10 August 2012


Fortunately for me, English is the de facto language for business, tourism and government here in South Africa, but English is the native language of only 8% of the population.

When the new constitution was written after apartheid ended, it was deemed that there would be eleven official languages, and over 99% of the population is a native speaker of one of the eleven.

The most prevalent native language, spoken by about a quarter of the population, is Zulu.  Zulu is in the Nguni family of languages, which are spoken primarily in the Southeastern provinces along the Indian Ocean. While there are 4 Nguni languages spoken in South Africa, speakers of one of the languages can often understand the other languages in the same family; spellings and pronunciations may differ, but they are close enough to facilitate communication.  My favorite Nguni word is "eish" (say "eye" but end it with "sh") and it works kind of like "ugh" in English, but is much more satisfying to say.  Zulu is one of many southern African languages that utilize different clicks (15 of them) to properly pronounce certain consonants.  For those of you who groaned at learning the 3 genders in German, you'd prefer that to the 15 different genders found in Zulu.

The other large native language group is called Sotho-Tswana, and is spoken in the Northern provinces, including Gauteng, where I am.  Again, speakers of one of the languages can typically understand speakers of the other languages in the same family.

Afrikaans is the primary language found in the western half of the country, and also spoken widely among the white population in this area.  Native English speakers are found throughout the country, but are definitely concentrated here in Pretoria and in the other large cities of Cape Town and Durban.  To an untrained ear like mine, South African English speakers have an accent that is closer to British or Australian than American, but I'm not sure I can tell the difference between all three.

Afrikaans is a form of Dutch that has evolved since the Dutch colonization of the country; speakers of the two languages can usually figure out what is going on in the other language, but the two languages have diverged some on spelling and grammar.

Afrikaans words you probably are familiar with include:

Just as in Britain, there are quite a few words in South African language that would not be familiar to Americans; I have had to ask about quite a few of these:

Avo--avocado; I've never seen the whole word spelled out
Bakkie--a pickup truck
Braai--a cookout
Geyser--hot water heater (pronounced 'geezer')
Howzit?--All-purpose greeting, no "going" necessary
Just now--means soon, but not really right now; more like "in a little while"
Robot--traffic light
Shame--expression of mild sympathy, like "you poor thing"
Takkies--tennis shoes

The most amazing thing about the country having 11 languages is that they really do speak them all.  The only people I've met that speak just one language are Americans.  It seems that every South African speaks at least 2 languages, and many of the black population speaks at least 3 languages.  In the office, you're likely to hear all 3 languages used in one conversation, and on the radio, the DJs will switch back and forth between Afrikaans and English multiple times in one sentence.  I can't imagine there is another country on the planet that has such a facility with multiple languages across the whole population.