The Languages of South Africa

The languages of South Africa depict the history and cultural diversity of not just one nation but of the continent itself. The variety of different yet often related languages used by the different tribes speaks to the diversity of human cultural development over time. Later on in its history, South Africa became a colonial frontier for the then-powerful Dutch colonizers. Settlers, missionaries, traders and the like brought their own influences to that region. They not only brought their own language but also helped to document the oral languages of the South African region.

Multi-lingual nation
The native languages of South Africa belong to the Bantu branch of Africa’s Niger-Congo phylum of languages. South Africa officially recognizes 11 official languages and an additional 9 “national” languages. Of the 11 official languages, 9 are Bantu and 2 are Indo-European – Afrikaans and English. Although a lot of the Bantu languages are related, not all are mutually distinguishable.

IsiZulu and isiXhosa
The two most commonly-spoken and widespread languages in South Africa are Zulu (or isiZulu, isi- being a prefix meaning “language” in the native tongue) and Xhosa (or isiXhosa). Both languages are part of the Nguni branch of Bantu languages and are more commonly spoken in the south-eastern provinces of South Africa. Of the two, isiZulu is the more popular language, spoken by at least 24% of South Africans. IsiXhosa is more commonly spoken in the eastern coastal regions. Native isiZulu and isiXhosa speakers will mostly understand each other and the other Nguni languages. They’ve also borrowed from Afrikaans and English in modern times.

Afrikaans is a language that developed from a South Hollandic dialect. It traces its historical roots to the Dutch Protestant settlers of South Africa. It is the prevalent language in the western third of South Africa and the neighboring regions of Namibia. Native Afrikaans and Dutch speakers should be able to understand each other. It is also very similar to a few Germanic dialects and languages.

Northern Sotho
The fourth most prevalent language in South Africa is Northern Sotho. It is also known as Sepedi. Not to be confused with Sotho, though the two are related languages belonging to the Sotho-Tswana branch of Bantu. Native speakers are mostly found in the more inland northern provinces of South Africa. Similar to the Nguni languages, Sotho-Tswana speakers will usually understand each other.

Don’t get lost in translation
Because of the diversity of languages within South Africa – whether official or non-official – the government has mandated that all languages be treated equally and used appropriately depending on circumstances. Effective communication in a multi-lingual nation will require resources for translation between languages, both related and unrelated. It will also require resources that will allow people to learn and be familiar with their other non-native official languages. Online resources for translation and learning of South African official languages are set to prove an immensely useful tool for effective communication.