Languages of South Africa

What comes to mind when we talk about South Africa? Maybe you have heard about their great leaders, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu or remember the World Cup in 2010. This linguistically diverse country has a political history that teaches much to the world and holds lots of symbols.
Thalita Lima
8 min
Table of Contents

What comes to mind when we talk about South Africa? 

Maybe you have heard about their great leaders, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu or remember the World Cup in 2010. This linguistically diverse country has a political history that teaches much to the world and holds lots of symbols. 

But the notable fact that we highlight here is the presence of 11 languages as official languages! Seems too much? Let’s understand the origins of these languages and how this country is a beacon of development and attracts more and more tourists and investments to the African continent.

South Africa and its 11 official languages

by STATS SA (Statistics of South Africa)
  1. Zulu (isiZulu): Zulu is one of the most widely spoken languages in South Africa, particularly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
  1. Xhosa (isiXhosa): This language is predominantly spoken in the Eastern Cape province, this language is known for its distinctive click sounds. 
  1. Afrikaans: Derived from Dutch and because of the first South Africa colonization, this language is widely spoken across the country. It has some similar words with Dutch that are comprehensible by both native speakers.
  1. English: As a legacy of British colonialism, English serves as the primary language of business, government, and education in South Africa.
  1. Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa): Also known as Pedi or Sepedi, it is spoken mainly in the Limpopo and Gauteng provinces.
  1. Tswana (Setswana): Predominantly spoken in the North West province, but also spoken in parts of Gauteng and the Northern Cape.
  1. Southern Sotho (Sesotho): Mainly spoken in the Free State province, with significant speakers in Lesotho as well.
  2. Swati (siSwati): Spoken mainly in Swaziland (Eswatini) and in Mpumalanga province in South Africa.
  1. Tsonga (Xitsonga): Predominantly spoken in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.
  1. Venda (Tshivenda): Spoken mainly in the northern parts of Limpopo province.
  1. Ndebele (isiNdebele): Mainly spoken in the Mpumalanga province and parts of Gauteng.

What explains this confluence of languages?

By (from States SA)

South Africa's linguistic diversity is a product of complex historical, social, and political dynamics, shaped by colonialism, indigenous languages, migration, trade, apartheid, and post-apartheid language policies.

Being a country of many tribes, just like other African countries, South Africa has a rich tapestry of languages spoken by different ethnic groups: Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana are examples of them. They have been spoken in the region for centuries and keeping these languages official represents a recognition of their value to the country's culture.

But the colonization left marks. The country was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, followed by the British in the 19th century. Dutch colonization was the main influence for the development of Afrikaans, while English became widely spoken under British rule. 

The interactions between colonizers, indigenous African populations, and enslaved peoples brought various languages into contact and influenced linguistic evolution.

Historical patterns of migration and trade over the centuries also contributed to linguistic diversity in South Africa. Trade networks facilitated interactions between diverse linguistic groups, leading to language borrowing and linguistic exchange.

Apartheid and Post Post-Apartheid Policy

Understanding the history of Apartheid is essential to see why multilingualism is a valued force of this country.

South Africa has many spaces dedicated to tell the Apartheid history, such as District Six Museum, The Robben Island (Cape Town) and The Apartheid Museum (Johannesburg)District Six Museum. By South Africa History Online

The apartheid system, which institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s, had a significant impact on language policy. 

The language has always been a political tool. The apartheid government imposed Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools for black South Africans, leading to widespread protests and resistance. Language became connected with issues of identity and resistance during this period.

Since the end of apartheid, and because of this struggle, this country has pursued a policy of linguistic inclusivity and multilingualism. 

The South Africa's constitution recognizes eleven official languages, ensuring that diverse linguistic communities have the right to use and develop their languages. This policy reveals efforts to promote social cohesion, cultural diversity, and equal access to resources and opportunities for South Africa citizens.

Translate to South African English: what are the peculiarities?

South African English (SAE) is a unique variety of English. What are the distinctive points?

  • South African English incorporates vocabulary from various languages that we mentioned before, such as Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, and others. This results in a diverse lexicon, with words and phrases not typically found in other varieties of English. Terms like "braai" (barbecue), "bakkie" (pickup truck), and "robot" (traffic light) are commonly used in this variety.

  • Distinct pronunciation, of course, is also influenced by the same country's linguistic diversity. The pronunciation of certain vowels and consonants may differ from other varieties of English. Additionally, the influence of Afrikaans may be heard in the pronunciation of words like "veld" (open grassland) or "boer" (farmer).

  • Grammar: While South African English generally follows standard English grammar rules, there are some unique grammatical constructions. For example, the use of double negatives ("I don't know nothing") and the omission of articles ("She went to hospital") are more common in South African English than in other varieties.

  • South Africans often engage in code-switching, alternating between English and other languages, particularly indigenous languages like isiZulu, isiXhosa, or Afrikaans, within the same conversation or sentence. This reflects the country's multilingualism and is a common linguistic practice in everyday communication.

  • Colloquialisms, slang, and idiomatic expressions reflect the country's cultural context and history. It’s a country of warm people and expression is an important point to them. When visiting South Africa, you’ll see the people are willing to show the true colors of their language with style and confidence.

The country has a lot of tourist, social and economic potential. Cape Town has incredible natural destinations, there are lots of wineries that produce internationally known wines, as well as the cosmopolitan city of Johannesburg, full of style and jazz clubs with a vibrant culture.

Translating into South African English is not the same as translating into any other variant of English. Each variant has its own particularity. And to be a master of Localization techniques, knowing the other languages that coexist in this country and their history is important to create cultural references that enrich the translation project.

South Africa is much more than safari, right? Maybe you’d like to sing with Miriam Makeba “The Click Song”, to understand the cultural vibe of this rich country.

Thalita Lima
Passionate about languages and the power of localization to connect minds. Journalist, writer, photographer, and ecology student
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