Against isolation – multilingualism, transnationalism and literary dialogue in Dutch-Afrikaans formations – Fellows’ seminar by Yves T’Sjoen

29 February 2024

In a first for a STIAS seminar, fellows were treated to the glorious sounds of multiple languages ringing through the room as they were encouraged to ask questions and hold discussions in their mother-tongue language.  (The seminar was also presented a day after the UNESCO International Mother Language Day held annually on 21 February.)

“To demonstrate the critical questions and communicative opportunities offered by comparative and multilinguistic approaches, the seminar will convene interventions in several different languages, not only during the main presentation, but also in the discussion that follows,” explained Yves T’Sjoen of the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, Belgium. “In this multilingual creative space for the mind, the way we express ourselves is important. The medium is the message, and the form determines how the message is perceived.  We have all experienced being ‘lost in translation’ or being forced to dilute our ideas as we anxiously search for words in another language.”

“Multilingualism characterises us as humans and is more of a blessing than a curse,” he added. “Don’t neglect your mother tongue. English is not the only academic language. You can conduct academic work in many languages.”

STIAS Fellow Yves T’Sjoen during his seminar on 22 February 2024

T’Sjoen’s personal research interests are inter- and transculturalism, trans- and multilingual poetics. “In Belgium there are three official languages – French, Dutch and German. But Brussels is a cosmopolitan city with at least 100 nationalities and languages. In Belgium there is also no broad-based cultural nationalism. This personal background as well as the tensions and intersections it throws up shape my research.”

“Historically the relationship between language and place was taken as a given,” he continued. “Country borders equalled language borders. And language was within national borders with parallels in music and art.”

He explained that although contact and mixing have been everyday occurrences throughout history this didn’t fit within projects of nineteenth-century nationalism. “Many writings were therefore ignored and cross-cultural writing was treated as an exception. I want to look specifically at border zones, places of connectivity, cross-pollination and cultural transmission of literature. But it’s a shifting field, sometimes difficult to pin down.”

T’Sjoen is particularly interested in the potential of multilingualism and translation to generate literary histories that can accommodate international and cross-cultural networking and exchange, thereby complicating separatist constructions of linguistic heritage and identity.

His specific current focus is the literary and political cross-cultural dynamics shaping Afrikaans and Dutch, and his STIAS project proposes a re-evaluation of the historiography of Afrikaans to account for the inter-linguistic dialogue and exchange that continue to characterise the language’s literary and social practices. The goal is to produce a series of edited volumes looking at the exchanges between Afrikaans and other language groups. But he admitted that it’s a huge task and one he can’t do singlehandedly. “It needs teamwork and I hope the fellowship, including a workshop in March, will lay the foundation for bringing together a team from different disciplinary perspectives.”

He explained that the genealogy of Afrikaans as a descendant of Dutch is well known and widely studied and that scholars and speakers of the two languages are deeply cognisant of the many similarities and cross-fertilisations that tie the two linguistic cultures together.

“However, in histories of Afrikaans literature (e.g. Antonissen 1955; Cloete 1980; Kannemeyer 1990; Van Coller 1998/2015; Koch 2015/2023) and also Dutch literary histories as part of a European cultural tradition (e.g. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur, 9 volumes, 2006-2017), a curious phenomenon is to be detected: while acknowledging the originary convergence between Afrikaans and Dutch writing, scholars tend to treat 1925 – the year in which Afrikaans was officially recognised as an independent language – as a watershed, which initiated a gradual separation between the two languages’ literary systems and cultural histories. After 1925, these authors appear to suggest, little exchange occurred between Dutch and Afrikaans literary cultures. Sporadic acknowledgements of some communication between the two languages eschew a panoramic approach in favour of the suggestion that these interactions are marginal to the development of each literary culture.”

“Also despite the language’s acknowledged ancestral integration with Dutch and Dutch- (post)colonial cultural groupings, and continued interactions between Afrikaans and Dutch literary systems, historians of Afrikaans opt from an ideological point of view to narrate the development of the language as a tale of hard-won independence and subsequent autonomy. As a result, the language tends to be studied in isolation from global translinguistic networks—an approach that has its roots in literary and linguistic historiography of the twentieth century.”

“This work pushes back against isolationist accounts of linguistic autonomy, not only in Afrikaans, but across languages and literary traditions,” he continued. “Starting with a focus on recent interactions between Afrikaans and Dutch literary polysystems (both in the Netherlands and Flanders), it combines a critical perspective on ‘minor literatures’ (Viljoen 2014) with methods based in functional literary and cultural interactions (De Geest 1997, Gelderblom & Musschoot 2017). I propose a generalisable transversal and multilinguistic approach to the study of global literary and linguistic polysystems.”

“There has been no substantial comprehensive overview of the exchanges,” he added. “I’m aiming to look at the cultural conversation between two different languages in unique social, cultural and political landscapes.”

He explained that both Afrikaans and Dutch are regarded as minor languages and literatures.

Dutch is the seventh most-spoken mother tongue in Europe with an estimated 24 million speakers. Afrikaans is spoken by 10,6% of the South African population – approximately 7 million, placing it third after isiXhosa and isiZulu. But worldwide this figure is estimated to range from 15 to 23 million.

T’Sjoen also wants to move away from the perception of Afrikaans as ‘Baby Dutch’ – “Afrikaans has had many influences – including from African and Asian languages. Similarly Dutch is also a hybrid language – it’s not only used and written in one country.”

For 350 years there were a multitude of connections between Dutch and South African cultures “but they are also two languages that evolved in distinct cultural, historical and social contexts. Dutch and Afrikaans are distinct in their development routes and further removed now than before 1994,” he explained. “I’m interested in the impact of contact with dominant cultures, and the resulting differences and assimilations.”

“Afrikaans has had multiple influences,” he continued. “It’s seen as an indigenous, creolised language with many linguistic variants including Kaaps and Nama Afrikaans.”

T’Sjoen is interested in unpacking the historiography; the relationship between language and oral traditions; the literary traditions of surrounding countries; and, post-apartheid multilingualism where there is official recognition of 11 languages but it’s not supported by institutions and structures. He will also push against a focus on authors and genres to include broader literary practices and the curatorial role of editors and publishers.

“We need to take Afrikaans out of its splendid isolation, see Afrikaans as a universal language. Seeing it as a local, insulated, marginalised language threatens to detach Afrikaans from broader global agendas.”

The project proposes a re-evaluation of the historiography to account for dialogue and exchange, identifying Afrikaans as an internationally networked literary system and intervening more broadly in debates on language identity and geocultural exchange.

T’Sjoen hopes to address four Is – intertextuality, interaction, internationalism and interpretation.

Speaking more broadly about preserving languages, he said: “Generational transmission makes a living language. The loss of a single language is a loss to mankind. But it’s difficult to protect a language that has no written or formalised grammar. Historically bibles and dictionaries have been important to standardise and clarify languages. Mother-tongue education is important but needs dictionaries and textbooks. It’s also important to invest in professional translating. It needs money, institutional will and prioritisation.”

“The politics of publishing – who has the money and control – plays a huge role in preservation of language,” he added.

“AI might offer a way to maintain a language, but languages develop organically through human use and are kept alive through human mediation. Language is a communication tool but also a means of expression, of nuancing and of shaping identity.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Noloyiso Mtembu

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STIAS is a creative space for the mind.