South Africa’s cultural diversity is beautifully reflected in its linguistic landscape, boasting a remarkable 11 official languages. Beyond the well-known Afrikaans and English, learn more in this post about Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sesotho, as well as some non-official languages that may be in danger of becoming extinct.
Meet South Africa’s 11 official languages
South Africa has a grand total of 11 official languages. Aside from Afrikaans and English, these are: Ndebele, Pedi (Northern Sotho), Sesotho (Southern Sotho), Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.
Zulu is the most common first language in South Africa, with 23% of the population speaking it as their mother tongue. Xhosa comes in second (16%), and then Afrikaans third (14%). English is the fourth most common language in the country (9.6%) in terms of its popularity as a first language, but it is understood in most urban areas and is the dominant language in government and the media.
Which other languages are spoken in South Africa?
There are a total of 31 languages spoken in South Africa today, including the 11 official languages listed above, and 20 of them are indigenous to the country. This includes languages like Khoekhoe (around 2,000 users), Tswa (around 20,000 users), and Ronga (around 1,000 users).
A number of pidgins and creoles also exist in South Africa. A pidgin language is a grammatically simplified language that develops between two or more groups of people who don’t have a single language in common.
One example is Fanagalo (or Fanakalo), which is a pidgin primarily based on Zulu and influenced by English and Afrikaans. It is used as a lingua franca in South Africa – mostly in the gold, diamond, copper, and coal mining industries. Although there were estimated to be several hundred thousand speakers in 1975, there are around 5,000 speakers today, with English taking its place as a lingua franca instead.
Languages of South Africa
|Language||Speakers in South Africa|
‘Sawubona’ is a common Zulu greeting and literally means ‘we see you’.
Zulu, also referred to as isiZulu in Zulu and in South African English, is a Southern Bantu language on the Nguni branch of the Bantu language family tree. After Swahili, Zulu is the second most widely spoken Bantu language.
In South Africa, around 12 million people speak Zulu as a native language, and over 50% of the population understand it. Speakers mainly live in the KwaZulu-Natal province, which is a coastal province in the southeast of the country. In 1994, Zulu, along with many other indigenous languages, became one of the official languages of South Africa.
Standard Zulu is taught in schools in South Africa, but this version differs from the language people speak in cities. When people speak to each other in what is known as urban Zulu, they tend to use many more loanwords, most of which come from English. This means that some children have difficulties with Standard Zulu.
Zulu features three basic clicks. Each click covers five click consonants, meaning there are a total of 15 click consonants in Zulu. The language also has three tonemes: low, high, and falling. It is usually written without any indication of tone, but tone can be necessary in Zulu to distinguish between words that are pronounced differently but written the same way.
Some words from Zulu have made their way into English, and specifically into South African English. This includes words like ‘muti’ (medicine), ‘indaba’ (conference), and ‘ubuntu’ (compassion or humanity).
Learn some useful Zulu words and phrases
|How are you?||Unjani?|
English borrows the name ‘impala’ – for a type of antelope – from Xhosa.
Xhosa, also referred to as isiXhosa, is another language on the Nguni branch of the Bantu language family tree. As well as being an official language of South Africa, it is also an official language of Zimbabwe. It is the second most common Bantu in South Africa that is spoken in the home and to a large extent, is mutually intelligible with Zulu.
Of all the Bantu languages, Xhosa has perhaps the heaviest functional load of click consonants. One count has found that 10% of basic vocabulary items contain a click. Unlike Zulu, Xhosa only has two tones – low and high – but these tones are not indicated when Xhosa is written, and Xhosa features a whopping 18 click consonants.
The Xhosa language featured heavily in Marvel’s first Black Panther film.
Learn some useful Xhosa words and phrases
|How are you?||Unjani?|
The Afrikaans expression ‘moenie die hoender ruk nie’ means ‘don’t overdo it’. If you translate it literally, you get ‘don’t shake the chicken’!
Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that derives from Dutch, making it a daughter language of Dutch. Many linguistics consider it to be a partly creole language, and 90-95% of Afrikaans vocabulary is Dutch in origin. Although the two languages are fairly mutually intelligible, it has been found that Dutch speakers can understand Afrikaans more easily than Afrikaans speakers can understand Dutch.
Aside from the vocabulary that has come from Dutch, Afrikaans has also adopted words from other languages, including German and the Khoisan languages. English has also borrowed some words from Afrikaans, including ‘aardvark’, ‘trek’, ‘commando’, and ‘boomslang‘.
Unlike Dutch and other West Germanic languages, where this is not common, Afrikaans speakers often use double negatives in statements and questions. For example, the sentence *Hy kan nie Afrikaans praat nie* literally translates as ‘He can not Afrikaans speak not‘, or ‘He can’t speak Afrikaans’.
In South Africa, around 13.5% of the population speak Afrikaans as their first language. However, it is widely spoken and understood as a second or third language, though it still lags a little behind English.
Learn some useful Afrikaans words and phrases
|How are you?||Hoe gaan dit?|
In Botswana, Tswana is the most widely spoken language and English is the most widely written language.
Tswana, also known as Setswana, is another Bantu language and an official language of Botswana as well as South Africa.
Tswana has two tones – high and low – and stress is always fixed on the second-to-last syllable (the penult) of a word. Like other Bantu languages, Tswana features noun classes, which are particular categories that nouns are divided into. Tswana has nine noun classes and one subclass, each with different prefixes.
Interestingly, there is also an urbanised and part slang variety of Tswana, known as Pretoria Sotho, which is the main unique language of the city of Pretoria.
|1a||–||bô-||names, kinship, animals|
|2||mo-||me-, ma-||miscellaneous (including body parts, tools, instruments, animals, trees, plants)|
|3||le-||ma-||miscellaneous (including body parts, tools, instruments, animals, trees, plants)|
|4||se-||di-||miscellaneous (including body parts, tools, instruments, animals, trees, plants)|
|5||n-, m-, ny-, ng-||din-, dim-, diny-, ding-||animals (but also miscellaneous)|
|6||lo-||din-, dim-, diny-, ding-||miscellaneous (including a number of collective nouns)|
|8||go-||go-||infinitive forms of verbs|
|9||fa-, go-, mo-||fa-, go-, mo-||infinitive forms of verbs|
Some nouns may be found in several classes.
Learn some useful Tswana words and phrases
|Thank you.||Ke a leboga.|
|How are you?||O tsogile jang?|
The Sesotho idiom ‘ho ba kgwaba la methati yohle’ means ‘to be a jack of all trades’ in English. Literally translated, it means ‘to be a crow of all levels’.
Sesotho means ‘language of the Sotho people’ and you may also see the language called Sotho or Southern Sotho. The Sotho people call themselves Basotho. As well as being one of South Africa’s official languages, Sesotho is a national and official language of Lesotho and is one of Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages. Like many other official languages of South Africa, Sesotho is a Bantu language.
Aside from some borrowing from neighbouring languages, there is no discernible dialect variation in Sesotho, meaning that speakers from one area can easily understand those from another.
Learn some useful Sesotho words and phrases
|Goodbye.||Sala hantle (to a person staying). / Tsamaya hantle (to a person leaving).|
|Thank you.||Ke a leboha.|
|How are you?||O kae? O phela joang?|
What is the future of languages in South Africa?
While many of the Bantu languages are still widely spoken in all kinds of contexts in South Africa, English is still spreading and is increasingly used in official capacities. The impact of this can definitely be seen on Afrikaans, which has been pushed out by English in these domains. However, Afrikaans is still spoken by plenty of people and is often learnt in schools as a first ‘foreign’ language because it is considered to be easier than some of the other official languages, like Zulu.
There are an awful lot of moribund languages (endangered languages) in South Africa, as well as languages that no longer have first language speakers at all. This includes languages like !Xun, Birwa, Khoekhoe, Khew, Korana, N | | ng, and Siphuthi. Hopefully, efforts will be made to keep some of these very endangered languages alive.
Perhaps we can take some comfort, however, from the fact that official censuses suggest that the average South African speaks two or three languages. So, the linguistic future of the country is, at the very least, in the hands of able linguists.