An Overview of the Historical and Sociolinguistic Aspects of South African English, a guest post by Orianna Alter

Orianna Alter, a junior at Southern Oregon University, is interested in languages and mathematics. She is of South African descent.

South Africa, termed the “Rainbow Nation,” boasts a rich variety of climate zones, cultures, and ethnicities. Further diversity is reflected in the eleven official languages of this country, which include “Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu” (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996). This paper focuses on one of the more widely used languages, English, and will explore both its historical development and subsequent impact in South African society. It will also review some of the linguistic features unique to South African English.[1]


In order to understand English in South Africa, it is necessary to understand the history of its development in the country. English was first introduced to South Africa in 1795 with the arrival of the British in the Cape Colony. Later, as additional groups of British and European settlers immigrated to the country, the language became more established, and in the year 1910 English and Dutch were both designated as official languages (Van Rooy 509-510).  Legacies of Colonial English describes South African English as an “extraterritorial language,” defining this term as a language “that has been transported from its original geographical home to another area” (363). Although both Afrikaans (from Dutch) and English can be defined as extraterritorial languages, it is interesting to note the differences in growth the languages have taken, especially in the years after apartheid South Africa. While the use of Afrikaans has dwindled in public sectors, English has grown considerably in influence.  In the paper “South African English: Oppressor or Liberator?” Silva explains this change:

Afrikaans became known as “the language of the oppressor”: apartheid was enforced in Afrikaans, as it was the language of the bureaucracy and the police force. In contrast, English was chosen as language of communication by the ANC and the other liberation organizations during the ‘freedom struggle’, and has “typically been seen as the language of liberation and black unity” (para. 19).

The ANC mentioned in the above quote refers to the African National Congress, a political movement first founded in 1912 to protect the freedoms of Black Africans. The ANC party first came into power when Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994 and has retained this position since that time (“A Brief History of the African National Congress”). The ANC’s decision to use English as their language of communication has played a vital role in the way English is perceived in South Africa. In the article “English in South Africa at the millennium: challenges and prospects,” English and linguistics professor Nkonko Kamwangamalu explains the subsequent use of English in South African society:

English has a special status in South Africa. This is evident from the language practices in the higher domains such as the media, the legislature, education, the army, and correctional services…The hegemony of English is also evident from the language practices for political events, such as the inauguration in 1994 of Nelson Mandela…the annual openings of Parliament…and various official announcements or press releases (161).

The widespread use of English in government and other public sectors has contributed to the popularity of the language, and has influenced the rise of the language as the lingua franca. Another motivating factor for adopting English as a common medium is chiefly economic, as The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes explains: “English also increased in its value as the African population urbanized and became part of the industrial economy which was dominated heavily by the English language (De Klerk 2006:11), leaving behind the agricultural economy that was dominated by Afrikaans” (513).  In today’s society, South Africans who are not fluent in English will not enjoy the same access to jobs and economic growth as other English speakers (Van Rooy 514). In addition, English is recognized as “the dominant language of academia in South Africa” (Report on African Languages 23). As a result, students who wish to pursue higher education must have a command of the English language to succeed in their studies. Therefore, although South Africa boasts a variety of official languages, the reality is that English has become a necessity for many Africans if they wish to understand the affairs of government, participate in society, attend university, and have access to better jobs and business opportunities.


As to be expected with a language in constant contact with other languages, many terms in South African English have been borrowed from Afrikaans and other African languages, and these words and phrases have become incorporated into mainstream speech. The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes notes that in earlier years, most borrowings came from Afrikaans, but later, once apartheid fell, there was an increase in borrowings from African languages (as qtd in Van Rooy 517). Legacies of Colonial English lists some of the borrowed Afrikaans terms including: “bakkie ‘pickup truck’…braai ‘barbecue’…stoep ‘verandah’…ja ‘yes’…sies ‘expression of disgust’” (382). Other words incorporated from Khoe and Bantu include “dagga /dɐxɐ/ ‘cannabis’…gogga / xoxɐ/ ‘bug, creepy-crawly’…muti ‘herbal medicine’” (382).

In addition to the rich variety of borrowed words and phrases, South African English also boasts a range of accents and pronunciations, all which differ depending on native language and regional dialects. Silva explains: “In SAE, pronunciation and intonation (and often vocabulary, and sometimes even grammar) differ markedly from one ethnic community to another (largely a result of the Group Areas act during the apartheid era, which separated communities into different residential areas, and segregated school-children into ethnically-based schools)” (para 16).  It is difficult to point to a standard South African Accent, as so many varieties exist, and research must compare White South African English (WSAE), Black South African English (BSAE), and other varieties including Coloured SAE and Indian SAE. In addition, these broad categories may contain subcategories to explore, along with changes that occur regionally and among genders, age groups, and socioeconomic classes.[2]   

Legacies of Colonial English identifies a “South African chain shift” in which the “short front vowels” such as in the words “trap” and “dress” have been raised and the vowel in the word “kit” is assigned a new value so that it no longer rhymes with “it” (374-375). Interestingly, further research has shown that the pronunciation of the vowel in “trap” may be undergoing a reverse shift in the opposite direction, a trend led by young females (Van Rooy 519).[3]

An additional feature of South African English that sets it apart from other English varieties is the use of “now”. Van Rooy explains: “The adverb now is used to indicate near future rather than immediacy in White SAfE (Bowerman 2004b), and even occurs in the reduplicated form now-now, where the immediacy is watered down further” (524). Lass concludes that the repeated now-now form has been modeled after similarities in the Afrikaans language (380). Another unique feature modeled after Afrikaans is the use of “must.” Whereas in other varieties of English, “must” is often used to denote some form of obligation, in South African English it has lost the feeling of command and has become more like a recommendation (Lass 381).


Although English has gained dominance in South Africa, there exists controversy over its use due to the wide range of ethnic and language backgrounds in the country. Some anticipate that the spread of English will endanger other less prominent languages and identities, including Afrikaans (Kamwangamalu 162). The History of the English Language reviews two of the most prevalent attitudes towards the spread of English in Africa, explaining one view it states: “The first advocates a change of balance between English and African languages in favor of the latter, a policy shift that would move African languages from the margins to the center of African life” (429). This view favors the rise of African languages to preserve the cultural and ethnic customs and identities of Africans in an attempt to prevent English from taking over valued cultural and language differences. However, others feel that English can be in effect “Africanized” and made to conform to the culture and society of the people that use it, as the following excerpt illustrates: “The second school of thought is the one that seeks to come to terms with English as part of the post-colonial African reality, appropriate it, reconfigure it materially to acquire an African identity and transform it to create a counter-(i.e., anti-imperialist) discourse” (Mazrui 429). This viewpoint seems to be more suitable for South African society, as creating equal language opportunities in a variety of public sectors, for example universities, requires more money and resources (Silva, para 24).

As changes in government and policy continue to unfold in South Africa, it will be interesting to see the implications for future English development. Since apartheid fell, the African National Congress has taken control politically. However, with the rise of new political parties, there may be shifts in attitude that affect the use of English in government and other areas, and we may see a rise in popularity of African languages. Moreover, as more racial integration takes place, South African English will surely continue to evolve, reflecting the increasing diversity of the country.


“A Brief History of the African National Congress.” African National Congress South Africa’s
National Liberation Movement, Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.

Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Chapter 1 Founding Provisions. Accessed 16 March 2018

Kamwangamalu, Nkonko M. “English in South Africa at the millennium: challenges and prospects.” World Englishes, vol. 21, no. 1, 2002, pp. 161-63, Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.

Lass, Roger. “South African English.” Legacies of colonial English: studies in transported dialects. Edited by Raymond Hickey, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 363-384.

Mazrui, Alamin M. “English in Africa.”The History of the English Language. Edited by Haruko Momma and Michael Matto, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, pp 423-430.

“Report on the Use of African Languages as Mediums of Instruction in Higher Education.” Published by the Department of Higher Education and Training, pp 23. Accessed 16 Mar. 2018

Silva, Penny. “South African English: Oppressor or Liberator?” The major varieties of English: papers from MAVEN 97, Växjö 20-22 November 1997.  Accessed 18 Feb. 2018

Van Rooy, Bertus. “English in South Africa.” The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes. Edited by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola, Devyani Sharma, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp.508-526.

  1. Abbreviated as SAE

  2. Observed from examining research in The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes

  3. See chart on page 7

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
This entry was posted in Ideas and Opinions, Language. Bookmark the permalink.