Donder and Bliksem: Afrikaans for Geeks

I’m gonna do this the Afrikaans way. Boer maak ‘n plan. ~from “Wikus and Charlize”

This is an actual place in ZA, I'm told

When I get into something new (an obsession, that is), I really and truly get into it. No dabbling or weekend quarterbacking for me. I’m going whole hog, one hundred percent. So, a few years ago when my District 9 obsession began to eclipse my previous love for The A-Team, I threw myself into all things South African. Granted, the country’s had a long and sordid history. For the record, I’m no apartheid supporter and I think Morgan Freeman’s election as president was the best thing that ever happened to South Africa. (You can laugh…that was a joke.)

Turns out I knew very little about ZA. That soon changed. I read everything from Invictus to Master Harold and the Boys and Cry, The Beloved Country (one hell of a good novel, and one which everyone should read.) I developed a strange affection for the peculiar group known as Afrikaners (Boers), the white descendants of 16th and 17th-century pioneers from today’s Holland. Why this was so, I didn’t know, although it might have had something to do with my raging crush on D9’s nerdy antihero, Wikus van de Merwe. As I soon discovered, his surname is the source of a rich vein of ZA ethnic jokes. South Africans tell van de Merwe jokes the way Americans tell blonde jokes. I was then obligated to learn more about Afrikaans. Pure curiousity, you know.

Some of van de Merwe's ancestors

With my existing background in German, Afrikaans wasn’t so hard to comprehend. It’s in the same family of languages. However, I never expected such a strange mix of consonant sounds and guttural purrs. To compare Afrikaans and German would be to compare a roe deer with a springbok. Same family…entirely different animal.

Navigating the basics was the easy part. The rich and diverse pot of colloquialisms threw me for a complete set of loops. How was I supposed to know the difference between a boerewors and a biltong, and was it all right for me to call a stranger bru? Was it an insult if I called my new pen pal a Boer? If I asked “Howzit, my china,” would I sound like a complete idiot or a stoned surfer? And just what was the deal with rugby (even after watching Invictus and a bunch of World Cup games I still can’t figure it out.) English even borrows a few of its words from this fellow bastard language, including “boss” (from baas) and “pap,” meaning bland mush.

Afrikaners have their own rich and unique history. Sadly most people associate them with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and while this is a part of their history, it would be like blaming all people of English or German descent for the Jim Crow South. The easiest way to learn about a language or culture, I’ve found, is to go straight to the source. Yes, there were Afrikaners who were terrible bigots and racists. There were also poets and writers and athletes and Voortrekkers (there is really no equivalent to this last in America, although the pioneers of the West might be the closest thing.) Many of them today have the same proud, independent spirit as Americans living in the harsh Western and Great Plains states.

"Snotklap," which really needs no translation

Between working on my manuscript, blogging, not to mention working all the time, learning Afrikaans has become yet another of my esoteric hobbies. Is there really any purpose to my doing so? Maybe not, just as there’s really no point to my learning Klingon or Ancient Greek. It’s not as if I’m about to skip down to Kaapstad (Cape Town) for the weekend any time soon. And there’s certainly no demand for Afrikaans-speaking employees at work. If it were practicality I wanted, I’d stick to the garden variety Spanish or French.

But Afrikaans is exotic,  not to mention a real jol (lark.) If I learn even the basics, how many others can say the same? It goes with my tradition of having something few others have. Instead of a goldfish, I’ll have, well, a Prawn. And I’ll be well prepared if I a) ever make it to Johannesburg, b) run into Sharlto Copley by some odd quirk of fate, or c) travel on exchange to the Cape and meet the handsome oke of my dreams. After all, Een taal is nooit genoeg nie (One language is never enough.)

Go Springboks, and I’m going to have a boerewors “just now,” eh?

Fok Yeah (also needs no translation)

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on September 20, 2011.

7 Responses to “Donder and Bliksem: Afrikaans for Geeks”

  1. District 9 is a brilliant movie, I got distracted though by the ingenious image at the end, made me chuckle…a lot.

  2. I’m glad…though it’s not mine, I got it from the Sharlto Copley fansite. Pretty lekker, eh?

  3. Have you checked out Stander? That’s a great bank heist film based on a real 70s era ZA crime.

  4. I can relate to your post.

    I too fell in love with the language and people from “first sight”. I met and befriended several SA’s over the course of my life and have since vistited Joburg, Cape Town, Hermanus, and other areas. Over the years I’ve picked up random words/phrases.

    South Africa is one of those gem countries where it’s so beautiful and rich of culture and history and yet so little traveled by the majority. It’s a true shame that it’s gotten so unsafe to live there.

    I highly recommend you book a trip in the near term!

  5. uuhm WOW..
    I am an Afrikaans South African girl and your blog really makes me feel all lekker inside. Well done.
    also, I’m a van der Merwe 😀
    If you ever want to visit or exchange – I would be happy to help. Seriously. My cousin lives in Ft. Lauderdale, I could visit her 🙂 And, for the record, Afrikaans okes are really very oulik..

  6. I’m also proudly a “van der Merwe”! If you are interested in learning some basic Afrikaans phrases, check out

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abandonen toda esperanza aquellos que entren aqui


You - philosophical, thoughtful, witty. Me - still thinks fart jokes are funny. We should DEFINITELY get together!

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