On a grassy knoll studded with olive trees a few miles from the house where the first Afrikaans newspaper was printed in 1876, a white concrete monument soars 187 feet into the air in tribute to the only Germanic language rooted in Africa. At its base is written: "Dit is ons erns" ("This is our passion"). The inscription does not exaggerate how South Africa's ruling white tribe of Afrikaners feel about their language, Afrikaans.

But architect Jan van Wijk, designer of the "taal," or "language" monument, admits overseas visitors sometimes misconstrue its significance. "Why a monument?" they ask. "Is your language dead?"

Van Wijk chuckles at that. But when asked why did they build a monument to Afrikaans, he replies, "I've asked myself that thousands of times and the only answer I get is -- we are that way."

From the moment the Dutch burghers set foot in Cape Town in 1652 and melded their various 17th century dialects into Afrikaans, the language has been an intimate part of South African history. Since the late 1800s it has been the crucible for Afrikaner nationalism, the predominant shaper of this country's development in the past century.

Although they have a common origin and appear quite similar, Afrikaans differs from modern Dutch both in vocabulary -- the names of many plants and animals, for instance, are foreign to the European experience -- and in structure. Afrikaans tends to have fewer inflected forms than Dutch and other Germanic languages and has some unique characteristics, such as common use of double negatives. It also sounds less harsh than the gutteral language of the Netherlands.

As one of two official languages here today -- English is the other -- it is spoken as a mother tongue by more than 4 million people and as a second language by another 4 million. Although its written tradition is just over a hundred years old, it boasts a strong and vibrant literary movement of playwrights, poets, songwriters and novelists, producing works that both praise and censure the government. No doubt among the scientific and technical papers now written in Afrikaans are the secret plans for constructing and testing the continent's first atomic weapon.

But in its flush of success, the message of the medium has changed. It was once regarded as the tongue of freedom when the downtrodden Afrikaners struggled to liberate themselves from British colonial rule. But much to the dismay of those who love it, Afrikaans is thought of as the language of oppression to many others in this country because of its association with the Afrikaner-dominated political setup of apartheid.

"From 1948 Afrikaans has progressively become associated with the suppression of Africans, with the police, pass laws, the Group Areas Act, administration officials," said Johan Combrink, professor of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University. "It is not the language of freedom any more . . . . English is the language of freedom, of entertainment, of records."

Interviewed in his home that nestles cozily in the hills of Stellenbosch, the young, bearded professor does not worry about the survival of Afrikaans, which he believes is ensured as long as there are Afrikaners. Rather, his concern is how it is and will be used.

"Afrikaans is an employer's language; if you are black you use it on the construction site, otherwise, you use your native language or do your damnedest to speak English," he lamented, nothing that Afrikaans is not regarded as a "social and recreational language."

It is not difficult to detect a contempt for Afrikaans among blacks. They have little interest in learning it. When they do speak it, often it is in a derisory, ridiculing way to mimic government officials. The government's insistence, now discarded, that it be used as a medium of instruction in black high schools was the spark that set off the Soweto riots of 1976.

In a minor but significant incident last year, hundreds of Colored (mixed race) teen-agers arrested in Johannesburg after a clash with police demonstrated their defiance by insisting that their trials on charges of disorderly conduct be conducted in English, even though as Coloreds they all came from Afrikaans-speaking homes.

Combrink echoes many other young Afrikaner intellectuals and writers who lay the blame for this not only in the political situation but in their own people's "exclusivity," a tendency to see themselves apart from other native Afrikaans-speakers who are not white, particularly South Africa's Colored population.

"Most Afrikaners would put a white skin as a requisite for being an Afrikaner," Combrink reflected aloud. "I've tried to say explicitly that we must divorce ourselves from skin color and take a stand as people who use Afrikaans as a mother language," he explained in what is essentially a call for Afrikaners to redefine their cultural identity.

The 1980 census already shows that there are more brown and black native Afrikaans speakers than whites. "They beat us by 50,000," Combrink said. In neighboring Namibia (Southwest Africa) ruled by Pretoria since 1920, Afrikaans, not English, is the lingua franca among the various black tribal groups.

Another aspect of Afrikaans that is underplayed, according to Jakes Gerval, Colored professor of Afrikaans at the all-Colored University of Western Cape (where Afrikaans is the largest department), is the contribution to the language by black slaves brought from Malaysia, Mozambique and Guinea as well as that made by the indigenous people of South Africa.

Gerval notes how some of the first black publications in the country were in Afrikaans. In 1781, for example, a Moslem scholar wrote a book on Islamic jurisprudence for Cape Town's Moslem community in Afrikaans -- in Arabic script.

Every Afrikaans-speaking child grows up learning a folksong called "Daar Kom die Alabama" ("There Comes the Alabama") composed by descendants of slaves from Malaysia on the occasion of the visit to Cape Town in 1864 of the Confederate raider the Alabama.

The fusion of Afrikaans with Afrikaner nationalism came to fruition in 1875 when eight Afrikaners met in Gideon Malherbe's house in Paarl and formed the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaaners, or Society of True Afrikaners.

Led by Stephanus J. du Toit, regarded by many historians as the first Afrikaner nationalist, their aim was to get Afrikaans recognized as a written language in its own right.

Although widely spoken, Afrikaans was then belittled as "kitchen Dutch" and most writing was still done in continental or "high Dutch." Du Toit's society set up a printing press in Malherbe's house and put out a grammar, the first history of Afrikaners in Afrikaans and the first Afrikaans newspaper, Die Afrikaanse Patriot.

The Afrikaners' devastating ordeal in the Boer War put the language in jeopardy but also tied it more closely than ever to what Combrink calls," a spirit of survival, of coming into your own right."

Then, the miracle happened, "the poets got a hold of it," said Joan du Toit, a guide at the Language Museum in Malherbe's restored house. The blossoming of Afrikaner poets and writers in the early 1900s tenderly touched a responsive chord in their defeated people.

An Afrikaner general James B. Hertzog, who had campaigned for Afrikaans to be officially recognized along with English, came to power in 1924 and the next year, carried out his promise.

The monument in Paarl is a celebration of the strides Afrikaans has made since then, which have in turn brought it face to face with a more difficult challenge. As van Wijk sees it, that is to "return Afrikaans as the langauge of gesprekstaal - of communication and detente.

"Afrikaans has the chance to defuse the situation in which we are living by talking, coming back to basics, discussing feelings and getting back to a platform where one can talk these things out man-to-man," van Wijk said.

That is however, what Afrikaans-speaking politicians at the moment are resisting doing. They appear not to be heeding the words of their most perceptive and brilliant poet, Nicolaas van Wyk Louw.

"Afrikaans is the language that connects Western Europe and Africa, it forms a bridge between the enlightened West and magical Africa, and whatever greatness may come of this union -- that probably lies ahead for Afrikaans to discover," he wrote in 1959, "let us not boast."

But he also likened Afrikaans to "a glistening tool, a double-edged sword" and reminded his fellow Afrikaners that miraculous though their language's rapid development has been, "even a miracle, may be short-lived, like a flower."