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      What's in a name?

Often people require translation from one language to another, there are however times that this is not possible but rather an interpretation is more appropriate. So what do we do with the name Boerboel? An attempt at translating ‘Boerboel’ will make no sense. The word ‘boer’, on its own, means ‘to farm’. When you say (‘n boer) a boer, you are now talking of ‘a farmer’. A distinct difference occurs when you use a capital B.

Permit me to side step into a brief description of the times and origins of the people who formed this breed.

With the colonisation of the Cape in the late 1600’s, the Dutch needed farmers to develop the land; who better to get than the staunchly protestant, French Huguenots, who had been farming for centauries at that point. These now were offered free passage to the Cape in their bid for freedom from the Spanish and their Catholic rule and dominance; their Spanish Inquisition. All the Huguenots wanted (and still desire) was to be left alone to serve their God in their protestant manner. So it was that they left their lands and homes and all they held dear, to settle in the Cape and there to mingle with the Dutch, with the one thing they held dear above all else – their freedom.

With them came their dogs – as had the Bullenbijter with Jan van Riebeek when he landed in the Cape in 1664. It is conceivable that his was not the only Bullenbijter to arrive in the Cape. Other Dutchmen would have brought their dogs too, as would have the Huguenots later, and numerous that followed. An assortment of large breeds and a good deal cross breeding.

There was one dog however, that was not brought across; he was already there; the Khoikhoi Crested Dog; the only canine on whose back the hairs grew in reverse direction, forming a crested ridge. This Hottentot Hunting Dog of the indigenous Khoikhoi and Khoisan Hottentots of the Cape, from whom the ‘African Lion Dog’ gets its ridge, that would later become known as the ‘Rhodesian’ Ridgeback.  The Hottentot Hunting Dog was a small medium sized dog, 45 cm, with pricked ears, and had a terrible temperament. It was a guardian and hunter, and was widespread in the region. [1]

These semi-wild tribal dogs of the Khoikhoi were very intelligent and excellent hunters. They were alert and had keen eyesight with a good sense of smell. They were natural hunters and very courageous, as well as being athletic with great endurance. They were also harder to control than most dogs because of their very high intelligence, which gave them an independent nature. [2]

The early settlers admired their qualities and crossed them with their own dogs, which produced dogs that were great companions and protectors of families as well as capable of keeping the many marauding lions at bay. This is true of both the Rhodesian Ridgeback as well as the Boerboel. In the case of the Ridgeback, the hunters mated this indigenous dog to their own hunting dogs creating a dog similar to the Boerboel, but of slighter build, and in them, the breeding programs maintained the ridge. The farmers bred a far heavier built dog, losing the ridge, but maintaining its courage and an astounding amount of agility considering their size.

For more that a hundred years the farmers (boere – plural for ‘a boer’) lived in peace. They work their lands and produced all manner of crops, trading with the Dutch East India Company who needed supplies for the ships on this ‘new’ sea route to India. They freely worshipped God in their protestant manner and they bred their heavy built farm dogs.

Then in 1820’s some major events took place that would eventually drive these farmers once again from their homes, this time into the wild interior of Africa; King George III died and the Regent Prince ‘George IV’, a stubborn 21 year old monarch, came into full power. Some of his actions created public uproar. Actions such as his dealings with his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunwick, his introduction of the Pains of Penalties Bill, and possibly also his Pro-Catholic views. It is possible that these events caused many English to vacate England for South Africa. Either way, the English settlers landed in the Cape.

They were arrogant and haughty, and imposed their will and Anglicism on the peoples of the Cape. However these descendants of the original Huguenots’ were raised with the same spirit as that of their forefathers, who had not left the dominance of the Spaniards to have that of  the English now thrust on them, and many farmers left en-masse in the Great Trek inland. Their more affluent brethren, possibly with too much to lose, remained, accepting British Policies, part of which involved policies of slavery. This caused a major rift between those who would not stand for English Dominance, and those who bowed to English Rule. These later became known as the ‘Cape Dutch’ and eventually the Afrikaner.

The Trekkers travelled a thousand miles of inhospitable terrain before settling either side of the Orange River, here to form the two Boer States of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal respectively, where they outlawed slavery in its entirety. For the first time now, the introduction of the capital B in Boer – these ‘farmers’ had become the nation of ‘Farmers’ – from boere to Boere (Boers). Therefore as individuals, the farmer ‘boer’ became a Farmer ‘Boer’ – a citizen of the Boer nation, a distinct disassociation from their Cape Dutch brethren.

Now in isolation, the Boerboel would take on localised uniformity, with only the Boers’ own limited stock available to draw from.

As I said before, translating ‘Boerboel’ will make no sense but I will render it here as I did for Dr. Carl Semencic for his book “Gladiator Dogs”. We have established that ‘a boer’ is a farmer, and these were farmers’ dogs. The word ‘boel’ literally means ‘a lot’. It is the root word for ‘kaboedle’ from where we get the English expression “the whole kit and caboodle,” meaning ‘everything’. In the Boerboel, there is indeed ‘a lot of dog in one body’. There is the typical meaning in that phrase; he is BIG – but there is also ‘a lot of dog’ in him. He’s a guard dog, a companion dog, a hunting dog, a gun dog, a herder, a farm worker, a fearless protector…. He really does posses it all. There is indeed ‘one hell of a lot of dog’ in a single Boerboel; he is most decidedly a working class dog.

I quite like the way Dr, Semencic interprets it; "… literally, Boerboel means "Farmer," "Have a lot of stuff." I guess on some uncertain level, this makes sense. It's a farmer's dog with a lot of stuff. (The right stuff?) "[3]

Allow me again to take a side step into the language of Afrikaans. Remember that the French Huguenots and the Dutch were brought together and thus forced to mingle due to proximity, though neither knew the others’ language. This resulted in a change in the way that Dutch was spoken in the Cape, into a form of ‘kitchen Dutch’. Later, some of these highly intelligent, productive and self motivated people would generate from this, the official language of Afrikaans; to this day, still the youngest official language in the world. They would generate grammatical rules and use the phonetic alphabet to solidify spelling.

It is a wonderful and highly expressive ‘living’ language for which it is impossible to ever create a complete dictionary. Let me explain; In Afrikaans a single idea becomes a single word. This isn’t that strange; we do it in English too, albeit to a far lesser degree. Is this not the case with ‘a motorised bicycle’? Consider also the term ‘Chairman of the board’, in Afrikaans this becomes a single word for it is a single entity. In English we would never say ‘board chairman’, however this is the manner in which it is expressed in Afrikaans, but as a single word. We do however do so when we speak of ‘members of the board’, i.e. ‘board members’.

In Afrikaans, you can take two entirely separate ideas and fuse them together into a single word, and this is indeed still how Afrikaans is spoken today, but centuries ago it would have been done more so, with each new item and ideology that came into existence. In this fusion of ideas, you can speak to another who has never before heard those terms fused into a single word, but no matter who you speak to, everyone will know exactly what you mean, and each one will be able to spell it correctly. The former is not that strange in English. If I told you to travel a certain route and called it ‘the dogleg pass’, a vision of that road immediately comes to your mind, and you know exactly what to expect. Notice too that two entirely separate entities, ‘dog’ and ‘leg’ are legally fused into a single official English word. This is true too for doghouse. These fusions just occur with every single-entity term in Afrikaans. ‘Dog leg pass’ would naturally be fused into ‘doglegpass’

I have taken this side road into Afrikaans to allow for a better grip with the word Boerboel. Now that we have a better understanding of the mechanisms within Afrikaans, let us again explore this possibility of how the name Boerboel could have been derived.

It is not inconceivable to imagine someone saying Wow, that sure is a lot of dog”  (a boel of a dog). The Afrikaner would latch onto that and call it a ‘Boeldog’, and the name would stick. People would thus speak of the boer’sboel dog.  Eventually ‘dog’ would be omitted; and we would have the ‘boer’s boel. We do this with the German Shepherd don’t we? When we talk of a German Shepherd, everyone knows we do not mean some goose-stepping beer-swiller roaming the hillside carrying a hooked staff, herding sheep. Yet what is the standard abbreviation for a German Shepherd; GSD – we too drop ‘dog’ from the official name, German Shepherd Dog. Thus the boer’s boel would become the boerboel.

Though I have taken pains to describe the two entities Boer and boel, and although the above is a conceivable manner of how the name came about, I have a more probable theory on the matter. This more likely solution is the amalgamation of Boer and Bullenbijter, the primary stock animal of the times. As with the above, we can conceivably have the phrase coined, “The Boer’s Bullenbijter Dog”, differentiating it from a purebred Bullenbijter. Later this could have been more readily spoken of as the “The Boer’s Bulldog”.

With the formation of the Afrikaans Language and its strict spelling rules, the u sound in bull would become ‘oe’ to give us the spelling boel. Thus Boerbulldog becomes Boerboeldog, and eventually just boerboel.

This gives rise to the pronunciation of Boerboel. In Afrikaans, single vowels are short crisp sounds, double vowels are long sounds. However, consideration has to be made for plurals of the singulars. Whereas in English we add an ‘s’ to pluralize items, in Afrikaans an ‘e’ is added. However, this invokes another rule; that of single and double consonant usage. A double consonant forces a short vowel sound while a single consonant forces a long vowel sound.

Consider the word for bomb – bom in Afrikaans, as compared to the word for tree – boom.  If we simply add an e after bom we get bome which forces the short crisp sound of bom into a long one, and the plural gives the incorrect sound of the singular. Therefore we don’t simply add an e, we double up on the consonant too. Bom becomes bomme to maintain the vowel sound. Boom, on the other hand, when it is given the e, boome, the single consonant rule after a vowel causes no requirement for the duplicate vowel, thus boom becomes bome.

Bom, singular – Bomme, plural. Boom, singular – Bome, plural. 

Now back to Boer; the double vowel makes it a long sound, but when we fuse it with the word boel, it creates a double consonant, which forces a short sound. Thus the oe in Boerboel is shorter and crisper than the oe in ‘boer’ on its own. This short crisp sound is exactly the same sound as the u in ‘bull’, whereas in ‘boer’, the oe sound is that of oo in ‘pool’. By rights then, the pronunciation should be like saying pull-pool (except with b’s and r’s), but it is never said that way – both are kept short and crisp. The best way for me to get you to pronounce the name correctly, is for me to get you to say Bull-Bull – then replace the ll’s in the 1st bull with rr’s – Burr-Bull (Boerboel).

This short oe sound in Boerboel, is possibly evidence that it originates from the bull in bullenbijter, in that when the spelling changed from ‘bull’ to ‘boel’, the Boers maintained the short bull sound it had always had, rather than giving it the long sound of the word boel – meaning ‘a lot’, which it is supposed to have.






3 Dr. Carl Semencic - "Gladiator Dogs". ( a T.F.H Publication – ISBN 0-7938-0596-1 )



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