South Africa’s languages

SA-languages-article
South Africa’s population 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, Zulu, Nama and other African languages. (Image: Brand South Africa)

South Africa is a multilingual country. Its democratic Constitution, which came into effect on 4 February 1997, recognises 11 official languages, to which the state guarantees equal status.

Sections in this article:

South African language distribution

Introduction

Besides the official languages, scores of others – African, European, Asian and more – are spoken in South Africa, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa. Other 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 the country’s lingua franca. But it only ranks fourth out of 11 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, Zulu, Nama and other African languages.

And African-language speakers often pepper their speech with English and Afrikaans, as this Zulu example recorded in Soweto by MJH Mfusi shows (English is in italics, and Afrikaans in bold):

“I-Chiefs isidle nge-referee’s optional time, otherwise ngabe ihambe sleg. Maar why benga stopi this system ye-injury time?”

“Chiefs [a local soccer team] 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?”

Language distribution

According to the 2011 census, Zulu is the mother tongue of 22.7% of South Africa’s population, followed by Xhosa at 16%, Afrikaans at 13.5%, Sotho sa Leboa at 9.1%, English at 9.6% and Tswana at 8.0%.

Sotho is the mother tongue of 7.6% of South Africans, while the remaining four official languages are spoken at home by less than 5% of the population each.

Additionally, 0.5% of the population indicated that they use sign language to communicate in the home.

                                      SOUTH AFRICAN LANGUAGES 2011                                     
Language Speakers Percentage
Zulu 11 587 374 22.7%
Xhosa 8 154 258 16.0%
Afrikaans 6 855 082 13.5%
English 4 892 623 9.6%
Northern Sotho 4 618 576 9.1%
Tswana 4 067 248 8.0%
Sotho 3 849 563 7.6%
Tsonga 2 277 148 4.5%
Swati 1 297 046 2.5%
Venda 1 209 388 2.4%
Ndebele 1 090 223 2.1%
Sign language 234 655 0.5%
Other languages 828 258 1.6%
Total 50,961,443 100.0%
Spoken as a home language.
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 Zulu.

Zulu, Xhosa, Swati and Ndebele are collectively referred to as the Nguni languages, and have many similarities in syntax and grammar. The Sotho languages – Tswana, Sotho sa Leboa and Sotho – 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.

Provincial variations

The languages you will hear most frequently spoken in South Africa depend on where in the country you are.

Tswana, for instance, is spoken by 63,4% of people in the North West, but in Limpopo 52,9% of the population speaks Sotho sa Leboa, and Swati is the most widely spoken language in Mpumalanga,at 27,7%. In Northern Cape and Western Cape, Afrikaans is the
language most often spoken in the home at 53,8% and 49,7% respectively.

Predominant languages by province (census 2011 figures) are:

  • Eastern Cape – Xhosa (78.8%), Afrikaans (10.6%)
  • Free State – Sotho (64.2%), Afrikaans (12.7%)
  • Gauteng – Zulu (19.8%), English (13.3%)
  • KwaZulu-Natal – Zulu (77.8%), English (13.2%)
  • Limpopo – Sotho (52.9%), Venda (16.7%)
  • Mpumalanga – Swati (27.7%), Zulu (24.1%)
  • Northern Cape – Afrikaans (68%), Tswana (33.1%)
  • North West – Tswana (63.4%), Afrikaans (9%)
  • Western Cape – Afrikaans (55.3%), Xhosa (24.7%), English (19.3%)
Source: Census 2011

Language distribution in South Africa
The dominant language in the different regions of South Africa. The map does not indicate the number of language speakers, simply the language most commonly spoken. So, while Afrikaans dominates the Northern Cape, that province is sparsely populated, so the actual number of Afrikaans speakers is limited. Similarly, KwaZulu-Natal is densely populated, so there are a great many isisZulu speakers in the province.

Afrikaans

Afrikaans is the third most common language in South Africa. According to the 2011 census, 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.

In South Africa’s provinces the Northern Cape and Western Cape are dominated by Afrikaans speakers – 53.8% and 49.7% respectively. In Gauteng 13.4% of people speak Afrikaans, 9% in the North West, 10.6% in the Eastern Cape, and 12.7% of the Free State’s population.

Afrikaans

  • Home language to: 13.5% of the population (6 855 082 people)
  • Linguistic lineage: Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > Low Franconian > Afrikaans
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

English

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. Estimates based on the 1991 census suggest that some 45% of the population 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 the country’s lingua franca, and the primary language of government, business, and commerce. It is a compulsory subject in all schools, and the medium of instruction in most schools and tertiary institutions.

According to the 2001 census, English is spoken as a home language by 8.2% of the population (3 673 206 people) – one in three of whom are not white. 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, coz I bust her tjor going yooees with the okes in Bez Valley” would translate as: “My mother has been shouting at me all afternoon because I crashed her car doing U-turns with my friends in Bez Valley.”

As a home language English is most common in KwaZulu-Natal, where over a third (34.9%) of all English-speaking South Africans are found, making up 13.6% of the provincial population. Another third (30%) of English speakers live in Gauteng, where it is the language of 12.5% of the population, and 23.8% in the Western Cape, where it is spoken by 19.3% of the population.

English

  • Home language to: 8.2% of the population (3 673 206 people)
  • Linguistic lineage: Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > English
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Ndebele

Ndebele, 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 Nala and Nzunza are related to those of Zimbabwe’s amaNdebele people.

Like the country’s other African languages, Ndebele is a tonal language, governed by the noun, which dominates the sentence.

Ndebele is a minority language, spoken by only 1.6% of South Africa’s population, or 711 825 people. It is largely found in Mpumalanga, where 48.6% of its speakers are found, or 12.1% of the provincial population. Almost a third of isiNdebele speakers reside in Gauteng, but make up only 2.3% of the population.

IsiNdebele

  • Home language to: 1.6% of the population (711 825 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
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Xhosa

South Africa’s second-largest language, Xhosa is spoken by 17.6% of all South Africans, or 7 907 149 people. It is a regional language, with a third of its speakers living in the Eastern Cape, where it is the language of 83.4% of the provincial population. It’s also strong in the bordering Western Cape, where 13.6% of all Xhosa speakers live, making up nearly a quarter of the provincial population.

There are a fair number of Xhosa speakers in the Free State, North West and Gauteng (respectively 9.1%, 5.8% and 7% of the provincial population), but it is not widely spoken in the other provinces.

Xhosa 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 Zulu, 15% of its vocabulary is estimated to be of Khoekhoe (Khoisan, or Khoi and Bushman) origin.

Famous Xhosa South Africans include former President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, and former President Thabo Mbeki.

IsiXhosa

  • Home language to: 17.6% of the population (7 907 149 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.
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Zulu

Zulu is the most common language in South Africa, spoken by nearly 23% of the total population, or 10 677 315 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, Zulu is closely related to Xhosa. 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. The first work of Zulu 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.

Zulu is an extremely regional language, with 71.8% of its speakers to be found in KwaZulu-Natal, where it is the language of 80.9% of the provincial population. Over 18% of Zulu speakers are to be found in Gauteng, the second province in which it is in the majority, with its speakers making up 21.5% of the provincial population. The third province in which the language is the largest is Mpumalanga, where it is spoken by nearly a quarter of the population, who make up 7.6% of all South African Zulu speakers. The presence of the language in the remaining six provinces is negligible.

Zulu

  • Home language to: 23.8% of the population (10 677 315 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
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Sotho sa Leboa

Sotho 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 the two are not interchangeable.

Sotho sa Leboa is the fourth most common language in South Africa, spoken as a home language by 9.4% of the population, or 4 208 974 people. It is one of South Africa’s three Sotho languages, with different dialect clusters found in the area where it is spoken.

Sotho sa Leboa is the language of Limpopo, where it’s spoken by 54.8% of the provincial population – 65.1% of all Sotho sa Leboa speakers. It’s also found in Gauteng, where nearly a quarter (24.3%) of Sotho sa Leboa speakers are to be found, making up 11.2% of the population. In Mpumalanga 10.2% of the population speak Sotho sa Leboa, or 8.1% of all speakers of the language.

Confusion in the Constitution: According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the language was mentioned correctly as Sotho 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 never been established.

The Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb) investigated the matter and came to the conclusion that Sepedi was indeed a dialect of Sotho sa Leboa.

Translation organisation translate.org.za, which is responsible for the translation into vernacular languages of many popular open source software applications such as web browser Firefox and office suite OpenOffice.org, says that the language and the dialect are often mistaken for each other. While there are many people who speak Sotho sa Leboa, not all of them speak Sepedi.

Pansalb encourages multilingualism through the equal use of all official languages and the abolition of discrimination against any language. The board’s stance, therefore, is that Sotho sa Leboa is the language which must be promoted.

Translate.org.za also states that it now avoids using the term Sepedi in reference to the Northern Sotho mother tongue.

Sotho sa Leboa

  • Home language to: 9.4% of the population (4 208 974 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.
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Sotho

Sotho is another of South Africa’s three Sotho languages, spoken by 7.9% of the country’s population, or 3 555 192 people.

It is the language of the Free State, which borders the kingdom of Lesotho, a country entirely surrounded by South African territory. Sotho is spoken by 64.4% of the Free State population, or 49% of all Sotho-speaking South Africans. It is also found in Gauteng, where it is spoken by 13.1% of the population – a third (32.4%) of all Sotho-speaking South Africans – and in North West, where it is spoken by 6.8% of the population.

With Tswana and Zulu, Sotho 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.

Sotho

  • Home language to: 7.9% of the population (3 555 192 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.
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Tswana

Tswana 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 fifth most common home language – closely followed by English – being spoken by 8.2% of the total population, or 3 677 010 people.

Tswana is spoken by 65.4% of all North West residents, or 56.2% of all Tswana-speaking South Africans. It is also found in the Northern Cape, where it is spoken by 20.8% of the population, as well as in Gauteng (9.9%) and the Free State (6.8%).

Tswana 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 Tswana in his teachings, and began a long translation of the bible into Tswana, which was finally completed in 1857.

One of most famous Tswana 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 Tswana.

Tswana

  • Home language to: 8.2% of the population (3 677 010 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: Tlahaping (Tlapi), Rolong, Kwena, Kgatla, Ngwatu (Ngwato), Tawana, Lete, Ngwaketse, Tlokwa. Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana are largely mutually intelligible but have generally been considered separate languages.
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Swati

Swati is one of South Africa’s minority languages, spoken by only 2.7% of South Africans, or 1 194 433 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 (83%) of Swati speakers are found in Mpumalanga, where they are the majority linguistic group, making up 30.8% of the provincial population. Nearly 11% of Swati speakers are found in Gauteng, where they make up only 1.4% of the population.

Swati is one of South Africa’s four Nguni languages, and is closely related to Zulu. But much has been done in the last few decades to enforce the differences between the languages for the purpose of standardising Swati.

Swati

  • Home language to: 2.7% of the population (1 194 433 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
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Venda

Venda is generally regarded as a language isolate among S-group languages. While the Nguni group, for example, has four languages (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati and Ndebele), the Venda group has only one – Venda. It is the tongue of 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 1 209 388 people. It is concentrated in the province of Limpopo, where 73.8% of Venda speakers live, or 16.7% of the provincial population. Another 22.5% of Venda speakers live in Gauteng, where they make up 2.3% of the population.

Venda shares features with Shona and Sotho sa Leboa, with some influence from Nguni languages. The Tshipani variety of the language is used as the standard.

The language requires a number of additional characters or diacritical signs not found on standard keyboards. For this reason Translate.org.za, an NGO promoting open-source software in indigenous languages, has produced a special program to enable Venda speakers to easily type their language.

The Venda people first settled in the Soutpansberg Mountains region, where the ruins of their first capital, Dzata’s, can still be found.

Venda

  • Home language to: 2.4% of South Africans (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
Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

Tsonga

The Tsonga people came to South Africa long after most other African people, settling in the Limpopo River valley.

Their language, Tsonga, is spoken by 4.5% of the national population, or 2 277 148 people. It is found in Limpopo (17% of the provincial population and 39.8% of Tsonga speakers), Gauteng (6.6% of the population) and Mpumalanga (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.

Tsonga is similar to Shangana, the language of the Shangaan people, with some Nguni influences.

Tsonga

  • Home language to: 4.5% of the population
  • 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.

Sources: Census 2001 and Ethnologue

 

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 being regularly introduced.

Fanagalo is a pidgin that grew up mainly 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 Zulu and Xhosa – about 70% of the lexicon is from Zulu – and incorporates elements from English, Dutch, Afrikaans and Portuguese. It does not have the range of Zulu inflections, and tends to follow English word order. Similar pidgins are Cikabanga in Zambia and Chilapalapa in Zimbabwe.

Fanagalo is a rare example of a pidgin based on an indigenous language rather than on the language of a colonising or trading power.

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