Monday, March 12, 2012

South Africa's 11 Official Languages

Though South Africa is far from Bolivia's record of having the most number of official languages (that's 30 official languages for Bolivia), South Africa is probably in the top five. The country has 11 official languages recognized by its Constitution. Why is this so? Most likely for the simple reason that South Africa is a very diverse country in terms of its people and culture.

South Africa sits at the southernmost tip of the African continent. It is bordered by the Indian and Atlantic oceans as well as by the countries Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. South Africa, which is formally referred to as the Republic of South Africa, is populated by multiple ethnicities with diverse languages and cultures. Almost 80% of the country is made up of black Africans. The country also has large European and Asian (mostly Indian) communities. Due to the long history of the country, there are communities of racially mixed ancestry that call South Africa their home. Of the 11 official languages, two have been traced back to European languages.


Afrikaans, previously known as Cape Dutch, originated from Dutch dialects of the 17th century making it one of the two official languages with a European origin. In its linguistic evolution, Afrikaans has adopted several words from Bantu languages (spoken in areas of east, central and southern Africa), Khoisan languages (spoken by southern African ethnic groups) and from Malay and Portuguese. But the bulk of Afrikaans is 90% to 95% Dutch in origin.

Native Afrikaans speakers comprise 13.35% of the population (almost 6 million people) based on the 2001 census. This makes it the 3rd most used mother tongue in South Africa. With its wide racial and geographical distribution, this West Germanic language is widely understood and spoken by members of the population who speak a different mother tongue. Apart from South Africa, Afrikaans is also spoken in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana.


After the Dutch, the British ruled South Africa. The Cape was seized in 1795, thwarting the advances of the French. In 1803, the Dutch once more gained control of South Africa. But by 1806, the British were back once again. The British brought with them their language, English, the second language from Europe.

English, also a West Germanic language, is the language of business, commerce and government. It is a subject taught in all schools and used as a medium of instruction in a number of educational institutions. But even so, in a 2001 census, only a mere 8.2% (3.67 million) of the South African population speak English.

Just like in other countries that have adopted English as part of their language pool, South African English has words and phrases that cannot be found in British English or American English. These South African English words came from other languages and dialects of Africa like Afrikaans. South African English also has words coming from Indian languages.


The Ndebele language is classified under the Bantu languages, specifically with the Nguni group. There are several variants of the Ndebele language. The South African Ndebele or IsiNdebele, which is spoken by the amaNdebele (South African Ndebele people), is considered closer to the Zulu language. A tonal language, Ndebele speakers in South Africa constitute only about 1.6% of the whole population based the 2001 census. Ndebele is heard in the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the Northwest region.

Northern Sotho

There are several names by which Northern Sotho goes by. Northern Sotho is the English name; Sesotho sa Leboa is the name of the language among its indigenous speakers. Northern Sotho also goes by the names Pedi and sePedi. As of the 2006 census, there were 4.1 million Northern Sotho speakers in South Africa. This figure is not far from the 2001 census. In fact, the number of speakers of this language is higher back in 2001 with 4.2 million people, representing 9.39% of the South African population back then. Northern Sotho is spoken in the Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng provinces. It is the 4th most common South African language.

Southern Sotho

Southern Sotho is sometimes referred to as Sesotho, Southern Sesotho, Suto, Souto, Suthu, Souto or Sotho language. It is the most spoken language in the Free State, which is located right at the border of Lesotho. Southern Sotho is also spoken in the province of Gauteng and in the North West. In the Kingdom of Lesotho, Sesotho is one of its official languages together with English. The 2001 census in South Africa puts the number of speakers of Southern Sotho to 7.93% of the total population, which is roughly 3.5 million. It is also the 2nd or 3rd language of part of the population in Johannesburg as well as Soweto and Tshwane.


Also known as Swati, sisSwati or isiSwazi, Swazi is one of the Bantu languages spoken in South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique. According to the 2001 census, approximately 1.19 million people (2.7% of the population) in South Africa speak the language. Most Swati speakers are found in the area of eastern Mpumalanga at the border of Swaziland. Other speakers are in Gauteng province. In the Kingdom of Swaziland, Swazi and English are the official languages. Swazi is related to other Bantu Nguni languages like Northern Ndebele, Xhosa and Zulu, which are official languages in South Africa.


The other name for Tsawana is Setswana. Spoken by 8.2% (3.67 million) of the South African population as stated in the census of 2001, this language is a Bantu language that serves as one of the two official languages of Botswana (English is the other). Tswana speakers are also found in Namibia and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, most Tswana speakers are in the North West, which borders Botswana. It is also spoken in the following areas: Northern Cape, Gauteng and Free State. A number of Shakespeare's works have been translated into Tsawana.


The number of Xitsonga or Tsonga speakers in South Africa according to the census of 2001 is about 1.9 million or 4.44% of the population.  Many of the Tsonga speakers can be found in the area of the Limpopo River Valley. Gauteng and Mpumalanga are the other provinces where you can find Tsonga speakers. Tsonga, at one time or another has been referred to as Tonga, Thonga, Shitsonga, Shangaan and Shagana. Outside South Africa, it is spoken in some areas of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.


Tshivenda, Chivenda and Luvenda are the other names for this Bantu language. The Venda people speak it. The number of native speakers counts for a minority compared to speakers of the other official languages. The 2001 census shows that roughly 1 million South Africans, representing 2.3 % of the total population, speak the language. Most of these Venda speakers are in the Limpopo province while others lived in Gauteng. Venda speakers are also present in Zimbabwe.


Both spoken in South Africa and Lesotho, in 2001, the number of Xhosa speakers in South Africa registered at 7.9 million (17.64% of the population). A 3rd of its native speakers are in the Eastern Cape. Others are in the Western Cape, Free State, North West and the province of Gaunteng. Xhosa, a Bantu language, uses the Latin alphabet in its written form. It is similar to Zulu. Alternate names for Xhosa are Xosa and Koosa.


The 2001 census states that 23.8% of the total population of South Africa speaks Zulu or Zunda. That translates to roughly 10.67 million inhabitants. Among all the languages spoken in South Africa, Zulu is the most common. This is because the largest ethnic group in the country is the Zulu people. The Zulu nation rose into renown back in the earlier part of the 19th century. In Zulu, the language is referred to as isiZulu. This language is widely understood within South Africa and spoken in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is present in all the provinces of South Africa in varying degrees of usage. In 2005, more than 50% of the population understood Zulu language.

Going by the 2001 census, the most widely spoken language among the 11 official languages of South Africa is Zulu, followed by Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Unofficial languages

Below are several unofficial languages recognized by the South African nation. These are used officially, although in a limited capacity, in places where these unofficial languages are somewhat widespread.

Northern Ndebele
South African Sign Language

European languages

Because of the population of white South Africans, there are several European languages being spoken in the country. These are:

Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Telugu and Gujarati
Other South Asian languages

The number of official and unofficial languages (and dialects) spoken in South Africa attests to its rich culture. Different communities make up the nation of South Africa, making it a fertile melting pot of ethnic groups. Hopefully, as the population of the country grows, so does the number of people who can speak more than two of the official languages. Globalization, as it creeps into South Africa and the other African nations, can have a negative effect on the different native African tongues. The African people should protect their culture and languages, preserving them for future generations to come.


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