Shutting of online Afrikaans dictionary shows internet isn’t forever - Businesslive

Oct 10, 2021
10 October 2021 - Children are forever being cautioned against unthinkingly sharing digital material that, though hilarious or cheeky in the moment, might come back to haunt them, because the internet is forever.

Children are forever being cautioned against unthinkingly sharing digital material that, though hilarious or cheeky in the moment, might come back to haunt them, because the internet is forever.

We might cheer a reduction of dross on the web, but a far greater worry is the extent to which the internet isn’t forever after all.

Writing in 2019, librarian Michael Shochet of the Robert L Bogomolny Library at the University of Baltimore, noted that an inquiry into “why there’s so little left of the early internet ... found that even today there is too much data being put online for anyone to archive and preserve all of it”.

While some “may have good reason to worry whether something might live forever online”, others “are worried about what is being lost”, Shochet wrote. The question of “what to preserve and actually preserving it,” he went on, “is an age-old problem”.

Shochet pointed out that the “recent discovery of what is essentially a 16th-century annotated bibliography of over 15,000 books obtained by a son of Christopher Columbus highlights how ephemeral information can be. About 75% of the books on the bibliography have been lost to history”.

Surely the internet is the saviour we can count on? Well, not automatically, it turns out. A recent open letter from the Afrikaans National Language Body (ANLB) of the Pan South African Language Board sounded the alarm over the announcement by publisher Pearson SA that the online version of the Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal (HAT Aanlyn) is to be shut down next August, depriving “all Afrikaans educators, students, journalists, language practitioners, legal practitioners and so forth” of access to this “invaluable source”.

Pearson said that, “[due] to poor adoption of the online product we are reviewing and building our printed HAT”. Citing the common saying “wat is ’n huis sonder ’n HAT?” (what is a home without a HAT), ANLB argued that the dictionary “is so much more than just a title in a publisher’s backlist”.

While it was encouraged that Pearson was committed to maintaining the printed HAT, it judged its “disappearance off the internet [as] impermissible and unthinkable”, a “step backward for the language and a great tragedy to this language community”.

It’s worth pausing here. This community, reaching from farm to boardroom, leafy suburb to township backstreet, numbers nearly 7-million people, according to the last census — slightly short of 1-million more than a decade earlier. Afrikaans is the third most-spoken home language, after Zulu and Xhosa.

What stands to be lost is evident from the fact that HAT Aanlyn took on a dual function in 2015, when the latest — sixth — edition of the print version was published. As one of the lexicographers on the project, Fred Pheiffer, explained at the time, the online version would not only capture and update usage and vocabulary of Africa’s youngest indigenous language, but preserve some 3,000 archaic words (what the lexicographers call “vergeetwoorde”).

These archaic words were removed from the printed version to make way for fresh words — such as “kappityt” (dance or revel with vigour); “mang” (prison); “newwermaind” (despite, notwithstanding); and “sjarrap” (shut up).

Among the old “treasures”, as Pheiffer described them, are “aanlonk” (ogle, or look on with affection), “alhonderdentien” (notwithstanding, all the same); “berooid” (stripped of possessions, naked); “boesemsonde” (secret or inborn sin); and “gebenedy” (blessed).

It would be no blessing if this repository of so distinctive a South African heritage were allowed to succumb to the vagaries of the market, or the finitude of the internet.

Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

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