South African Languages

SafariNow Travel Guide LANGUAGES

Zulu woman, KwaZulu Natal
Zulu woman, KwaZulu Natal
©South African Tourism

Languages and Cultures of South Africa

South Africa is one of the world's most multi-lingual and culturally diverse nations, lying second to India. It lives up to its claim of being a ‘Rainbow Nation’ with eleven official languages, bestowing equal status on the country's distinctive peoples and their traditions. The official languages are English, Afrikaans, isiNdebele (Ndebele), Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho), Sesotho (Southern Sotho), siSwati, Xitsonga (Tsonga), Setswana (Tswana), TshiVenda (Venda), isiXhosa (Xhosa) and isiZulu (Zulu).
The cultural diversity of South Africa owes much to it being the hub of southern Africa
and numerous other languages are spoken here in addition to the official languages.

English
only notches fifth as a home language although it dominates throughout South Africa as the language of commerce, politics and the media. It is extensively spoken and generally understood throughout the country so there's no need to rush out and purchase phrase books for the other ten languages. South African English is not quite the Queen’s English, as is Australian English. It is spoken with a variety of pronunciations and has a vast vocabulary with a multitude of
characterful Afrikaans and African words. English is spoken at home by 8.2% of South Africans, most of whom live in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Nama ladies, Northen Cape
Afrikaans speaking Nama women, Northen Cape
©South African Tourism
Afrikaans is a Dutch dialect that has German, French and English influences spiced up with a few Muslim and indigenous African modifications. Initially the language of Afrikaners, the white descendants of Dutch settlers, it is now the prevalent tongue of coloured people living in the Western and Northern Cape. Most Afrikaners live in Gauteng and the Free State. Widely spoken in all the regions of South Africa and Namibia, it is also the preferred language of the media in the Free State.

The other nine South African official languages are all indigenous African languages from the four major ethnic groups, namely Nguni, Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. Most of South Africa's indigenous clans share a common ancestry but as groups split away and formed factions variations of the common languages developed.

Zulu, Xhosa, siSwati and Ndebele are the languages belonging to the Nguni ethnic group and have adopted numerous clicks from the Khoisan languages. Zulu is the mother tongue of 23.8% of South Africa's population, followed by Xhosa at 17.6%. The Nguni languages all have similarities in syntax and grammar.
The Sotho ethnic group comprises Southern Sotho which also uses clicks along with the diverse Northern Sotho and Tswana dialects. Southern Sotho is the mother tongue of 7.9% of South Africans, Tswana 8.2% and Northern Sotho 9.4% of South Africa's population.
The remaining 11.6% of the population speak either Tsonga, Venda, siSwati or Ndebele at home.

Indian temple dancer, Durban
Indian temple dancer, Durban
©South African Tourism
South Africa's Asian population are mostly Indian in origin and English-speaking although many also speak Tamil or Hindi. South Africa has the largest Indian community outside of India, a population of over one million descended from migrant labourers. These contractors came to work in the sugar cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal during the sugar cane boom of 1851 and settled there after fulfilling their 5 year contracts.
Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, is their most important Hindu festival, usually falling around late October and November. On Deepavali morning oil lamps are lit for the Goddess of Light, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

There are a considerable number of Chinese South Africans who are English-speaking and retain their languages of origin. Most are descendants of migrant labourers who came to work in the Johannesburg gold mines in the late 19th century. The cosmopolitan cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg have a large number of German, Portuguese, Italian and French speaking communities.

A vibrant dialect known as tsotsi taal is largely spoken by men in urban areas with new words and expressions added regularly. This dynamic fusion of Afrikaans, English and various African languages evolved to make communication a lot simpler among the different language groups.