaaps and differentiate it from standard Afrikaans, a group of hip-hop dancers, rappers, spoken word artists and musos came together in 2010 to produce the hip-hopera Afrikaaps. Through jazz, hip-hop, traditional goema and reggae music, the troupe takes the audience on a journey from the early days of Autshumaoa (Harry the Strandloper) to present day Cape Town to reveal the heritage, culture and beauty of Kaaps.
Not to mention, while very little literature about the history of Kaaps is available in the public domain, social activists are trying to spread the word, to not only give Kaaps its rightful place as an official language in South Africa, but to also restore the dignity of Capetonians and by extent South Africans who have been made to believe that their mother tongue is a broken one.
We’d like to thank Emile YX? for his invaluable contribution to this piece.
by Meagan Hamman
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