Do They Speak English in South Africa?

The short answer to the question, Do they speak English in South Africa, is yes. Check. You can breathe easier now – one of the things not to be afraid of when moving to South Africa as opposed to, I don’t know, Uzbekistan.

But the long answer makes for some interesting insights.

For instance, did you know that English, though the language most widely used and understood in South Africa, is the mother tongue for only 8% of South Africa’s population? And that Zulu tops that list with 24%, and that altogether there are 11 official languages recognized by the South African government? (Which comes in handy if, say, your driver’s license is issued in Tsonga, meaning you won’t have to get another one when moving to South Africa.)

All of this, and more, I’ve explained in one of the very first Joburg Expat blog posts in May 2010, The Language(s).

South African languages


Zulu is a wonderfully poetic language, but a complicated one. The grammar isn’t intuitive, but some words are. Often, you just use the prefix “i” or “isi” followed by the sound a thing makes, and voila, you have yourself a word, like isithuthuthu (motorcycle). Xhosa, a close relative to Zulu, uses many of the same words but with a good helping of three distinct click sounds that seem impossible to emulate by a non-native. See Zulu Potty Talk for more on both Zulu and Xhosa, including a lesson on how to click your tongue the right way.

But back to English. You can’t just assume that English is English and that’s that. Don’t be fooled. There is a lot  you need to learn when stepping onto South African shores, if you want to catch on to what’s being talked about. It’s not only that the accent is different – a lovely accent, make no mistake – but that there are a ton of words you’ll have never heard of, from Babbalas to Yebo and at least another 43 South Africanisms. You will have to learn that We Will Give You a Tinkle probably doesn’t mean what you think, that Being Pissed can be totally misconstrued, and that a Ballbox is literally a box that holds a guy’s balls.

South African languages

About that accent: The most to the point description of South African English can be found in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux, a keen observer of people and African travel writer par excellence.

“After a few days I became attuned to the accent, which in its twanging and swallowed way seemed both assertive and friendly. Johannesburg was “Janiceburg”, busy was “buzzy,” congested “congisted,” West ‘Waist,’ and said ‘sid’. There was no shortage of glottal stops, and a distinct Scottishness crept into some expressions; for example, a military buildup was a “mulatree buldup” Nearly everyone had a tendency to use Afrikaans words in ordinary speech, such as dorp, bakkie, takkies, naartjes, and dagga. These words had percolated throughout Central Africa long ago, and I knew from having lived in Malawi that they meant town, pickup truck, sneakers, tangerines, and marijuana. If there was a pronunciation problem, it was that for dagga or Gauteng you needed to use the soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g of Hollanders.”

We love FaceTiming our South African friends every once in a while, just to hear precisely that lovely twang again. During school assemblies, the headmaster used to speak about the “yurr,” and it took me the longest time to figure out that it meant “year.” He’d also talk about “shedules” and “diarizing” things on our calendars.

Oh, and about that “soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g.” Bill Bryson, in one of his books, used a less kind description of that sound, but I can’t recall now exactly where. It is the same “ch” sound that you associate with a movie about evil Nazis, in which, say, a regiment is called to attention with a bellowed Achtung! by a sadistic Obersturmbannführer.

It has always struck me as funny how South Africans insist on applying that sound to any stray G that comes across their path, whether it’s of Afrikaans origin or not. For some months, it seemed like I couldn’t drive anywhere without having to listen to a particular Volkswagen advertisement on the radio that ran around the clock, and each time the “g” in Volkswagen was pronounced the Dutch way. Volkswagen is German, you people, and as a German I like my g’s plain and simple, thank you very much! is what I always wanted to yell at the radio on those occasions.

But if you live in South Africa, you’ll have to get a hang for that G sooner or later, particularly when living in Johannesburg, nestled in the province of Gauteng. If you want to practice it, try saying the year 1999 in Afrikaans: Negentienhonderd nege en negentig – every one of those “g’s” a guttural one. You can read more on Afrikaans in An Ode to Lekker and Kak.

To end on a beautiful note, here you can hear five of South Africa’s official languages by listening to its National Anthem.

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