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A guide to the 11 official languages of South Africa

SAWUBONA! MOLO! DUMELA! HELLO!

here are many different words used to say hello and to welcome visitors to the country as South Africa is home to 11 official languages! Afrikaans, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu and English are the languages recognised by the country and its people, and these aren’t the only languages spoken in the country! As you wander the streets of South Africa, you may even hear words uttered in IsiCamtho, Lobedu and Phuthi in some parts of South Africa. This collection of languages is one of the many reasons why South Africa is considered one of the most diverse countries in the world. When the new constitution of South Africa came into effect on 4 February 1997, the constitution recognised these 11 languages as the official languages of the country and granted each language equal status. Fortunately, you won’t need a phrase book, as English is widely used and understood!

If you’re coming to South Africa on your next adventure, before you board the plane, get to know the languages of our beautiful country and use our guide to the 11 official languages to learn a phrase or two so that you can greet the friendly faces of our country!

Afrikaans

Afrikaans is a West Germanic language and the third most spoken language of South Africa. The language is spoken by over six million people, and smaller groups of people in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Between 1984 and 1994, Afrikaans was one of South Africa’s two official languages, the second being English. While Afrikaans has adopted words from other languages, including German and Khoisan, it evolved from the Dutch vernacular spoken by the Dutch who established a colony in Cape Town in 1652. The word ‘Afrikaans’ is derived from the Dutch word ‘Afrikaans-Hollands’ which means ‘African Dutch”. The language was once known as ‘Cape Dutch’, as well as ‘kitchen language’ (‘kombuistaal’ in Afrikaans) – a derogatory term used by the Dutch colonisers to describe the broken Dutch spoken by Khoisan, Malay, West African and Madagascan people. Today, Afrikaans is spoken by a diverse group of South Africans and is the most widely spoken language geographically.

Ndebele

Ndebele, also known as Southern Ndebele, is the least spoken of South Africa’s official languages. It is only spoken by just over 2% of South Africans, or a million people. The Ndebele people are known for their brightly coloured homesteads and beautiful beadwork, and it is the Ndebele women who are responsible for creating these striking designs, crafts and patterns. The skill of creating these eye-catching geometric designs is passed down from in families from one generation females to the next generation of females. The Ndebele language is not taught in schools, and this is one of the reasons why the population of Ndebele people has fallen in South Africa. It has also not always been considered an important language, and during Apartheid, the Zulu and Ndebele communities were kept separate because of their differences.

Northern Sotho

Northern Sotho, or Sesotho sa Leboa, is one of the Sotho languages spoken in Southern Africa. The language is closely related to Southern Sotho, one of South Africa’s official languages and a national language of Lesotho. There are over four million Northern Sotho native speakers in South Africa, and nine million people are second language speakers. The language is primarily spoken in the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. While the language is known by many as Sepedi or Pedi, there have been debates over the identity of whether the language can be given the label of Sepedi or not. Some believe that Northern Sotho is a dialect based on Sepedi. However, the Constitution of South Africa has labelled Northern Sotho as Sepedi.

Sotho

Sotho, also known as Sesotho or Southern Sotho, is one of South Africa’s official languages, and one of the national languages of Lesotho. The language, spoken mostly in the Free State, is the mother tongue of 3.8 million South Africans. Described as a poetic African language, Sotho is known for its descriptive expressions, proverbs and riddles. Sotho riddles or dilotho present the listener with a question, and he or she must provide an answer for the question, for example “Monna e molelele e mosweu (a tall white man)? Tsela sa baeti (a road for travellers). Sotho was one of the first African languages to ever be written down, and as a result, a wealth of Sotho literature can be found in the country.

Siswati

siSwati is an indigenous language spoken by the Swazi people of South Africa, and it is the national language of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), a neighbouring country of South Africa. The language is also known as Swazi or Swati. Siswati sounds similar to the languages of Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele, the reason being that all these languages are all Nguni languages, and therefore share some of the same characteristics. Unlike some of the minority languages of South Africa, siSwati is taught in schools in Swaziland and some schools in Mpumalanga, helping to preserve the language, and consequently the culture and history of the Swazi people.

Tsonga

Tsonga, or Xitsonga, is one of the nine indigenous languages of South Africa. Spoken by over 2 million people in the country, it is the language of the Tsonga people of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Tsonga is spoken all over Southern Africa, and you can expect to hear the language spoken in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Like some of the other indigenous languages of South Africa, Tsonga does not use the English alphabet. Instead, the language uses the Latin alphabet. If you’re planning to learn one of South Africa’s official languages, Tsonga may prove to be the most difficult of the languages to learn because of this!

Tswana

Tswana is one of South Africa’s official languages, and a native language of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. It is spoken by 4 million people in South Africa, and most Tswana speakers can be found in the provinces of Gauteng, the Northern Cape and North West. Like many of South Africa’s indigenous languages, Tswana is closely related to Southern and Northern Sotho. Sol Plaatje, a South African journalist and founding member of the South African Native National Congress (which later became the African National Congress), is regarded as one of the language’s most famous figures, one of the reasons being that he translated several of Shakespeare’s plays into Tswana.

Venda

Venda, also known as Luvenda or Tshivenda, is a language spoken by the Venda people of Limpopo. The language is related to Kalanga, a language spoken in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and Niger–Congo languages. Venda is spoken by only 2.2% of South Africa’s population, making it the second smallest minority language in the country. It is the language of the Venda people of Central Africa who crossed the Limpopo River and found a new home in the Soutpansberg Mountains. Like the Ndebele women, women from the Venda tribe learn how to create crafts and clay utensils, while the men are taught the art of making wooden utensils.

Xhosa

Spoken by 8.3 million people as a first language in South Africa, Xhosa is the second most spoken language of South Africa. The language can be heard in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape and Free State, but the Eastern Cape is home to the majority of Xhosa speakers. It is also an official language of Zimbabwe. If you listen to the language being spoken, you may notice that click sounds are made as the language is spoken. This is because Xhosa is a tonal language – a language where the same sequence of vowels and consonants can have different meanings based on intonation (low and high tones). Xhosa also has 18 different click sounds made with the tongue. A beautiful example of these click sounds can be found in South African singer Miriam Makeba’s ‘The Click Song’ (‘Qongqothwane’ in Xhosa), a traditional Xhosa song sung when a young girl gets married. It is also one of the five official languages that feature in South Africa’s national anthem. The first two stanzas of the anthem come from Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a Xhosa hymn composed by Enoch Sontonga, a teacher and choirmaster from the Eastern Cape.

Zulu

Zulu, or isiZulu, is one of South Africa’s official languages and the language of the Zulu people of South Africa. It is the most widely spoken home language of the country, with 12 million native speakers living in KwaZulu-Natal – known as the place of the Zulu people or the Zulu Kingdom – and Mpumalanga and Gauteng. The ethnic group’s most famous figure is Shaka Zulu, a famous Zulu king who is hailed as the founder of the Zulu Kingdom. Zulu and Xhosa are mutually intelligible, but the Xhosa and Zulu people consider themselves to be two different groups due to their political and cultural differences. The language has influenced South African English, and words like indaba (conference), muti (medicine), and Ubuntu (humanity) have been adopted and used by South Africans of all language groups. The language is understood by 50% of South Africans, and if you’re a tourist on holiday in South Africa, Zulu is one of the best languages to learn, as it is easy to understand, and it spoken in cities and villages across the country.

English

English was one of the first official languages of South Africa. Before the constitutional court deemed all 11 official languages to be equal, English and Dutch were considered the country’s official languages from 1910 to 1925. English is spoken as a second language by most South Africans, and is used as the medium of instruction in most schools and universities, and it can be heard on the street, in the shops and in the offices of South Africa. South African English has developed since colonialism and today, the set of English dialects boasts several varieties of English. South African English is known for its quirky blend of other South African languages, and words like braai, boet, donga, eish, fundi and gogga have been borrowed from some of the country’s many languages.

2 Responses
  1. Geroda

    Hi.
    I don’t know much about the history of the other official language but there does seem to be a contradiction in the section on Afrikaans.

    At first you say that it was developed out of a Dutch venacular spoken by the Dutch settlers. Then you say it was first spoken by the various slaves and seen as a ‘kombuistaal’.The language was primarily formed by slaves and servants who came from diverse parts of the world and needed a way to communicate with one another.
    From my knowledge the language was seen as common and below the ranking of wealthier individuals within the Dutch society of the time. So the earlier Dutch settlers would not have spoke Cape Dutch because it was seen as a language spoken by the lower classes. The language was then later adopted (taken), for various reasons, and standerdized by the Afrikaners.

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