Namdeutsch: How has the German colonial period left its mark on Namibian culture?

When you think of German speaking minorities, this southwest African country may not be the first to come to mind. Though the relationship between Namibia and Germany is fraught, the influence of German culture can still be seen across Namibia’s urban areas. 

Namdeutsch: How has the German colonial period left its mark on Namibian culture?
Archive photo from 2018 shows a street in Windhoek with German name. However, many streets commemorating the colonial era are being changed. Photo: picture alliance / Florian Pütz/-/dpa | Florian Pütz

In May, Germany recognised for the first time that it had committed genocide in Namibia during the colonial occupation of the African country, which was at that time known as German South West Africa. Between 1904 and 1908, German forces massacred tens of thousands of Namibian people in what is considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.


Germany’s actions in Namibia poisoned relations between the two nations during the last century, but the influence of German occupation can still be seen in modern Namibia. From the teaching of German in schools, to the selling of traditional German dishes, Namibian-German culture is certainly still alive and kicking. 

German influence permeates deep into the culture of urban Namibia. If you visit Windhoek, the country’s capital, you will see street names, churches and schools all bearing German names. There is even an Evangelical Lutheran congregation in the capital with around 4.5 thousand members. 

Over the last few decades, a number of cities have started changing the names of streets and schools to better honour black Namibian figures and traditional elements of the culture, rather than German colonialists. English has been the only official language in Namibia since 1990, in an attempt to move on from the bloodied history of the German colonial period. 

A memorial for victims of the genocide committed by German colonial troops against Herero and Nama people in the centre of the Namibian capital Windhoek. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jürgen Bätz

German language in Namibia

German is the mother tongue of around 30,000 Namibians, while several hundred thousand more people are said to speak German as a second or third language. Afrikaans and English are also spoken across Namibia and show the influence of Dutch and British colonial efforts in Southern Africa. The traditional language of Oshiwambo remains the most widely spoken in Namibia. 

Namibian German is considered its own dialect and is the most common form of the language used in the country, but there are also a number of patois versions of German that will often be used by older Namibians. German is rarely spoken in rural communities, and most speakers of the language live in major cities in the centre and south of the country. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s four minority languages

The German spoken in Namibia today is called Namlish or Namsläng by younger Namibians, while German academics tend to refer to it as Namdeutsch. The number of students learning German schools is actually increasing, despite fears from some that the Namibian-German is dying out. 

Modern Namdeutsch includes a lot of influence from English and Afrikaans. Here are a few of the most common Namibian-German words, along with their translations, that you might hear on the streets of Windhoek:

Morro-tse! Guten Morgen – Good morning!

DeutschländerDeutscher – a German, or a white Namibian with German heritage

Biekie/bikie bisschen – a bit, or a small amount

Drankwinkel Getränkemarkt – a shop selling alcohol

Lekker lecker – tasty

Nüffel Kind – a child 

Trockenzeit/KaltzeitWinter – winter (literally ‘dry time’ or ‘cold time’) 

Uitlander Ausländer – foreign national

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The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on German soil and are ready to begin your new life in the Bundesrepublik. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that strike fear into the hearts of language learners

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and Tagesschau is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more German media. Listen to German podcasts, check out German TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Germans have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore.