South African English (SAE)

South African English is probably the most complicated variant of English anywhere because it has always existed in a complex multilingual and multi-cultural environment. English is one of eleven official languages in South Africa, and mother-tongue English-speakers number 4.8 million in a population of 61.5 million people. So the position of SAE is markedly different from that in multi-lingual but predominantly English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA. There is the potential for influence by many more languages than in other English-speaking communities, and these languages have widely divergent origins and structures.

English was brought to South Africa in 1820 by the British settlers, but the Dutch had already settled in SA in 1652. Kitchen Dutch becam Cape Dutch and then Afrikaans. Afrikaans is an African language in the sense that it is only spoken in South Africa and some surrounding countries. It was also forced upon people during apartheid, so English has historically been far more neutrally viewed (except by the Afrikaners some decades ago), and in latter times it has been seen as a key to professional success. Most people in South Africa speak at least some English.

South African English uses British grammar and spelling, but there is a strong influence from other languages when it comes to vocabulary. For example have words like dorp (town), veld (bush), veldskoen (a type of shoe), braai (bbq), bakkie (truck) from Afrikaans, and also indaba (discussion), boma (enclosure), lobola (dowry)from Xhosa.

The accent is a bit of a puzzle – it is not like any European accent, but very similar to that of both Australia and New Zealand. I wonder how all three southern hemisphere countries, so far away from each other, have developed similar accents? For me, I can always tell a New Zealander because their accent is the most like the South African one. And for actors, it is the Waterloo of accents. No one gets it right. Leonardo di Caprio in Blood Diamond and Matt Damon in Invictus do all right, but they still had a way to go.

South Africans usually speak several languages. I have English as a mother tongue, fluent Afrikaans (a bit rusty now), and speak some Xhosa. So if you cannot make yourself understood in one language, you try another, or speak a combination of both. Television programmes in South Africa often consist of people speaking several languages. People are also pretty relaxed about mixing and matching languages in a way that countries with one language are not.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

3 thoughts

  1. I love the sound of the South African accent, as a general rule! Some of our recent neighbours were from there, but now relocated to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which sounds jolly scary to me but they take that and everything else in their stride and seem totally fearless.

      1. If it is any consolation I’ve taken to hating my original Liverpool accent, likewise it grates when I hear it now. You might still notice mine slightly with some words, but it is very much diluted these days compared to what it used to be like!

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