Afrikaans is a language derived from Cape Dutch, originally spoken by the Dutch farmers (Boers) living in South Africa. As the farmers established themselves in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, they encountered wildlife not known in the British-controlled Cape Colony, and gave several species common names that are still used today.
While scientific nomenclature for these species is still derived from Greek and Latin, the names that most of us know them by are derived from (or directly pulled from) Afrikaans.
Commonly referenced Boer-named species:
- Aardvark (Orycteropus afer): “Earth Pig”. So-called because of its burrowing habits and appearance. Not related to pigs, but its stout body, arched back, and sparse hair can appear pig-like from afar. Insectivore.
- Aardwolf (Proteles cristata): “Earth wolf”. An unusual relative to the hyenas that is insectivorous, and eats termites with a long, sticky tongue, not unlike the aardvark. Unrelated to wolves.
- Boomslang (Dispholidus typus): “Tree Snake”. An almost exclusively arboreal snake of sub-Saharan Africa, the one that spawned the movie trope of snakes dropping out of trees in the jungle. Though generally shy and unencountered, still very dangerous. Its slow-onset hemotoxic venom causes massive bleeding out through every orifice of the body several hours after a bite. Eats primarily birds and lizards.
- Dukier (Cephalophinae spp.): “Diver, ducker”. Any of the 21 species of antelope in the subfamily Cephalophinae, native to southern Africa. Named for their tendency to duck into tangled thickets where they cannot be followed. One of the few ruminants that regularly will supplement their diet with meat - either by hunting rodents or reptiles, rustling up insects, or finding carrion. The majority of their diet is still that of a browser (leaves and berries, as opposed to grasses and ground greenery).
- Eland (Taurotragus oryx): “Elk”. Savannah antelope that’s still widespread, though decreasing in population. The second-largest extant antelope. Was widely disliked for their tendency to trample crop fields as plants came into bloom.
- Klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus): “Rock jumper”. An incredibly balanced and funny-looking small antelope that can fit all four hooves onto a single dollar-piece. Unlike most antelope, they don’t live in herds, but in mating pairs. They consume the shrubbery and grass in rocky outcroppings and craglands of Africa.
- Meerkat (Suricata suricatta): “Lake cat”. A social mongoose relative found mostly in the Kalahari desert. Carnivore that targets invertebrates, but will kill small vertebrates when opportune. “Lake cat” epithet of unknown origin - possibly a misinterpretation of the Dutch adaptation of the Sanskrit “markata”, meaning “monkey”.
- Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis): “Jumping antelope”. Note: the species name “marsupialis” is derived from the Latin “marsupium”, meaning “pocket” - this small, antelope is certainly not related to marsupials. The name comes from a pocket-like flap of skin extending from about halfway down the back, to the tail. Springboks appear in herds numbering in the tens of thousands in unfarmed regions of South Africa, and are the most plentiful antelope extant.
Through standardization of scientific names to almost exclusively Greek and Latin roots, science has a common language, known across country and cultural borders. However, in the English language (and many others), the common names for many species are directly pulled from their land of origin.
Knowing the etymology of the common names can sometimes tell you just as much as the etymology of the scientific names - what an animal was known for, where it was from, who encountered it the most, and what it signified to them often are implied in the names we sometimes dismiss because they’re “unscientific”. Knowing the cultures that knew the species well, and understanding the history of the species in relation to humans, can be the difference between extinction and preservation at times, and can be quite interesting, aside from that.
Not included above: Blesbok (“blaze antelope”), bontebok (“mottled antelope”), dassie (“badger”), grysbok (“grey antelope”), korhaan (“black grouse”), leguaan (“iguana”), padloper (“pathwalker”), platanna (“flat-handed”), skaapsteker (“sheep pricker”).
Kruger Park Times