When you think of South Africa, you might conjure up images of striking mountainous topography, sunset safaris alongside grazing game and, if you were alive a quarter-century ago or more, a political mega-shift that bore what is now one of the world’s youngest democracies. But have you ever given much thought to the linguistic landscape of the African continent’s southernmost nation? The languages in South Africa are just as important as any other factor in understanding the essence of the country itself — especially the intersection of indigenous populations and invading people, of the past and the present, of oppression and reconciliation.
A legacy of colonialism is a major part of South African history, as it is with so many other nations on the African continent and in the world. Even today, there are visible remnants of the division of much of the African continent among the European imperial powers during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
South Africa was first colonized by the Dutch starting in the mid-17th century, when settlers landed at what was then called the Cape Colony near the Cape of Good Hope. The English controlled much of the territory there for brief chapters afterward, establishing the roots for the English language to exist — and not always amicably — alongside the Cape Dutch variety already spoken there, which was evolving into a language of its own known as Afrikaans.
Throughout all of this time, native African populations speaking indigenous African languages bore the brunt of the oppression and racial discrimination that followed such active imperialism, and eventually, the creation of South Africa as a state. This oppression was formalized when, in 1948, the white minority in power instituted apartheid, a legalized system of racial discrimination that enfranchised white Afrikaners, the mostly farmer descendants of the original Dutch settlers, and took away rights from non-white people.
Taking a look at the languages in South Africa helps peel away at the many layers that shaped the nation’s history and make the country what is today.
What Are The Languages In South Africa?
Generally considered to be among the most multilingual countries in the world and among the most multiethnic in Africa, post-apartheid South Africa has 11 official languages recognized in its democratic constitution: English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Ndebele, Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Sotho, Southern Sotho, Venda and Tsonga.
In addition to these 11 official tongues, you can find a smattering of other languages in South Africa, including Hindi, Swahili, Tamil, Urdu, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian and Greek. There are also a handful of indigenous creoles and pidgins spoken in the country.
Most of the country’s roughly 57 million people can speak more than one tongue and might use one at home while conducting business in another (South Africa’s a great example of diglossia at work — two different languages co-existing in the same linguistic and geographic communities, with distinct, socially recognized use cases for each language).
Here’s a deeper dive into the official languages in South Africa.
Afrikaans In South Africa
There’s no doubt that Afrikaans is a South African invention, a language born and bred in — and deeply interwoven in the history of — that unique nation positioned at the southern tip of Africa.
Afrikaans was originally known as “kitchen Dutch,” a patois or arguably creolized variant seen as “dirty” or lower in prestige and mainly reserved for speaking with domestic servants and slaves. But with the arrival of the English to the Cape and the ensuing struggle for dominance in the area, the language became a rallying point and identity marker for the white Dutch-descendant Afrikaners as they built a nationalist movement — one that eventually catapulted them to power in 1948 and laid the groundwork for the beginning of apartheid.
Today, there are a little more than 17 million total speakers of Afrikaans in South Africa, with just under 7 million of these people — about 13 percent of the population — speaking it as a native tongue. Almost all native speakers of Afrikaans worldwide live in South Africa, with a few hundred thousand scattered in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho, the landlocked country inside of South Africa.
Afrikaans is a West Germanic language just like German, English and of course, Dutch, the language it stems from. In fact, knowing Dutch will set you up squarely for being able to pick up Afrikaans with ease. The two languages share an estimated 90 to 95 percent of their vocabulary, and Afrikaans’ simpler grammar makes it almost entirely intelligible to a Dutch speaker (though an Afrikaans speaker might not understand Dutch as fluidly). The language is anchored in the Dutch brought over by the early colonizers, but it has a simpler grammatical structure and more sensical spelling than its parent language does. It draws on a hodge-podge of elements from the tongues of Portuguese and French traders and colonizers, from indigenous Khoisan and Bantu languages, and from languages like Malay that were brought to Africa through the slave trade with Asia.
Though historically the language was weaponized as a symbol of Afrikaner white nationalism to the exclusion of other racial populations, Afrikaans sprang up in and permeated non-white communities, who used a vernacular distinct enough from the white variety that it set them apart and allowed them to build a sense of solidarity within their communities. It’s spoken heavily today, for example, by Cape Town’s “coloured” populations, the apartheid-era racial classification of people who are neither white nor fully native African but come from a mixed ancestry of South Asian and native African slave and laborer populations in the colonial era. In fact, according to a 2011 census, the majority of those who use Afrikaans at home are part of this group — just over half of the total native speakers of the tongue.
Though you might not have ever interacted with the language if you’ve never been to the southern tip of Africa, Afrikaans has made its way around the world in bits and pieces. Did you know that Afrikaans has loaned words to English? If you’ve ever taken a trek or appreciated an aardvark (literally “earth pig”), you’re using Afrikaans words!
The language is still interwoven with the cultural core of the nation; the popular South African equivalent of a barbecue is called a braai, and it’s a go-to pastime at plenty of parties, festivities and gatherings. The country’s national animal is the light-footed and bouncing springbok, literally a “jumping antelope.” And as much as many would like to wipe away the lasting remnants of Afrikaner nationalism that underlay the onset of apartheid, Afrikaans is still a point of pride for many who trace their roots to the country’s earlier colonial history and their identity struggle against the British. Though these people’s desires to preserve the integrity of their language are not necessarily designed to have a nationalist bent, these movements attract those who most proudly associate their language with their identity — typically white, male Afrikaner language activists.
English In South Africa
The English brought their language with them in their arrival to the Cape starting in 1820, and though they were eventually forced out by the Dutch settlers and their descendants, English had ample time to become established in the Cape Colony and beyond.
English has for decades been rising in popularity on the international stage, and in South Africa, it’s no exception. The tongue is increasingly becoming the go-to language for official business and communications. Chances are that in most major urban areas, like Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg, you’ll regularly run into people who speak English. But it is only spoken by about 10 percent of the population natively at home, or about 5 million people. The popularity of English is helped in part by the history of apartheid that’s so inextricable from Afrikaans and the reaction against its legacy as a language of oppression.
Though English is only the fourth-most common of the natively spoken languages in South Africa, the growth in popularity of the language as a means of mobility and opportunity — and the constitutional leveling of Afrikaans with the nation’s other official languages, away from its protected status — have raised significant questions about how Afrikaans will fare in comparison to English over the coming years.
South African English has its own peculiarities and nuances that distinguish it from the English spoken in the rest of the world. A bakkie is a pickup truck, and a bru is a bro, buddy or pal, someone you might greet with a quintessentially South African Howzit? instead of a “How are you?” You might eat the jerky-like dried and seasoned meat called biltong if you’re in South Africa, and if you enjoy it, you would say that it’s lekker — an all-encompassing expression of appreciation when you’re having an all-around good time.
The Native Languages In South Africa
The Bantu languages are a family of about 500 tongues of Niger-Congo linguistic lineage spoken throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and they include the 9 non-Indo-European official languages of South Africa (so, everything but English and Afrikaans). These indigenous languages in South Africa have been around for far longer than the European languages that were introduced in the colonial era.
The name “Bantu” was an apartheid-era classification for native Africans, but it’s not necessarily seen as pejorative today. During apartheid, these languages were taught in special Bantu schools that were designed to deprive native Africans of the education they needed to be skilled members of the country’s workforce, instead directing them into unskilled labor. Where historical apartheid policy bolstered the status of Afrikaans in the public and professional spheres, it had the opposite effect on native African languages — a reality whose legacy remains today.
The Bantu languages are not to be confused with Khoisan languages, a separate family of languages that share click consonants — though these consonants have made their way into Bantu languages like Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. And there are even some elements of Khoisan tongues that got adopted into Afrikaans.
Zulu is the most spoken native language in South Africa, followed by Xhosa, the language that was the native tongue of freedom fighter, anti-apartheid leader and later South African president Nelson Mandela. Chances are you’ll run into someone who speaks a Bantu language most everywhere you go in South Africa.
Here are the estimated number of native speakers of each of South Africa’s nine constitutionally recognized indigenous official languages:
- Ndebele: 1.1 million
- Northern Sotho: 4.6 million
- Southern Sotho: 3.9 million
- Swati: 1.3 million
- Tsonga: 2.3 million
- Tswana: 4.1 million
- Venda: 1.2 million
- Xhosa: 8.2 million
- Zulu: 11.6 million
The languages in South Africa are windows into a storied past and a complex narrative that continues into the present. Only time will tell how the country’s linguistic legacy will play out in the years to come.