On speaking English only in self-defence

No, I haven’t gone missing.  I’m holding a camp for the school’s student leaders this weekend, so I’ve been too busy with preparations to think of any nonsense to write down here.

But I don’t want to neglect you wonderful readers, so I thought I’d share something with you I wrote a while ago.  At one point last year I discovered Quora.com.  In case you’ve never heard about it before, it’s a website where people can ask questions and other people can answer them.  It’s also a quite nice community, though I don’t follow specific people over there, nor do I care whether they follow me.  It’s just very interesting, and at times highly entertaining, to read people’s answers to the questions.

I also try answering questions from time to time, and I want to share one of my answers with you.  The question was:  “What does it mean when an Afrikaaner (sic) says, “I speak English only for self-defense?”


To understand this you have to first understand a bit of SA’s history.  As you hopefully know the southern tip of Africa was originally colonised by the Dutch East India trading company in 1652, to establish a resupply point for trade ships to India.  They were joined by the French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution back home.  Among the Dutch, French (and some German and Flemish) settlers Afrikaans gradually started to emerge.

After the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt the British annexed Cape Town in 1806 and in the 1830s a group known today as the Voortrekkers (SA’s pioneers and frontiersmen) migrated north to avoid the government’s severe taxation.  After several wars to subdue the native populations they settled the interior of the country, forming several Boer republics.  This migration also lead to the discovery of valuable minerals, especially diamonds in Kimberley and gold in the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg and surrounds).

Up until this point the British had more or less left the Boer republics alone, but now they started a push north to gain control of the minerals.  This finally led to the two Anglo Boer Wars in the late 1800s.  The Boers fought very well using guerilla tactics and won the first war, but the British eventually won the second, not just through greater numbers and better weapons, but also through completely breaking the morale of the Boer fighters – as they advanced they burned farms and homesteads and took the women and children captive, keeping them in concentration camps where conditions were generally believed to be unhygienic leading to many deaths from diseases like typhus and dysentery.  There’s also a popular belief among Afrikaners that the British added crushed glass to prisoners’ food to hasten their deaths, but I don’t know of documentary proof of that.

Needless to say the idea grew in Afrikaner minds that the English are evil and English is the language of the conqueror.  Of the older generations still living today some had parents or grandparents who had to suffer through this and among them especially there is a fierce resistance against English.  They will demand to be served in Afrikaans in a shop or restaurant and some would even refuse to talk to you if you address them in English.  In mainstream Afrikaans churches singing English hymns and worship songs was unthinkable until a decade or so ago, mainly due to complaints from this generation.

Their children (my parents’ generation) are not that fiercely resistant to English, but most were taught only rudimentary English in school and never needed to speak it for most of their lives (the Apartheid government conducted all business in Afrikaans and almost everyone in the country could speak the language to some extent).  Consequently they are not really comfortable speaking English, only resorting to it for “self-defense”, i.e. when they have no other choice (though it’s usually said jokingly).

Nowadays younger generations of Afrikaners are refusing to speak English anew due to the perception that the government is trying to destroy Afrikaans (which is not true).  They believe their identity as Afrikaners is more important than being South African and they defend this identity and language with patriotic, almost religious fervor.  They also only speak English out of self-defense, as they once again see English as the enemy to what they stand for.

I’m Afrikaans-speaking, by the way, and my great-great-grandfather was a POW in the second ABW, but I don’t identify with this group.  While I love my language with its literary heritage, I think feeling threatened by another language is just silly.

(On a side note, interestingly many black South Africans today refuse to speak Afrikaans, even though they are fluent, seeing it as the language of the oppressors.  And so the wheel turns.)

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