A Brief Overview of Language in South Africa for the Perpetually Confused (i.e., Us)

By Anisha Suterwala

Language, namely who speaks what language and where, in South Africa, has been a source of perpetual confusion to us on the trip. Deciphering who speaks what language, and where, has been the subject of numerous conversations, and I’m attempting here to relay both our queries and concerns and the actual language distribution in South Africa. We tend, perhaps not entirely wrongly but rather uncomfortably, to see imperialism everywhere here, and this colors our conjectures especially with regards to the distribution of language speakers across South Africa.

Here is our grossly oversimplified, mostly racially based understanding of language distribution in South Africa: whites speak English, but some speak Afrikaans. Blacks seem to mostly speak Afrikaans or Zulu/Xhosa. This is a highly scientific hypothesis, derived from our large sample size of Cape Town and Johannesburg, by which we mean people to whom we’ve spoken (and on whom we’ve eavesdropped) in both cities. What follows is my stab at actually understanding the language vs. race vs. location distribution of languages in South Africa. As it turns out, we’re unable to identify the primary language people speak here because most people in fact speak at least three, if not more, languages.

South Africa currently has eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. Dutch and English were the first two official languages, from 1910 – 1925. In 1925, Afrikaans was added as a part of Dutch. Dutch was replaced by Afrikaans in 1961, when South Africa became a Republic, and then subsequently dropped in 1983. Between 1983 and 1994, South Africa had two official languages: English and Dutch. From 1994 onward, the eleven language constitution has prevailed.

The bulk of the population speaks some combination of Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans, with only 8.2 percent of the population speaking English. It’s mostly in the urban areas–Cape Town, Johannesburg, etc.–that people speak English. English is also, reasonably and pragmatically, the language of government and commerce. It is widely understood, but not widely spoken. This seems race-based, purely based on geography, as the whites tend to live in the more elite urban areas and blacks in the poorer urban areas and townships, but I think it’s more class than race based. The elites, whether black or white, in the cities speak English, and the overwhelming rest of the population simply does not. Afrikaans, on the other hand, has the widest geographical and racial distribution of all the official languages of South Africa. According to the 2011 Census, 61 percent of whites and 76 percent of “colored people” AKA non-whites speak Afrikaans.

Afrikaans itself has an interesting history. It originated from 17th century Dutch dialects, but is not exactly a pidgin language but rather a derivative of Dutch. It borrows from Malay, Khoisan, Portuguese, and Bantu languages, although about 95 percent of its syntactical and vocabulary makeup is Dutch. The mixed-race speakers of this language called themselves Afrikaners, and in the late 1800s, just before the Boer Wars, the Boers adopted this name as well. It then spread across South Africa, becoming the wide-spoken language it is today. It is more universal than any other language spoken in South Africa.

So basically, according to my research, there might not exist, as we have wildly conjectured, a particular divide in language here, but rather just chaos (as we see it) of a country in which many people speak many languages. It is, of course, worth noting that the elite (and overwhelmingly white) classes seem to speak mostly English or Afrikaans, and not any of the “native” South African languages. Check out this nifty map of geographic distribution of South African languages. Note the teeny tiny pockets of English speakers–in the major cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban, where there do happen to be a lot of white residents. I can’t say with certainty that there’s an imperialism of language, but there is certainly a hierarchy of economic class in language. The fact remains that English is the language of the wealthy elites, and I haven’t seen very many signs in the more universally-spoken Afrikaans.

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