Roots of Afrikaans: Selected writings of Hans den Besten

Roots of Afrikaans: Selected writings of Hans den Besten. Ed. by Ton van der Wouden. (Creole language library 44.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. vii, 458. ISBN 9789027252678. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Bloomington, IN

The late Hans den Besten was one of the most important historical linguists working on the problems of the genesis of Afrikaans. Roots of Afrikaans presents seventeen of his articles on Afrikaans, together with articles in appreciation of his work by Ana Deumert, Paul T. Roberge, and John Holm.

The editor, Ton van der Wouden, has structured the book into three parts. In the first part ‘[t]he structure of Afrikaans as such is the focus’ (4). The articles in this section include studies of the Afrikaans pre-nominal possessive system, the function of the word wat in Afrikaans possessive relatives and in comparison to West Germanic relativization systems, and demonstratives in Afrikaans and Cape Dutch Pidgin.

Part 2 focuses on the origins of Afrikaans. This section begins with the article ‘The Dutch Pidgins of the Old Cape colony’, which has been translated from the Dutch for this book. The following articles include studies of the morphosyntax of Cape Dutch Pidgin, relexification and the origin of Cape Dutch Pidgin, and Khoekhoe syntax and its influence on the development of Afrikaans. The section ends with two studies of the languages of enslaved Asians on the Cape.

Part 3 offers two programmatic articles. In the first of these, ‘A badly harvested field’, den Besten looks at the earliest linguistic research done on Afrikaans and its origins; in the second, ‘Desiderata for Afrikaans historical linguistics’, he proposes a series of problems that need further research. Although den Besten was a generativist, as Roberge notes, he mostly ‘embraced a heavily substratist approach’ in his studies of Afrikaans (396).

The book concludes with three articles in appreciation of den Besten’s work. The first of these, ‘Giving voice: The archive in Afrikaans historical linguistics’, by Deumert, discusses the problems associated with the early sources for the history of Afrikaans. The second, ‘Afrikaans: “Might it be a little more ‘South Africa’?”’, by Roberge, is a critical examination and appreciation of den Besten’s research on Afrikaans historical linguistics and its reception among scholars of Afrikaans. In the third article, Holm’s ‘Partial restructuring: Dutch on the Cape and Portuguese in Brazil’ offers an examination of ‘some of the most salient features on Afrikaans…[and] the corresponding features of vernacular Portuguese to identify syntactic features that are characteristic of partially reconstructed varieties’ of languages (400).

The book includes a bibliography of den Besten’s articles on Afrikaans. Though, as Roberge notes, den Besten’s work has some problems, for instance, that ‘den Besten’s stipulation that a stable Cape Dutch Pidgin (Creole) came into being between 1658 and 1713 has not been confirmed empirically’ (394). There can be no doubt that den Besten was one of the foremost scholars of the history and structure of Afrikaans. His work widened the study of the history of Afrikaans to more fully acknowledge the influence of other languages spoken on the Cape—including African languages, Cape Dutch Pidgin, and other creoles—in the genesis of Afrikaans. This book is an excellent collection of den Besten’s writings.