South African English

South African English

The English language in South Africa (SAE) dates from the arrival of the British at the Cape of Good Hope in 1795. As was the case in most colonies, English was introduced first by soldiers and administrators, then by missionaries, settlers, and fortune-seekers. English took root during the 19th century as a southern African language, as a result of the British settlements of 1820 (in the Eastern Cape), 1848–51 (in Natal), and the subsequent rushes to the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand.

Modern SAE is part of a complex linguistic and cultural mix. The Constitution of 1994 recognizes 11 official languages, namely English, Afrikaans, and the nine major African languages (including isiZulu, isiXhosa, seTswana and seSotho), as well as additional ‘community and religious languages’ such as Khoi-San, Telegu, Hindi, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Arabic.

SAE and multilingual South Africa: the politics of language

The position and role of English were deeply political from the start. English was the language of power during the 19th century, and was imposed in 1822 as the official language of the Cape Colony, replacing Dutch, the cause of great resentment among citizens of Dutch descent–a resentment which was later intensified and hardened among Afrikaners by the South African War of 1899-1901.

For twentieth-century Afrikaner nationalists, the promotion of the Afrikaans language was central, and under the National Party (1948–94) English was displaced by Afrikaans in government, administration, the police, and the armed forces. However, English was a major influence in business and higher education. It was also the language of choice of the African National Congress and other liberation movements, as it enabled communication both between speakers of the country’s many languages and with the outside world.

SAE is a language of many paradoxes. There are 3 million first-language SAE-speakers, about the same as the number of English-speakers in New Zealand, but they are in a minority, greatly outnumbered by second- and third-language speakers. English is perceived both as the language of communication and aspiration, and as an oppressive juggernaut because of its global power. While politicians often brand English as a ‘colonialist’ and disempowering force, many black parents see it as a crucial instrument for their children’s advancement. And while the government espouses multilingualism, in practice SAE is dominant in public life, for reasons of practicality and cost-efficiency.

Although English is far from neutral as lingua franca, it is more neutral than Afrikaans, which was tainted by its use in enforcing apartheid: it was the attempt to make Afrikaans a teaching language in black schools which led to the Soweto uprising of 1976. And the choice of one African language above the others was not an option.

The vocabulary

SAE has become a particular regional version of English, firmly rooted in South Africa by the influence of the languages surrounding it. South Africans are often unaware of just how different SAE is from other Englishes in both vocabulary and pronunciation.

Initial borrowings tended, as elsewhere, to be introduced as local colour in the journals of visiting explorers and travellers describing the local peoples and their cultures, the animals, plants, and geographical features of the country. Some of the earliest SAE words (mainly from Dutch and the Khoi languages), such as kloof, krantz, dagga, buchu, Boer, kraal, springbuck, and quagga (all 18th-century borrowings) are still entrenched in SAE. Others, such as Hottentot (a name given to the Khoi peoples in an attempt to imitate their click languages), and particularly Kaffir (from 1589 onwards, a name given to the black peoples of South Africa) are now considered deeply offensive and are no longer in use.

Dutch, and subsequently Afrikaans, has had the most powerful influence on SAE. Veld, vlei, pan, koppie, nek, rand are words used to describe the country’s natural features. Deurmekaar or in a dwaal is how a state of confusion is described. Nogal has supplanted ‘what is more’. During apartheid, administrative terms such as group areas, job reservation, reference book and endorse out were translated from the Afrikaans equivalents.

Many SAE words have also been borrowed from the African languages of the region: for example bonsella, indaba, donga, impala, mamba from the Nguni languages, and tsetse, tsotsi, kgotla, marula from the Sotho languages.

Malay words such as atchar, bobotie, sosatie, kaparrang, and kramat came into SAE during the 19th century (via Afrikaans), originating in the community of slaves and political exiles at the Cape, who were sent from what are now Indonesia and Malaysia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

But borrowings are not the full story. Some very well-known words, such as tackie, tickey, rondavel, and bundu have mysterious origins. Some specifically SAE words are examples of words once current in British English, but now out of use there: geyser (a water-heater or boiler), robot (a traffic light), and, until the 1960s, bioscope (a cinema), are examples. Some English words mean something different in SAE: a bond is a mortgage, a dam refers to the stretch of water rather than to the wall, just now means ‘in a little while’, a packet is a plastic shopping bag, a café is a convenience store or corner shop, and (in the context of traffic) a circle is a roundabout. Non-lexical features of other South African languages have also made their way into SAE, as in two ways of indicating emphasis — by reduplication (from Afrikaans), as in now-now, soon-soon, and (from the African languages) by the use of falling pitch, from high to low, as in ‘fa-a–a-ar away’.


As a result of apartheid, there is no single, reasonably uniform SAE accent. With some exceptions, communities lived and were educated separately according to ethnic background, until the 1990s. There were thus many varieties–white English-speaking SAE, white Afrikaans-speaking SAE, black African SAE, Indian SAE, Coloured SAE. But things are changing: with urban children of all backgrounds now being educated together, ethnically determined differences in SAE are tending to break down.

The SAE of English-speakers is often confused with Australian or New Zealand English. There are some common characteristics: NZE and SAE both centralize the /I/ vowel, saying ‘pin’ as what sounds like ‘pun’ (while Australians tend towards ‘peen’). All three varieties pronounce other vowels further forward in the mouth than British speakers, so ‘penny’ sounds like ‘pinny’, ‘bad’ like ‘bed’, and ‘bed’ like ‘bid’. Unlike in British English, SAE consonants are pronounced crisply: glottal stops, as in ‘bu’er’ for ‘butter’, are not common.

Amongst English-speakers there is a range of pronunciation from educated ‘RP SAE’ to strongly accented SAE. Until about the 1970s, the British standard was viewed as the acme. But the variations in accent have come into their own with a growth in consciousness of, and pride in, South Africanism — local music, local products, local words, and local accents. The phrase ‘local is lekker’ (nice) sums this up.

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