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Languages of South Africa

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Title: Languages of South Africa  
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Subject: South Africa, Culture of South Africa, Public holidays in South Africa, South African English, Languages of Swaziland
Collection: Languages of South Africa
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Languages of South Africa

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa

There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Fewer than two percent of South Africans speak a first language other than an official one.[1] Most South Africans can speak more than one language. Dutch and English were the first official languages of South Africa from 1910 to 1925. Afrikaans was added as a part of Dutch in 1925, although in practice, Afrikaans effectively replaced Dutch, which fell into disuse. When South Africa became a republic in 1961 the official relationship changed such that Afrikaans was considered to include Dutch,[2] and Dutch was dropped in 1984, so between 1984 and 1994, South Africa had two official languages: English and Afrikaans.[3]

Different government departments and official bodies use different terms to denote Northern Sotho.[4][5] In South Africa, Southern Ndebele is known simply as Ndebele, as most speakers of Northern Ndebele live in Zimbabwe.

Since taking power in the 1994 election, the ANC has promoted English as the main language of government, even if South Africans often take pride in using indigenous languages for any purpose. Afrikaans also features prominently in commerce together with English as the languages with the highest number of fluent speakers are Afrikaans and English.

In terms of linguistic classification, the official languages include two West Germanic languages (English and Afrikaans) and nine Bantu languages. Four of these are Nguni languages (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati and Ndebele) and three are Sotho–Tswana languages (Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho and Tswana). Tsonga is a Tswa–Ronga language.

South African Sign Language is understood across the country, though sometimes sign-language interpreters use manually coded language.


  • Language demographics 1
    • Other significant languages spoken in South Africa 1.1
  • Constitutional provisions 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Language demographics

Dominant languages in South Africa.
Proportion of the population that speaks an Nguni language as a first language.
Density of first-language speakers of Nguni languages.
Proportion of the population that speaks a Sotho–Tswana language as a first language.
Density of first-language speakers of Sotho–Tswana languages.
Proportion of the population that speaks a West Germanic language as a first language.
Density of first-language speakers of West Germanic languages.

The most common language spoken as a first language by South Africans is Zulu (23 percent), followed by Xhosa (16 percent), and Afrikaans (14 percent). English is the fourth most common first language in the country (9.6%), but is understood in most urban areas and is the dominant language in government and the media.[6]

The majority of South Africans speak a language from one of the two principal branches of the Bantu languages represented in South Africa: the Sotho–Tswana branch (Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tswana), or the Nguni branch (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele). For each of the two groups, the languages within that group are for the most part intelligible to a native speaker of any other language within that group.

As can be seen from the accompanying maps, the nine indigenous African languages of South Africa can be divided into two geographical zones, with Nguni languages being predominant in the south-eastern third of the country (Indian Ocean coast) and Sotho languages being predominant in the northern third of the country located further inland, as also in Botswana and Lesotho. Gauteng is the most linguistically heterogeneous province, with roughly equal numbers of Nguni, Sotho and Indo-European language speakers. This has resulted in the spread of an urban argot, Tsotsitaal, in large urban townships in the province.

Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, is the most widely spoken language in the western half of the country (Western and Northern Cape). It is spoken as first language by approximately 61 percent of whites and 76 percent of Coloured (multiracial) people in the country.[1] Afrikaans is also spoken widely across the centre and north of the country, as a second (or third or even fourth) language by Black South Africans living in farming areas.

The 2011 census recorded the following distribution of first language speakers:[1]

Language name Speakers as a 1st language
English Endonym Count Of population
Zulu isiZulu 11,587,374 22.7%
Xhosa isiXhosa 8,154,258 16.0%
Afrikaans Afrikaans 6,855,082 13.5%
English English 4,892,623 9.6%
Northern Sotho Sesotho sa Leboa 4,618,576 9.1%
Tswana Setswana 4,067,248 8.0%
Sotho Sesotho 3,849,563 7.6%
Tsonga Xitsonga 2,277,148 4.5%
Swazi siSwati 1,297,046 2.5%
Venda Tshivenḓa 1,209,388 2.4%
Ndebele isiNdebele 1,090,223 2.1%
Sign language 234,655 0.5%
Other languages 828,258 1.6%
Total 50,961,443 100.0%
Language 2011 2001 Change (pp)
Zulu 22.7% 23.8% -1.1
Xhosa 16.0% 17.6% -1.6
Afrikaans 13.5% 13.3% +0.2
English 9.6% 8.2% +1.4
Northern Sotho 9.1% 9.4% -0.3
Tswana 8.0% 8.2% -0.2
Sotho 7.6% 7.9% -0.3
Tsonga 4.5% 4.4% +0.1
Swazi 2.5% 2.7% -0.2
Venda 2.4% 2.3% +0.1
Ndebele 2.1% 1.6% +0.5
Sign language 0.5%
Other languages 1.6% 0.5% +1.1
Total 100.0% 100.0%

Other significant languages spoken in South Africa

Other languages spoken in South Africa, though not mentioned in the Constitution, include Fanagalo, Lobedu (Khilobedu), Northern Ndebele (Sindebele), Phuthi (Siphuthi). Lobedu has been variously claimed to be a dialect of Northern Sotho and an autonomous language. Fanagalo is a pidgin often used as a mining lingua franca.

Significant numbers of immigrants from Europe, elsewhere in Africa, and the Indian subcontinent means that a wide variety of other languages can also be found in parts of South Africa. In the older immigrant communities there are: Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Portuguese, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Yiddish, and smaller numbers of Dutch, French and German speakers.

These non-official languages may be used in limited semi-official use where it has been determined that these languages are prevalent. More importantly, these languages have significant local functions in specific communities whose identity is tightly bound around the linguistic and cultural identity that these non-official SA languages signal.

The fastest growing non-official language is Portuguese – first spoken by white, black, and mulatto settlers and refugees from Angola and Mozambique after they won independence from Portugal and now by more recent immigrants from those countries again – and increasingly French, spoken by immigrants and refugees from Francophone Central Africa.

More recently, speakers of North, Central and West African languages have arrived in South Africa, mostly in the major cities, especially in Johannesburg and Pretoria, but also Cape Town and Durban.

Constitutional provisions

Chapter 1 (Founding Provisions), Section 6 (Languages) of the Constitution of South Africa is the basis for government language policy.

The English text of the constitution signed by president Nelson Mandela on 16 December 1996 interestingly uses (mostly) the names of the languages expressed in those languages themselves. Sesotho refers to Southern Sotho, and isiNdebele refers to Southern Ndebele. Controversy surrounds the designation of Northern Sesotho as Sepedi (its main dialect) instead of the comprehensive Sesotho sa Leboa (which had been the wording in the Interim Constitution of 1993).[7] The spelling of Venda is also incorrectly rendered as Tshivenda instead of the correct Tshivenḓa.

The constitution mentions "sign language" in the generic sense rather than, as is widely believed, South African Sign Language specifically.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Census 2011: Census in brief (PDF). Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012. pp. 23–25.  
  2. ^ The Official Languages of the Union Act, 1925 says Dutch includes Afrikaans; Article 119 of the constitution of 1961 says Afrikaans includes Dutch
  3. ^ "Documents - Constitution - Republic of South Africa Constitution Act 110 of 1983". 2004-10-15. Retrieved 2014-01-10. 
  4. ^ Newsletter 2006: Sesotho sa Leboa or Sepedi. 14 November 2006. Retrieved 6 September 2011
  5. ^ "Latest News | Department Of Arts and Culture" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-01-10. 
  6. ^ The Economist, "Tongues under threat", 22 January 2011, p. 58.
  7. ^ "Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 200 of 1993". Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  8. ^ "Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 - Chapter 1: Founding Provisions". Retrieved 6 December 2014. 

External links

  • Introduction to the languages of South Africa
  • Ethnologue Listing of South African Languages
  • PanAfriL10n page on South Africa
  • Statistics SA
  • Hornberger, Nancy H. "Language Policy, Language Education, Language Rights: Indigenous, Immigrant, and International Perspectives." Language in Society, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 1998), pp. 439–458
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