The history of some Afrikaans expressions dealing with the sea

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The aim of this article is to indicate the role that 17th-century Dutch nautical language (and trade language as well) played in establishing the Afrikaans lexicon, more specifically with regard to fixed expressions relating to a sea theme. The article is a revised version of a paper read in 2018 at a colloquium about the sea hosted by the Nelson Mandela University (Otto 2018).

Different theoretical frameworks are relevant here, namely language history, lexicology and phraseology. Language history deals with the study of the origin and development of a specific language or of languages in general (HAT 2015:1313), while lexicology is the study of the lexicon and the meaning of words, as well as the study about the arrangement of the language in total according to scientific principles (HAT 2015:726). Phraseology is also relevant here as phrases, that is fixed expressions, are studied (HAT 2015:293). All these study fields are used in different degrees in order to establish how fixed expressions like idioms and proverbs which deal with the theme of the sea became part of Afrikaans. The meaning of idioms cannot be explained merely by looking at the sum total of meanings of the individual words, while proverbs, on the other hand, are fixed expressions in which truths are contained.

The history of fixed expressions dealing with the sea will be investigated by using a literature study in which both Dutch and Afrikaans etymological dictionaries are used, as well as other sources, including the day register of Jan van Riebeeck and an archival source indicating some of the areas from which the Dutch settlers came. 

According to current lexicographical convention in printed dictionaries the first noun in the expression is used as a lemma. Deviation from this occurs where the first noun has no relation to the sea and a nautical word occurs in the expression. In such cases the second noun is preferred. For coherence and synopsis lemmata are divided into four categories, according to the aspect of navigation that the expression relates to: the ship itself and ship equipment, life and work on board, the sea landscape and land, pier and shipyard.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) played an important role in the development of Afrikaans. It was an organisation that received sole trading rights east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Street of Magellan by the Dutch government. It was established on 20 March 1602. It was important for the ships that sailed from Europe to Asia to get fresh water and food, therefore Jan van Riebeeck and his people were sent at the end of 1651 from the Netherlands to the Cape to establish a refreshment post there. Even before the VOC sent Jan van Riebeeck and his people to the Cape to establish the refreshment post many VOC travellers had acquired an adapted form of Dutch in the East, and they spent substantial periods at the Cape when they journeyed back to the Netherlands. 

De Ruyter and Kotzé (2002) indicate that the earliest roots of Afrikaans can be traced back to Austro-Dutch. In the 17th century Dutch had not yet been standardised and there were many varieties of Dutch in the Netherlands. These different varieties came to the Cape with Jan van Riebeeck and the settlers, who had different jobs in the Netherlands and were from different dialect areas. Van Riebeeck and the other officials of the VOC had to speak the more formal Dutch (Carstens and Raidt 2017:346), while the sailors and other settlers schooled only to a lesser degree used simpler language. Afrikaans is not a daughter language of modern Dutch, but a sister language, as they had the same basis, namely the 17th-century Dutch dialects (Carstens and Raidt 2017:347).

There are various theories about the history of Afrikaans, but according to Carstens and Raidt (2017:431) no theory can fully answer all the questions about the origin of Afrikaans. There are four (groups of) perspectives on the origin of Afrikaans: that of the role of varieties of Dutch in the development of Afrikaans; spontaneous language transfer as factor; the role of learners of the language and the establishment of different varieties; amalgamation of varieties and standardisation. In this article the concern is not with these perspectives, since the focus is on the influence of 17th-century Dutch nautical language on the language at the Cape. The other influences are therefore not denied, but due to the delimitation of the subject only Dutch nautical language will be discussed.

The history of quite a number of fixed expressions from the “sea sub-lexicon” of Afrikaans is described. While some of the expressions remained in comparable form and with the same meaning in Dutch and Afrikaans, e.g. die loef afsteek / de loef afsteken (“to outwit/outmanoeuvre”), a change of meaning occurred in quite a number of expressions in Afrikaans. Another example of similar form and meaning appears in expressions with grootskeeps/grootscheeps, such as grootskeepse feesvierings (“grand celebrations”) and grootskeeps lewe (“live on a large scale, impressively, in a grand style”). In Dutch grootscheeps can be traced back to the 17th-century in the meaning of “according to the manner or use of a big ship, in other words in a huge, luxurious or beautiful manner”, as in een grootscheepse huishouding/leven (“on a large scale / impressive”) or grootscheeps doen (“do on a grand scale”). The expression van bakboord na stuurboord stuur is currently less used in Dutch than the synonymous expression het kastje naar de muur zenden. In some instances expressions in Dutch became extinct, like expressions with (Afrikaans) bottel. The Afrikaans expression diep in die bottel kyk (“be fond of liquor”) has the following equivalent in Dutch: diep in het glaasje kijken. Similarly expressions with the word kombers (“blanket”) in them stayed alive only in a naval context in Dutch, while it acquired a more inclusive meaning in Afrikaans, e.g. onder een kombers slaap, al jou kinders onder een kombers kan toemaak, etc. Meaning expansion also happened with the word anker (“anchor”), as in the expression ankers uitgooi (“to brake”), which appears only in Afrikaans. The word balie (“open barrel or cask”) also developed an additional meaning in Afrikaans, namely “corpulent person”. 

Keywords: Afrikaans; Dutch origin; fixed expressions; idioms; lexicon; meaning; navigation; proverbs


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