The power of words: A new bilingual dictionary for the built environment

Pierre Oosthuizen[1]

CPD Credits Available

Enroll now to complete the questionnaire and claim CPD credits for this article.

Take a moment and think about the best invention that the human race ever came up with. Could it possibly be the wheel or sliced bread?  Immediately my answer would be ‘the written word’.  Coding and recording the magical sounds that exit the human mouth is a momentous achievement.  Interestingly enough, this phenomenon occurred simultaneously across the globe at different locations, time intervals and civilizations during our existence on the planet but still each time a singular phenomenon.  Civilizations are recognized by their unique distinguishable lexicon, for example, the Ancient Chinese, Mycenaen Greek, Hittite, Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations.  The immeasurable value of codification of sounds lies in the prospect of recording knowledge.  Understandably, the written knowledge of one civilization would have been foreign to another.  Consequently, the authors of the Rosetta Stone thus recognized the need to record their King’s decree in three different codes.  As earth repeatedly rotates through its solar cycle, homo sapiens’ languages seem to multiply like furry long-eared creatures. At present 6 500, human languages are spoken on our planet.

Bilingual building dictionary
Die 2020 Tweetalige Bouwoordeboek - The 2020 Bilingual Building Dictionary

Contemplating, philosophizing about and rationalizing the above was aimed at formulating a neat speech defending my poor ‘Building Contract’ grades to my mother since I had to study for my degree in my second language.  My benefactor was however apathetic to my evidently valid petition.  My mistake seemed to be the oversight that my research erred to recognize the existence of an 18 000 term Bilingual Building dictionary  (Bouwoordeboek: Afr/Eng published by the Afrikaans Academy for Science and Art).  This flaw in my argumentative defence statement intrigued me.  With refreshed energy and enthusiasm, I dedicated my limited time and resources to research the origin and development of this mysterious dictionary, of which the omission of use had, unfortunately, lead to my poor Building Science marks.


The South African built environment as we know it today, developed over hundreds of years and reflects the diversity of the South African population in design, culture and language.  The first publication of the Building Dictionary I discovered as a student, only saw the light in 1960.  Thirty years and eight prints later saw the previous issue of this document in 1990.  It took another thirty years for the latest ninth print to appear in 2020.  This new edition contains more than 1 480 additional Afrikaans and English building terms, mainly obtained from a collection of building documents.  Afrikaans and English built environment abbreviations and metric units are also a fresh supplement to the dictionary.  The appearance of this document has been renewed, revised and attuned with page letter tags and affluent guided headers to quickly allocate terms.  A surprisingly valuable educational addition to this dictionary is the 360 colourful illustrations and explanations.


During my twenty-year career, I was fortunate enough to be part of numerous professional construction teams where the mother tongue of all the members, including the client, was Afrikaans, while all the contract documentation was in English.  Hopefully, the excuse of a limited Afrikaans vocabulary for not translating building documentation would vanish with the latest edition Bilingual Building Dictionary which contains almost 20 000 terms.  The next excuse to translate building documents into Afrikaans might be linked to a question of financial viability.  Well, challenge accepted.  These projects are a labour of love and seldom generate any monetary returns, and that was never my intention.  To date, all the costs associated with publishing the 2020 Bilingual Building Dictionary, resulted from personal funding.  The only return that I get from this work is the satisfaction of knowing that instead of making excuses, this time, I did something rather than nothing.


I hope that the updated version of the dictionary will assist students to better grasp terms in the built environment in our diverse country and ensure that we may all understand each other clearly.

[1] Pierre Oosthuizen is a lecturer at the Department of Quantity Surveying and Construction Management at the University of the Free State.

Anyone who is interested in the Dictionary is welcome to contact him directly at the following contact details.
C:  +27 (0) 84 244 1344

South Africa, built environment, language, dictionary, Afrikaans, English

CC BY-NC-ND- 3.0

You can claim CPD credits upon the completion of a quiz relating to this article.

All articles are published under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY 4.0); readers may reproduce, share and adapt the content without permission, provided the source is attributed.