How South African English Grew Its Wings

How did South African English end up sounding so distinct — and which features make it particularly unique? An expert explains.
Author's Avatar
How South African English Grew Its Wings

South African English (SAE) is distinct from other kinds of English found in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as from its root of southern British English. But how did it come into its current form, and what makes it different from other kinds of English spoken around the world?

South Africa is the fifth largest native English speaking country in the world, with a diverse range of English speakers. Because of this, we can draw distinctions between dialects spoken by white, black and Indian speakers, as well as further distinctions between the English spoken in Cape Town and the rest of the country. But in general, modern South African English has unifying characteristics that set it apart from other varieties of native English spoken around the world today.

Characteristics Of South African English

Because it was heavily influenced by Afrikaans and other Southern African languages (Xhosa and Zulu in particular), SAE naturally has its own vocabulary, but there are other ways in which it sets itself apart. Although to an untrained ear, South African English sounds similar to Australian and New Zealand English, SAE has several pronunciation features that make it noticeably different.

(Editor’s note: This upcoming section get’s a bit technical. If you’re more interested in the history, jump down to this section instead.)

Vowel Sounds in South African English

The vowels sounds of SAE are a good place to notice its clear distinction from other Englishes, specifically in the lexical sets of KIT and BATH.

The KIT vowel varies depending on context. When following an /h/ sound, it is pronounced as a simple [ɪ] (as in “kit”), but in most other instances, it is pronounced as [ə], which sounds like “uh,” or a completely relaxed vowel sound. For example, this means that in SAE the words “him” and “limb” do not rhyme.

The BATH vowel is pronounced the same way as in Southern British English, meaning that words like “grass,” “staff” and “laugh” are more similar to British pronunciations than those in Australian or New Zealand English. It may be slightly rounded (the lips are protruded and rounded slightly as the sound is produced), making it even more distinct from other Englishes of the Southern Hemisphere.

Consonant Sounds in South African English

As for consonants, SAE has a few features to listen out for. The pronunciation of the /r/ sound varies from other forms of English spoken around the world and within South Africa itself. Usually, it’s pronounced as the voiced retroflex approximant [ɻ], which means it’s made by curling the tongue back in the mouth, rounding the lips slightly and making an R-like sound. This is similar to the /r/ sound in Dutch, and likely comes from the influence of Afrikaans on SAE.

In Cape Town in particular, the /r/ sound may be pronounced as a voiced uvular trill [ʀ], just like the French or German /r/ sound. To other English speakers, this may be perceived as a kind of “gargling” sound.

Finally, TH-fronting — pronouncing TH sounds as F — is relatively common in SAE, particularly at the ends of words. So the words “myth” and “miff” sound the same for many speakers.

Listening out for these features will help you distinguish SAE from other kinds of English, as well as help you impress new South African acquaintances who are used to being mistaken for Aussies or Kiwis!

History Of South African English

But how did SAE become what it is today? Let’s take a look at the history of this variety of English, which is now spoken as a first language by around five million people.

1795: The British first introduced English to Southern Africa when they set up a military base in what was, at the time, called the Cape Colony. The aim was to gain some control of the trade routes between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. At that point, they were not intending to create a permanent settlement.

1820: The first major influx of English speakers settled in the Eastern Cape. There were around 5,000 people, mostly, but not entirely, of working class background from Britain.

1822: The governor of Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, declared English to be the official language of the colony.

1840-50: The next wave of English speakers arrived in the colony, who were mostly retired military personnel and aristocrats from Britain.

1875-1904: Another wave of native English speakers arrived at the colony, with more varied accents than those who had come before. They (or more precisely their children) quickly lost their accents, as they assimilated to the somewhat established accent that was currently developing. Nostalgia for “the home country” (i.e. Britain) became part of the colony’s national consciousness. This basically meant that colonial English speakers looked up to British English, resulting in their standard accent becoming more similar to Standard British English than it had been before.

1910: The Union of South Africa was formed. Both English and Dutch were given official language status.

1961: South Africa became its own independent country, no longer a British colony.

1994: Nine other languages were given official status (Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda and Southern Ndebele), and eight more were recognized as regional languages (Gujurati, Hindi, Urdu, Northern Ndebele, Phuthi, Portuguese, Tamila and Telugu).

South African English is an interesting example of how colonization, immigration, and contact between different languages can produce a distinct but intelligible variety of an established language in a short time. With only just over 200 years of history, English in South Africa has become its own clearly recognizable variety with its own quirks and intricacies.

Recommended Articles

What Are The Languages Spoken In South Africa?

What Are The Languages Spoken In South Africa?

With so many tongues to choose from, South Africa is one big mishmashed linguistic mosaic.
What Is Afrikaans, And Where Is It Spoken?

What Is Afrikaans, And Where Is It Spoken?

Afrikaans is more than meets the eye. Grab your reading glasses and join us on this journey to explore one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
A History Of New Zealand English: The Little Accent That Could

A History Of New Zealand English: The Little Accent That Could

The New Zealand accent is something of a rare gem for linguists, as it was the first dialect to have its entire development recorded on tape. But first the humble Kiwi accent had to survive an attempt from the motherland to thwart its colonial twang.
Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Pick a language to speak