Afrikaans speech norms and prescriptive Afrikaans norms: Is there enough scope for grammatical diversity in Standard Afrikaans?

Gerald Stell

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Afrikaans may be a standardized language, but it is acknowledged that the standardization it has undergone is not quite thorough and should be continued, particularly at the grammatical level. How the standardization process should be continued has, however, been the topic of a debate that emerged in the 1990s: should Standard Afrikaans reflect spoken varieties or its own written tradition? The origin of that debate was the fear that the gap between Standard Afrikaans and spoken varieties would, in the long term, widen and alienate a growing number of Afrikaans speakers, undermining its position and status in the process. Against today's background of the diminishing visibility of Standard Afrikaans not only in the media but also in education, that debate arguably deserves to be reopened once more. But then, arguably, that debate cannot dispense with a clear idea of linguistic variation in the Afrikaans speech community, and in particular in the informal register. And the central question which must be asked in reference to that informal register is: how deep is the imprint that Standard Afrikaans has left on it as a result of compulsory education and exposure to the media? And considering today's changed sociolinguistic settings: is that imprint diminishing, allowing informal spoken Afrikaans to evolve its own rules? In order to answer these questions, a corpus of informal spoken Afrikaans has been collected among both White and Coloured speakers, subdivided into three distinct age cohorts, contained in seven samples spread across the three historical dialect zones of the Afrikaans language area. In the process, further possible geographical subdivisions of the Afrikaans speech community were taken into account, such as the urban/rural divide and the recent political border that separates Namibian Afrikaans speakers from their South African peers. In order to test the possibility of convergence with or divergence from the prescriptive norm, a total of 15 morphosyntactic variables with a standard variant and a non-standard variant were singled out for analysis. Among these are a range of variables whose non-standard variant is typically associated with Coloured varieties (e.g. non-standard onse vs. standard ons, "our", non-standard hulle se vs. standard hulle, "their"), and that I thus refer to as "ethnic variants", while the diffusion of the remaining variables is generally not described in ethnic terms (e.g. non-standard Verb Second in relative clauses vs. standard Verb Final). The first step in our analysis consists of looking at the invidivual diffusion of each of the 15 variables. The overall picture is that general convergence is sometimes observable in the direction of the prescriptive variant, but also at other times away from it. Also, there are cases of divergence between samples, observable when some of the samples are converging towards the prescriptive variant while others are moving away from it. An important observation is that Whites generally stand closest to the prescriptive variant. The second step in our analysis consists of a multivariate analysis involving all variables simultaneously in order to allow generalizations on convergence with and divergence from the prescriptive norm. The overall picture yielded by that multivariate analysis is again one that illustrates the prevalence of a systematic linguistic gap between Coloured and White varieties, showing White varieties to be linguistically more homogeneous than Coloured varieties. What it further illustrates is a general trend of mutual convergence between the South African White and Coloured samples. In other words, Afrikaans varieties (at least in South Africa) are becoming more homogeneous without necessarily getting closer to the prescriptive norm. I argue that this observation should be taken into account in any attempt to further standardize Standard Afrikaans grammar. On the basis of the observations described above, there seems to be scope for improving the representativity of the Standard Afrikaans norm. Enhancing the representativity of the Standard Afrikaans norm need not entail scrapping specific grammatical variants. Rather, it could mean acknowledging variation by mentioning variants which are typical of the informal registers of Afrikaans alongside their prescriptive equivalents. I argue here that one merit of this approach is that it reduces the gap between spoken and written registers without doing away with the latter, while also acknowledging ethnic diversity in spoken Afrikaans.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)418-443
Number of pages26
JournalTydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Afrikaans
  • Coloured Afrikaans
  • Ethnicity
  • Grammar
  • Language norms
  • Language variation
  • Prescriptive norms
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Spoken language
  • Standardization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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