Last updated 2017-08-17
I'm very fond of language. I grew up speaking Afrikaans. I started learning English at school. Around the age of eight, I acquired a taste for English adventure novels, and had read all available Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean novels before my tenth birthday. German came much later. I started learning it at school at the age of twelve. After many years of effort and practice, I became a professionally accredited linguist around 2001, specifically for German-English translation. I have learned basic skills in about a dozen languages, and continue to amuse myself by reading, thinking and learning about language. I greatly enjoy spinning a good yarn, either orally or in writing.
Most Afrikaans speakers freely use English words, either raw or with a little phonetic inflection to create the appearance of an Afrikaans word. I'm not that way inclined. In fact, words like "kreatief" do horrible things to my digestive tract, especially when infinitely more descriptive words like "skeppend" are available. Besides, I'm just not clever enough to switch between languages in mid-sentence like that. So I guess I should not resist claims that I'm a little compulsive about my use of language. I do my level best to speak only one language at a time.
It should therefore come as no surprise that I have always attempted to master the correct terminology when I have ventured into a new field. Afrikaans has a rich history of technical terminology. In the past, terminology was created and standardised by a number of state institutions. Post and Telecommunications, Sasol, the Railways and Eskom all published technical dictionaries for their respective industries. There might be around a hundred such technical dictionaries in the Afrikaans language.
With the advent of democracy (or at least nominal democracy) in the Nineties, Afrikaans became one of eleven official languages in South Africa, with no special status. With this change, most state institutions abolished their language bureaux and standardised on the use of English. More precisely, most of them and their private-sector counterparts followed the international trend and standardised on Broken English.
The effect on Afrikaans has not been altogether positive. The few people that still use Afrikaans in business and industry often use English terms interchangeably with their Afrikaans equivalents. Indeed, newer technologies that have evolved in the last few decades often lack standardised Afrikaans terms. Even for older terms, there is some variability. Most universities evolved their own lexicons where no standard reference works were available, and this variability was exacerbated when formal dictionaries disappeared from the scene. More recently, most of these universities have completely abandoned academic activity in Afrikaans. In most industries, someone who wants to stick to one language at a time has nowhere to go to find the correct terms.
I studied through a university where the primary medium was Afrikaans at the time. At least at undergraduate level, virtually all our lectures and most of our textbooks were Afrikaans. I acquired a good working knowledge of Afrikaans in the areas of electronics and computers. My first major venture into a new field where I had to acquire the technical terms was in aviation. Even there, terminology was fairly well standardised. The South African Air Force, in common with the entire Defence Force, had a strict language policy. Months were alternately Afrikaans or English. During an Afrikaans month, all business had to be conducted in Afrikaans. All flight training was subject to this bilingualism, as was air traffic control. I was an Air Traffic Controller during the Bush War, and learned enough Afrikaans terms to cover all the operational aspects of flying. My first attempt to compile a list of Afrikaans aviation terms was in 1988, when I was learning to fly helicopters. Most of the terms existed, and I could ask the old salts who had been using it for decades. The resulting list gradually grew and appeared on the Internet in 2004. The same list became the basis for a bilingual dictionary that appeared in What to do in an Aircraft Cockpit and its Afrikaans equivalent In 'n Vliegtuigstuurkajuit. The list in the book contains around 150 terms. The book was used as prescribed study material in my flying school. Around 400 Afrikaans books were sold and about the same number of people learned to fly in their native tongue.
The next field in which I had to find my feet was amateur radio. Given the amount of overlap between the electronics I had studied at university and the lore of amateur radio, the transition was not too difficult. Over a period of decades, I managed to accumulate a working vocabulary and share it with my friends in the hobby. I even managed to write several dozen magazine articles in Afrikaans, mostly for the South African Radio League's magazine RadioZS.
During 2015, the SARL asked me to revise their study guide for the Radio Amateur Examination. In a weak moment, I agreed. After several months of procrastination, I finally sat down during December 2015 and completed the revision process with a few weeks of hard work. I expanded the material to cover the entire CEPT syllabus, a condition for our ability to operate in several dozen foreign countries without any paperwork. I also did some work on the question pool. The resulting study guide is titled Introduction to Amateur Radio. After several months of public scrutiny, the book was adopted as the SARL's official study guide in March 2016.
It occurred to me that an Afrikaans study guide would be nice, but the task was too daunting given my other commitments. I kept pondering ways in which I could achieve that goal, though.
During April 2016, Gary Immelman phoned me a few weeks before the SARL's Annual General Meeting. He nagged me to produce an Afrikaans version. Against the background of several months of mulling, I finally crystallised a strategy for producing an Afrikaans version with a manageable amount of effort. I promised to deliver an Afrikaans version "as soon as possible". This promise was announced at the AGM, so I was really committed. These weak moments were really costing me...
I started working immediately after the AGM, and produced an Afrikaans study guide titled Inleiding tot Amateurradio. The new study guide is not a complete translation. Rather, it contains the first ten chapters in full, and chronological lists of terms for each of the remaining 23 chapters. The idea is to allow Afrikaans speakers to master the basic concepts in their mother tongue, while also acquiring the ability to access the technical literature in the field, most of which is in English.
In the process of translating the study guide, I made a list of about 1000 technical terms that would not appear in popular dictionaries, and which needed unambiguous translation. All but about 50 of these terms were relatively easy to translate. The remaining 50 needed more contemplation. I circulated the list to a dozen individuals and to members of the SARL. I received useful inputs on most of the terms, and finally managed to find satisfactory terms for the entire list. The resulting list is on the Web, with links from several linguistics and Afrikaans organisations' Web sites. I used the list as a standard in the translation of the study guide, making available the final version about three weeks after the AGM.
The list attracted some attention, and I did a presentation for Prolingua during 2016. The thought of presenting my work to a group of professional language workers was rather daunting, but the session resulted in lively discussion and constructive ideas.
Soon afterwards, I was startled to receive word that I would receive the Prolingua Award for 2017. During August, I made another presentation at their AGM, and received the award. The citation reads: The Prolingua Award is made to Chris Burger for the creation of free study material for prospective radio amateurs. He translated the study material and created radio terms and made available a list of such terms. In this way, he contributes not only to radio amateurs, but also makes a language contribution in an area that is not widely known. With this Award, Prolingua expresses its thanks and appreciation towards Chris for the initiative he took of his own accord. This recognition from professional circles is both unexpected and greatly valued.
On a reflective note, I might add that I was initially reluctant to accept the Award. I felt awkward about being recognised for a week's part-time work. However, I eventually decided that my concern had been misplaced. The list of radio terms was not the product of a week's work. Rather, it was the product of at least three decades of compulsive tinkering with terminology, which I could document in a week only because most of it had been previously crystallised. Such is the power of rationalisation...
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