Coffeescript is Afrikaans Javascript

A while ago I met a few Afrikaans speaking people, and found out that (being Dutch) I was able to understand them pretty well, despite the fact they were speaking Afrikaans.

Afrikaans is one of the newest West Germanic languages in the world and is primarily spoken in South Africa and Namibia. The Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck founded a new colony in 1652 near today’s Cape Town. Since then the Dutch language that the inhabitants spoke started to evolve and developed itself into a new language. This happened because of the influences of other languages that were spoken in South Africa at that time. About 90-95 percent of the Afrikaans vocabulary is of Dutch origin. The other 5-10 percent is copied from languages like Malay, Portuguese, Bantu and Khoisan. Which were the native languages of the inhabitants that were moved to South Africa by the Dutch. It was not until 1925 that Afrikaans was acknowledged as an official language. Before that it was considered to be “kitchen language” for the unlearned and not suitable for use in authorities like government, church and court.

Simple grammar

For Dutch people Afrikaans is a very funny language. Because of its simplified grammar and spelling it sounds like some sort of “baby-Dutch”. One of the simplifications in Afrikaans is that verbs do not conjugate differently depending on the subject. For example:

Afrikaans Dutch English German
ek is ik ben I am ich bin
jy/u is jij/u bent you are (sing.) du bist (informal sing.)
hy/sy/dit is hij/zij/het is he/she/it is er/sie/es ist
ons is wij zijn we are wir sind
julle is jullie zijn you are (plur.) ihr seid (informal pl.)
hulle is zij zijn they are Sie (formal sing. & pl.)/sie sind

This made me wonder about all those complicated grammar rules. Do we really need them? Apparently not… The Afrikaans speaking community can do it without, and they can understand each other perfectly well. I quite like the clean and simple grammar in Afrikaans. And I’m pretty sure this makes Afrikaans an easier language to learn than the original Dutch.

Parallels with Coffeescript

Being a developer, I couldn’t resist drawing a parallel between Afrikaans and recent developments in Javascript-land such as CoffeeScript. CoffeeScript helps (just like Afrikaans did) people with different “mother tongues” to understand each other. It simplifies the spelling and grammar of the classic language, and introduces useful parts of a different language.

Isn’t that what CoffeeScript is all about? I have no problems reading and writing Javascript. But I can see why the verbosity sometimes can confuse backend developers. Why don’t we just leave that complexity out, like they did with Afrikaans?

At Mint Digital we use Ruby on Rails for back-end and an increasing amount of Javascript on the front-end. Not every front-end developer at Mint is sure about how CoffeeScript can help us, and to be honest, I’m one of them. However, looking at it from this angle makes me see the great advantage; it helps other people with using a language which is not their mother tongue! It can help Ruby developers to get going with Javascript because of its similar syntax, and it takes care of some of the bad parts in the language. To the people that already know Javascript, it’s not much more than a dialect, because in the end it compiles to Javascript.

Is CoffeeScript a “kitchen language”?

Do you see CoffeeScript as a “kitchen language” that will never be picked up? Or do you embrace it? A fair part of South Africa’s population embraced Afrikaans. It’s the third most spoken mother tongue in the nation, and is used by 6 million people as first language. Another 15-23 million people speak it as a second language. It has the widest geographical and racial distribution of all of South Africa’s first languages. Research has found out that the working class had a major influence on the evolution of the language, however nowadays it’s been used in all classes of society. Do you think CoffeeScript can be the same?

Read the comments on this article on Hacker News and Logical Friday

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