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Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks English at home.
Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: density of English home-language speakers.

South African English (SAfrE, SAfrEng, SAE, en-ZA[1]) is the set of English dialects spoken by native South Africans. There is considerable social and regional variation within South African English. Like Australian English, three variants (termed "The Great Trichotomy" by Roger Lass)[2] are commonly identified within White South African English, spoken primarily by White South Africans: "Cultivated", closely approximating England's standard Received Pronunciation and associated with the upper class; "General", a social indicator of the middle class; and "Broad", associated with the working class, and closely approximating the second-language Afrikaner variety called Afrikaans English. At least two sociolinguistic variants have been definitively studied on a post-creole continuum for the second-language Black South African English spoken by most Black South Africans: a high-end, prestigious "acrolect" and a more middle-ranging, mainstream "mesolect". Other varieties of South African English include Cape Flats English, originally associated with inner-city Cape Coloured speakers, and the Indian South African English of Indian South Africans. Further offshoots include the first-language English varieties spoken by Zimbabweans, Zambians, Swazilanders and Namibians.[citation needed]



Like English in south-east England, such as London, South African English is non-rhotic (except for some Afrikaans-influenced speakers, see below) and features the trap–bath split.

The two main phonological indicators of South African English are the behaviour of the vowels in kit and bath. The kit vowel tends to be "split" so that there is a clear allophonic variation between the near-front [ɪ] and central [ɪ̈]. The bath vowel is characteristically open and back in the General and Broad varieties of SAE. The tendency to monophthongise both /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ to [ɑː] and [aː] respectively, are also typical features of General and Broad SAE.[citation needed]

Features involving consonants include the tendency for voiceless plosives to be unaspirated in stressed word-initial environments, [tj] tune and [dj] dune tend to be realised as [tʃ] and [dʒ] respectively (See Yod coalescence), and /h/ has a strong tendency to be voiced initially.


There are words that do not exist in British or American English, usually derived from languages of Africa such as Afrikaans or Zulu, although, particularly in Durban, there is also an influence from Indian languages and slang developed by subcultures, particularly surfers. Terms in common with North American English include mom (most British and Australian English: mum), freeway or highway (British English motorway), cellphone (British and Australian English: mobile), and buck meaning money (rand, in this case, not a dollar). These North American English terms may not be used by South Africans (particularly those of a British immigrant background, in Durban and Cape Town) who speak in a dialect very close to Received Pronunciation; they are more likely to use mum, money and traffic light (as opposed to the more common robot).

One of the most noticeable traits of South African English-speakers (with the exception of Durban Indians) is the strong tendency to use the Afrikaans ja [=yes] in any situation where other English-speakers would say yes, yeah or "Well, ...". The parallel is sometimes extended to the expression ja-nee [literally, "yes-no"; indicating a partial agreement or acknowledgement of a point] which becomes "Ja, no, ...". Such usage of ja is widely acceptable, although it is understood to be incorrect English and would not be used in strictly formal contexts, such as in court or in a job interview.

South Africans are also known for their irregular use of the word now. Particularly, "just now" pertains to a degree of certainty rather than to a certain point in time: "He is coming just now" roughly means "He is currently on his way" (and may arrive right away or in a few hours); to express "this very minute" a South African would say "right now". "Now now" is relatively more immediate, implying a delay of a few minutes to around half an hour. The word just also has a looser meaning than in British English when applied to location; expressions such as "just there", or "just around the corner" are not taken to imply a precise point.

Another expression, common especially among Afrikaans people, is to come with, as in "are they coming with?"[3] This is influenced by the Afrikaans phrase hulle kom saam, literally 'they come together', with saam being misinterpreted as with.[4] In Afrikaans, saamkom is a separable verb, similar to meekomen in Dutch and mitkommen in German, which is translated into English as 'to come along'.[5] "Come with?" is also encountered in areas of the Upper Midwest of the United States, which had a large number of Scandinavian, Dutch and German immigrants, who, when speaking English, translated equivalent phrases directly from their own languages.[6]

Some words peculiar to South African English include takkies, tackie or tekkie for sneakers (American) or trainers (British) (however, it would also be perfectly suitable for a South African to refer to the shoes as running shoes in a formal context), combi or kombi for a small van similar to a Volkswagen Kombi, bakkie for a pick-up truck, kiff for pleasurable, lekker for nice, donga for gully, robot for a traffic light, dagga for cannabis, braai for barbecue and jol for party. South Africans generally refer to the different codes of football, such as soccer and rugby, by those names.

There is some difference between South African English dialects: in Durban the local form is very strongly Received Pronunciation English-based, while its Eastern Cape counterpart has a strong Afrikaans influence. Although differences between the two are sizeable, there are many similarities.

Contributions to English worldwideEdit

Several South African words, usually from Afrikaans or other indigenous languages of the region, have entered world English: those relating to human activity include apartheid; commando and trek and those relating to indigenous flora and fauna include veld; vlei; spoor; aardvark; impala; mamba; boomslang; meerkat and wildebeest.

Recent films such as District 9 have also brought South African and Southern African English to a global audience, as have television personalities like Die Antwoord, Austin Stevens and Trevor Noah.

Large numbers of the British diaspora and other South African English speakers now live in Australia, Britain and Canada and may have influenced their host community's dialects to some degree. South African English and its slang also has a substantial presence in neighbouring countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. English accents vary considerably depending on region and local ethnic influences.


The South African National Census of 2011 found a total of 4,892,623 speakers of English as a first language,[7]:23 making up 9.6% of the national population.[7]:25 The provinces with significant English-speaking populations were the Western Cape (20.2% of the provincial population), Gauteng (13.3%) and KwaZulu-Natal (13.2%).[7]:25

English was spoken across all ethnic groups in South Africa. The breakdown of English-speakers according to the conventional racial classifications used by Statistics South Africa is described in the following table.

Population group English-speakers[7]:26 % of population group[7]:27 % of total English-speakers
Black African 1,167,913 2.9 23.9
Coloured 945,847 20.8 19.3
Indian or Asian 1,094,317 86.1 22.4
White 1,603,575 35.9 32.8
Other 80,971 29.5 1.7
Total 4,892,623 9.6 100.0

English Academy of Southern AfricaEdit

The English Academy of Southern Africa (EASA) has no official connection with the government and can only attempt to advise, educate, encourage, and discourage. It was founded in 1961 by Professor Gwen Knowles-Williams of the University of Pretoria in part to defend the role of English against pressure from supporters of Afrikaans. It encourages scholarship in issues surrounding English in Africa through regular conferences.

In July 2010, the English Academy of Southern Africa launched an online magazine, Teaching English Today, for academic discussion related to English and teaching English as a subject in schools.

Examples of South African accentsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ en-ZA is the language code for South African English, as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).
  2. ^ Lass (2002), p. 109.
  3. ^ Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Rajend Mesthrie, Mouton de Gruyter, 2008, page 475
  4. ^ A handbook of varieties of English: a multimedia reference tool. Morphology and syntax, Volume 2, Bernd Kortmann, Mouton de Gruyter, 2004, page 951
  5. ^ Pharos Tweetalige skoolwoordeboek/Pharos Bilingual school dictionary, Pharos Dictionaries, Pharos, 2014
  6. ^ What's with 'come with'?, Chicago Tribune, December 8, 2010
  7. ^ a b c d e Census 2011: Census in brief (PDF). Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012. ISBN 9780621413885. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 May 2015. 


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit