Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

An important conference for Afrikaans in Europe

Summer is a good time for attending conferences in Europe, and 2017 has proved to be no exception. This afternoon we had to brave a thunderstorm that would hold its own against any Highveld thunderstorm in South Africa, and that in Venice, Italy, just after our arrival here from München by bus. We were on a vaporetto, or water taxi, en route to our Airbnb apartment – much cheaper than hotels – and by the time we got to it we were soaking wet.

The conference starting here next week is inter- and multi-disciplinary, which is the kind I like best because of the interesting ‘constellations’ (as Theodor Adorno might say) that different disciplines sometimes trace out unexpectedly when thrown into the melting pot together. But even when people from the ‘same’ discipline, with different approaches and interests, come together for a conference, the same kinds of constellations sometimes gel into audibility.

I am thinking of the first conference we attended on our arrival in Europe this summer, which was the bi-annual meeting of the NAWG, or Nederlands-Afrikaanstalig Wijsgerig Genootschap (freely translatable as Netherlandish-Afrikaans-language Philosophical Society) at the University of Ghent (or Gent, in Flemish) in Belgium, arranged by a talented young Flemish (Belgian) philosopher and psychoanalytical thinker, Jens De Vleminck, who already has an impressive number of publications to his credit at a comparatively early age.

This conference rotates among the three countries involved, namely South Africa, Belgium and Holland. The previous meeting was in South Africa at the beautiful conference centre of Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch, and the next one will be held at the Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. And if you wonder what makes me sound so upbeat about this esoteric-sounding philosophy conference, it is not merely because of the fact that it is conducted in Afrikaans, Flemish and Dutch, with every participant speaking in the language of his or her choice (out of these three languages), although that certainly adds to it.

Just put yourself in the situation of someone who is mother tongue Afrikaans-speaking, and who does not really get the opportunity to present papers, lecture, or discuss philosophical issues with students and colleagues in South Africa any longer. And here the opportunity presents itself on a golden platter, as it were, to use this academically starved language freely and creatively at a conference, together with representatives of those language groups that comprised the matrix of Afrikaans development into a fully-fledged literary and scientific language. What happens, predictably, is a very creative and constructive exchange among individuals practising the ‘same’ discipline, to wit, philosophy.

I put ‘same’ in scare quotes because, as every philosopher knows, no two people approach the discipline in exactly the same manner, even when the overarching theme for a conference is the same. This time the general theme – which is always just a guideline for participants; anyone who wishes to talk about something else is free to do so (my own paper was on techno-pessimism in recent science fiction, for example) – happened to be the question of Afrikaans, Dutch and Flemish as philosophical languages in a globalised/globalising world where (American) English is hegemonic. As might be expected, it gave rise to some interestingly divergent points of view among participants.

There were the ‘realists’, who resigned themselves to the fact that these three languages will continue to suffer erosion in the discipline of philosophy (if not all disciplines, except for the literatures pertinent to each language), and there were those who made out an argument in favour of doing one’s utmost to keep them alive in and for philosophy.

The arguments on the part of those who regarded it as a futile struggle to keep these three languages alive in philosophy, given the unmitigated onslaught by (American) English as Lingua Franca of the globalised world, centred mainly on two points: Students are increasingly uninterested in being lectured in their mother tongue (in South Africa this is particularly the case at historically Afrikaans universities, according to some delegates), and to keep journals going that publish in Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaans, also seems to have become an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of arguments against premature resignation to the dominance of English – even the editor of a (highly rated) Flemish philosophy journal called De Uil van Minerva believes there is every reason to continue publishing it despite the onslaught from hegemonic English. And in South Africa traditionally Afrikaans medium universities may be having difficulties concerning teaching through the medium of Afrikaans, but there are several accredited Afrikaans journals that are part of a vibrant publishing culture in Afrikaans, notably the flagship journal of the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, namely Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe (Journal for the Humanities).

In addition to these considerations some Afrikaans-speaking doctoral students who presented papers at the conference pointed out that they certainly do not count among those students who allegedly do not want to be taught through the medium of Afrikaans at traditionally Afrikaans universities. Quite to the contrary.

You may wonder what all the fuss about language really amounts to. My own view is that neither Afrikaans, nor Dutch or Flemish faces an uncertain future, for the simple reason that there are millions of people who speak the language, and many who write and publish in it, from creative literary artists to philosophers and other human scientists. The struggle to maintain it as a lecturing medium in South Africa is a different question. While Dutch and Flemish face no official drive from government to eradicate them as medium of tuition at university level, as Afrikaans does, and will no doubt survive despite the continuing expansion of an English-oriented global culture, this is precisely the area where Afrikaans is increasingly under siege.

So what, you might say – whether you teach through Afrikaans or English, it is all the same. Yes and no. Yes, insofar as so-called ‘information’ is transmitted; no, because every language has its own idiomatic ‘imprint’, as it were, and because one is usually steeped in a mother tongue until a certain age as one grows up, that ‘idiomaticity’ is important when it comes to understanding the world and people around you.

To illustrate: because I was outspokenly opposed to apartheid as an ideology and political practice, I switched to writing mostly in English during the apartheid years, but since apartheid’s demise I have written and published philosophical papers in Afrikaans on a regular basis – it was a kind of liberation to rediscover the graphic qualities of Afrikaans as a language, and I continue enjoying writing in Afrikaans. The latest issue of the Flemish journal mentioned above – De Uil van Minerva – contains a paper of mine on the work of the French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, in Afrikaans, for instance.

Other people evidently also crave learning through their mother tongue. Some years ago a black Xhosa-speaking student asked me why black students were still taught philosophy in English by white people, and not in Xhosa or Zulu by black lecturers. My answer was that, although I have a rudimentary knowledge of Xhosa, I lack the philosophical vocabulary to do so. In fact, I did not think it existed (yet), and I advised him that, if he were serious about it, perhaps he should become the pioneer to develop a philosophical vocabulary in Xhosa. This is what happened in the early modern period in Europe, when thinkers like Meister Eckhardt and René Descartes started writing in their own languages (German and French) at a time when students were still taught in Latin at university. If black students or teachers were keen to develop their own mother tongues in the sciences, including philosophy, it is up to them to do it.

To sum up: conferences like the one I discuss above are important to keep alive the practice of languages that have come a long cultural way (in literary, philosophical and scientific terms). In accordance with the constitutional recognition of eleven languages in South Africa, African languages should also be developed the way that mother-tongue speakers have done with Afrikaans; it could only benefit the mother-tongue speakers of those languages.

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