We’re not called the rainbow nation for nothing. South Africa has 11 official languages, and scores of unofficial ones. English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life – but only the fifth most spoken home language.
South Africa’s Constitution recognises 11 official languages, to which the state guarantees equal status.
- Language distribution
- Provincial variations
- Sesotho sa Leboa
- Indigenous creoles and pidgins
Besides the 11 official languages, scores of others – African, European, Asian – are spoken in South Africa, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa.
Languages spoken here, and mentioned in the Constitution, are the Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. There are also a few indigenous creoles and pidgins.
English is generally understood across the country, being the language of business, politics and the media, and is regarded as the country’s lingua franca. But it only ranks a joint fifth (with Setswana) as a home language.
South Africa’s linguistic diversity means all 11 languages have had a profound effect on each other. South African English, for example, is littered with words and phrases from Afrikaans, isiZulu, Nama, and other African languages.
And African-language speakers often pepper their speech with English and Afrikaans, as this isiZulu example recorded in Soweto by MJH Mfusi shows (English is in italics, and Afrikaans in bold):
“I-Chiefs isidle nge-referee’s ngabe ihambe sleg.
Maar why benga stopi this system ye-injury time?”
“Chiefs [a football club] have won owing to the referee’s optional time, otherwise they could have lost. But why is this system of injury time not phased out?”
According to the 2011 census, isiZulu is the mother tongue of 22.7% of South Africa’s population, followed by isiXhosa at 16%, Afrikaans at 13.5%, English at 9.6%, Setswana at 8% and Sesotho at 7.6%.
The remaining official languages are spoken at home by less than 5% of the population each.
|SOUTH AFRICAN LANGUAGES 2011|
|Language||Number of speakers*||% of total|
|Afrikaans||6 855 082||13.5%|
|English||4 892 623||9.6%|
|isiNdebele||1 090 223||2.1%|
|isiXhosa||8 154 258||16%|
|isiZulu||11 587 374||22.7%|
|Sepedi||4 618 576||9.1%|
|Sesotho||3 849 563||7.6%|
|Setswana||4 067 248||8%|
|Sign language||234 655||0.5%|
|SiSwati||1 297 046||2.5%|
|Tshivenda||1 209 388||2.4%|
|Xitsonga||2 277 148||4.5%|
|TOTAL||50 961 443**||100%|
* Spoken as a home language
** Unspecified and not applicable are excluded
Source: Census 2011
Most South Africans are multilingual, able to speak more than one language. English- and Afrikaans-speaking people tend not to have much ability in indigenous languages, but are fairly fluent in each other’s language. Most South Africans speak English, which is fairly ubiquitous in official and commercial public life. The country’s other lingua franca is isiZulu.
isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, and isiNdebele are collectively referred to as the Nguni languages, and have many similarities in syntax and grammar. The Sotho languages – Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa, and Sesotho – also have much in common.
Many of South Africa’s linguistic groups share a common ancestry. But as groupings and clans broke up in search of autonomy and greener pastures for their livestock, variations of the common languages evolved.
The languages you will hear most frequently spoken in South Africa depend on where you are in the country.
For instance, isiXhosa is spoken by around 80% of South Africans in the Eastern Cape, while 78% of people in KwaZulu-Natal speak isiZulu. IsiZulu is also the most frequently spoken home language in Gauteng, but at a much smaller percentage. In the Western and Northern Cape, Afrikaans comes into its own.
Predominant languages by province (Census 2011 figures) are:
- Eastern Cape – isiXhosa (78.8%), Afrikaans (10.6%)
- Free State – Sesotho (64.2%), Afrikaans (12.7%)
- Gauteng – isiZulu (19.8%), English (13.3%), Afrikaans (12.4%), Sesotho (11.6%)
- KwaZulu-Natal – isiZulu (77.8%), English (13.2%)
- Limpopo – Sesotho (52.9%), Xitsonga (17%), Tshivenda (16.7%)
- Mpumalanga – siSwati (27.7%), isiZulu (24.1%), Xitsonga (10.4%), isiNdebele (10.1%)
- Northern Cape – Afrikaans (53.8%), Setswana (33.1%)
- North West – Setswana (63.4%), Afrikaans (9%)
- Western Cape – Afrikaans (49.7%), isiXhosa (24.7%), English (20.3%)
Source: Statistics SA
Afrikaans is the third most common language in South Africa. It is spoken by 13.5% of the population, or 6 855 082 people – mainly “coloured” and white South Africans. The language has its roots in 17th century Dutch, with influences from English, Malay, German, Portuguese, French, and some African languages. One of the first works of written Afrikaans was Bayaan-ud-djyn, an Islamic tract written in Arabic script by Abu Bakr.
Initially known as Cape Dutch, Afrikaans was largely a spoken language for people living in the Cape, with proper Dutch the formal, written language.
Afrikaans came into its own with the growth of Afrikaner identity, being declared an official language – with English – of the Union of South Africa in 1925. The language was promoted alongside Afrikaner nationalism after 1948 and played an important role in minority white rule in apartheid South Africa. The 1976 schoolchildren’s uprising was sparked by the proposed imposition of Afrikaans in township schools.
Afrikaans is spoken mainly by white Afrikaners, coloured South Africans and sections of the black population. Although the language has European roots, today the majority of Afrikaans-speakers are not white.
Most Afrikaans speakers live in the Western Cape, where it is the language of just less than half (48.4%) of the provincial population. It is also common in Gauteng, where 12.2% of the provincial population consider Afrikaans to be their home language.
Afrikaans is the dominant language in the Northern Cape, spoken by more than half (53%) of the provincial population. Afrikaans is spoken by 12.4% of the Free State’s population, 10.4% of the people of the Eastern Cape, and 8.8% of the people of North West.
- Home language to: 13.5% of the population (6 855 082 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > Low Franconian > Afrikaans
English has been both a highly influential language in South Africa, and a language influenced, in turn, by adaptation in the country’s different communities. Around half of the country’s people have a speaking knowledge of English.
English was declared the official language of the Cape Colony in 1822 (replacing Dutch), and the stated language policy of the government of the time was one of Anglicisation. On the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which united the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State with the Cape and Natal colonies, English was made the official language together with Dutch, which was replaced by Afrikaans in 1925.
Today, English is South Africa’s lingua franca, and the primary language of government, business, and commerce. The new education curriculum makes two languages compulsory at school, with English the language of learning and teaching at most schools and tertiary educations.
According to the 2011 census, English is spoken as a home language by almost 5- million people (or 8.2% of the population). South Africa’s Asian people, most of whom are Indian in origin, are largely English-speaking, although many also retain their languages of origin. There is also a significant group of Chinese South Africans, also largely English-speaking but who also retain their languages of origin as well.
South African English is an established and unique dialect, with strong influences from Afrikaans and the country’s many African languages. For example: “The old lady has been tuning me grief all avie, after she bust me and the okes gooi-ing yooees in her tjor”, would translate as: “My mother has been shouting at me all afternoon after she caught my friends and I doing U-turns in her car.”
As a home language, English is most common in Gauteng, where more than a third (32.8%) of all English-speaking South Africans are found, making up 13% of the provincial population. Just less than a third (27.3%) of English speakers live in KwaZulu Natal, where it is the language of 13% of the people in the province, and 23.5% in the Western Cape, where it is spoken by 19.7% of the provincial population.
- Home language to: 9.6% of the population (4 892 623 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > English
isiNdebele, the language of the Ndebele people, is one of South Africa’s four Nguni languages. The Ndebele were originally an offshoot of the Nguni people of KwaZulu- Natal, while the languages amaNala and amaNzunza are related to those of Zimbabwe’s amaNdebele people.
Like the country’s other African languages, isiNdebele is a tonal language, governed by the noun, which dominates the sentence.
isiNdebele is a minority language, spoken by only 2% of South Africa’s population, or just over 1-million people. It is largely found in Mpumalanga, where 37% of its speakers are found, or 10% of the provincial population. More than a third of isiNdebele speakers reside in Gauteng, but make up only 3% of the province’s population.
- Home language to: 2.1% of the population (1 090 223 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Nguni > isNdebele
- Alternate and historical names: Tabele, Tebele, Ndebele, Sindebele, Northern Ndebele
South Africa’s second-largest language, isiXhosa is spoken by 16% of all South Africans, or 8-million people. It is a regional language, with a third of its speakers living in the Eastern Cape, where it is the language of almost 78% of the provincial population. It’s also strong in the bordering Western Cape, where 17% of all isiXhosa speakers live, making up nearly a quarter (24%) of the provincial population.
There are a fair number of isiXhosa speakers in the Free State (7.5%), Gauteng (6.6%), North West (5.5%) and the Nothern Cape (5.3%) and Gauteng, but it is not widely spoken in the other provinces.
isiXhosa is one of the country’s four Nguni languages. It too is a tonal language, governed by the noun, which dominates the sentence. While it shares much of its words and grammar with isiZulu, 15% of its vocabulary is estimated to be of Khoekhoe (Khoisan, or Khoi and Bushman) origin.
- Home language to: 16% of the population (8 154 258 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Nguni > isiXhosa
- Alternate and historical names: Xhosa, Xosa, Koosa
- Dialects: Gealeka, Ndlambe, Gaika (Ncqika), Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondomse (Mpondomisi), Mpondo, Xesibe, Rhathabe, Bhaca, Cele, Hlubi, Mfengu.
isiZulu is the most common language in South Africa, spoken by nearly 23% of the total population, or 11.6-million people. It’s the language of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu people, who take their name from the chief who founded the royal line in the 16th century. The warrior king Shaka raised the nation to prominence in the early 19th century. The current monarch is King Goodwill Zwelithini.
A tonal language and one of the country’s four Nguni languages, isiZulu is closely related to isiXhosa. It is probably the most widely understood African language in South Africa, spoken from the Cape to Zimbabwe.
The writing of Zulu was started by missionaries in what was then Natal in the 19th century, with the first Zulu translation of the bible produced in 1883.
isiZulu is an extremely regional language, with 77.8% of its speakers to be found in KwaZulu-Natal. More than 18% of isiZulu speakers are to be found in Gauteng, the second province in which it is in the majority, with its speakers making up 19.5% of the provincial population. In Mpumalanga it is spoken by nearly a quarter of the population, who make up 7.6% of all South African isiZulu speakers. The presence of the language in the remaining six provinces is negligible.
- Home language to: 22.7% of the population (11 587 374 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Nguni > isiZulu
- Alternate and historical names: Zulu, Zunda
- Dialects: Lala, Qwabe
Sesotho sa Leboa
Sesotho sa Leboa, or Northern Sotho, is referred to as Sepedi in the Constitution. However, this is inaccurate, as Sepedi is just one of some 30 dialects of the Northern Sotho language, and linguists do not consider that the two are not interchangeable.
Sesotho sa Leboa is the fourth most common language in South Africa, spoken as a home language by 9.1% of the population, or 4.6-million people. It is one of South Africa’s three Sotho languages, with different dialect clusters found in the area where it is spoken.
Sesotho sa Leboa is the language of Limpopo, where it is spoken by more than half of the provincial population. In fact, 61% of all people who speak Sesotho sa Leboa live in Limpopo. It is also found in Gauteng, where nearly third (27.8%) of Sesotho sa Leboa speakers are to be found, making up 10.5% of the population. In Mpumalanga, 9.3% of the population speak Sesotho sa Leboa, or 8% of all speakers of the language.
Confusion in the Constitution
According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the language was mentioned correctly as Sesotho sa Leboa in the interim Constitution of 1993. However, when the final version of the Constitution came into law in 1996, the language had been changed to Sepedi. The reason for the change has not been established. References to Sesotho sa Leboa were retained in the nine other translations.
The Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb), set up by the government to promote multilingualism and language rights, supports the use of Sesotho sa Leboa, but says it also uses both words in certain structures to avoid conflict.
- Home language to: 9.1% of the population (4 618 576 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Sotho-Tswana > Sotho > Northern Sotho
- Alternate and historical names: Pedi, Sepedi, Northern Sotho, Sesotho sa Leboa
- Dialects: Masemola (Masemula, Tau), Kgaga (Kxaxa, Khaga), Koni (Kone), Tswene (Tsweni), Gananwa (Xananwa, Hananwa), Pulana, Phalaborwa (Phalaburwa, Thephalaborwa), Khutswe (Khutswi, Kutswe), Lobedu (Lubedu, Lovedu, Khelobedu), Tlokwa (Tlokoa, Tokwa, Dogwa), Pai, Dzwabo (Thabine-Roka-Nareng), Kopa, Matlala-Moletshi. Dialects Pai, Kutswe, and Pulana are more divergent and sometimes called “Eastern Sotho”. Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana are largely mutually intelligible, but have generally been considered separate languages.
Sesotho is another of South Africa’s three Sotho languages, spoken by 7.6% of the country’s population, or 3.8-million people.
It is the language of the Free State, which borders the kingdom of Lesotho, a country entirely surrounded by South African territory. Sesotho is spoken by 62.6% of the Free State population, with almost half of all Sesotho-speaking South Africans living there.
It is also found in Gauteng, where it is spoken by 11% of the provincial population, which is more than a third (36%) of all Sesotho-speaking South Africans. In North West it is spoken by 5.7% of people who live there.
Sesotho was one of the first African languages to be rendered in written form, and it has an extensive literature. Sesotho writing was initiated by the missionaries Casalis and Arbousset of the Paris Evangelical Mission, who arrived at Thaba Bosiu in 1833.
The original written form was based on the Tlokwa dialect, but today is mostly based on the Kwena and Fokeng dialects, although there are variations.
The first work of Sesotho literature was Thomas Mofolo’s classic novel Chaka, which was completed in 1910 and published in 1925, with the first English translation produced in 1930. The book reinvents the legendary Zulu king Shaka, portraying him as a heroic but tragic figure, a monarch to rival Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
- Home language to: 7.6% of the population (3 849 563 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Sotho-Tswana > Sotho > Sesotho
- Alternate and historical names: Suto, Suthu, Souto, Sisutho, Southern Sotho
- Dialects: Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana are largely mutually intelligible, but have generally been considered separate languages.
Setswana is largely found in North West, a province bordering the country of Botswana, where the language dominates. One of South Africa’s three Sotho languages, it is the country’s sixth most common home language, being spoken by 8% of the total population, or just over 4-million people.
Setswana is spoken by 63.4% of all North West residents, where 53.8% of all Setswana- speaking South Africans live. It is also found in the Northern Cape, where it is spoken by 33% of the provincial population, as well as in Gauteng (9.1%) and the Free State (5.2%).
Setswana was the first Sotho language to have a written form. In 1806, Heinrich Lictenstein wrote Upon the Language of the Beetjuana (as a British protectorate, Botswana was originally known as Bechuanaland).
In 1818, Dr Robert Moffat from the London Missionary Society arrived among the Batlhaping in Kudumane, and built Botswana’s first school. In 1825 he realised that he must use and write Setswana in his teachings, and began a long translation of the Bible into Setswana, which was finally completed in 1857.
One of most famous Setswana speakers was the intellectual, journalist, linguist, politician, translator and writer Sol T Plaatje. A founder member of the African National Congress, Plaatje was fluent in at least seven languages, and translated the works of Shakespeare into Setswana.
- Home language to: 8% of the population (4 067 248 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Sotho-Tswana > Tswana
- Alternate and historical names: Chuana, Coana, Cuana, Tswana, Sechuana, Beetjuans
- Dialects: Hurutshe, Kwena, Ngwato, Ngwaketse, Tlhaping, Rolong, Tlokwa, Kgatla, Lete (originally a non-Tswana tribe). Other dialects include Khurutshe, Kubung, and Nare. Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana are largely mutually intelligible, but are separate languages.
SisSwati is one of South Africa’s minority languages, spoken by only 2.5% of South Africans, or just under 1.3-million people. It is the language of the Swazi nation, spoken mainly in eastern Mpumalanga, an area that borders the Kingdom of Swaziland.
The Swazi people originated from the Pongola river valley in KwaZulu-Natal, migrating from there to Swaziland. Their country was under British control from 1903 to 1968.
The vast majority (85%) of sisSwati speakers live in Mpumalanga, where they are the majority linguistic group, making up 27.4% of the provincial population. Just over 10% of siSwati speakers are found in Gauteng, where they make up only 1.1% of the population.
SiSwati is one of South Africa’s four Nguni languages, and is closely related to isiZulu. But much has been done in the last few decades to enforce the differences between the languages for the purpose of standardising siSwati.
- Home language to: 2.5% of the population (1 297 046 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Nguni > siSwati
- Alternate and historical names: Swazi, isiSwazi, Swati, Tekela, Tekeza
- Dialects: Baca, Hlubi, Phuthi
Tshivenda is generally regarded as a language isolate among S-group languages. While the Nguni group, for example, has four languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati and isiNdebele), the Venda group has only one – Tshivenda. It is the tongue the Venda people, who are culturally closer to the Shona people of Zimbabwe than to any other South African group.
Another of South Africa’s minority languages, it is spoken by 2.4% of South Africans, or a little more than 1.2-million people. It is concentrated in the province of Limpopo, where almost 74% of Tshivenda speakers live, or 16.7% of the provincial population. Another 22.5% of Tshivenda speakers live in Gauteng, where they make up 2.3% of the population.
Tshivenda shares features with Shona and Sesotho sa Leboa, with some influence from Nguni languages. The Tshipani variety of the language is used as the standard.
The Venda people first settled in the Soutpansberg Mountains region, where the ruins of their first capital, Dzata’s, can still be found.
- Home language to: 2.4% of the population (1 209 388 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Tshivenda
- Alternate and historical names: Venda, Chivenda
- Dialects: Phani, Tavha-Tsindi, Ilafuri, Manda, Guvhu, Mbedzi, Lembetu
The Tsonga people came to South Africa long after most other African people, settling in the Limpopo River valley.
Their language, Xitsonga, is spoken by 4.5% of the national population, or around 2.3- million people. It is found in Limpopo (39.8% of Xitsonga speakers and 17% of the provincial population), Gauteng (34.9% of speakers and 6.6% of the population) and Mpumalanga (18.3% and 10.4%).
It is also found in eastern Limpopo and Mumalanga, areas near the border of the country of Mozambique, as well as in southern Mozambique and southeastern Zimbabwe.
Xitsonga is similar to Xishangana, the language of the Shangaan people, with some Nguni influences.
- Home language to: 4.5% of the population (2 277 148 people)
- Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Tswa-Ronga > Xitsonga
- Alternate and historical names: Tsonga, Shitsonga, Thonga, Tonga, Shangana, Shangaan
- Dialects: Luleke (Xiluleke), Gwamba (Gwapa), Changana, Hlave, Kande, N’walungu (Shingwalungu), Xonga, Jonga (Dzonga), Nkuma, Songa, Nhlanganu (Shihlanganu). “Tsonga” can be used to describe Xishangana (Shangana or Changana), Tswa, and Ronga, although it is often used interchangeably with Xishangana, the most prestigious of the three. All are recognised as languages, although they are mutually intelligible.
Indigenous creoles and pidgins
Tsotsi taal, an amalgam of Afrikaans, English and a number of African languages, is widely spoken in urban areas, mainly by males. The word “tsotsi” means “gangster” or “hoodlum” – given the association with urban criminality – while “taal” is Afrikaans for “language”.
Otherwise known as Iscamtho, tsotsi taal developed in cities and townships to facilitate communication between the different language groups. It is a dynamic language, with new words and phrases added regularly.
Fanagalo is a pidgin that developed on South Africa’s gold mines, to allow communication between white supervisors and African labourers during the colonial and apartheid era.
It is essentially a simplified version of isiZulu and isiXhosa – about 70% of the lexicon is from isiZulu – and incorporates elements from English, Dutch, Afrikaans and Portuguese.
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