South African English

Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks English at home.
Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: density of English home-language speakers.
  <1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  >3000 /km²

South African English (SAfrE, SAfrEng, SAE, en-ZA[1]) is the set of English dialects spoken by South Africans. There is considerable social and regional variation within South African English. Three variants (termed "The Great Trichotomy" by Roger Lass)[2] are commonly identified within White South African English (as in Australian English), spoken primarily by White South Africans: "Cultivated", closely approximating England's standard Received Pronunciation and associated with the upper class; "General", a social indicator of the middle class; and "Broad", associated with the working class, and closely approximating the second-language Afrikaner variety called Afrikaans English. At least two sociolinguistic variants have been definitively studied on a post-creole continuum for the second-language Black South African English spoken by most Black South Africans: a high-end, prestigious "acrolect" and a more middle-ranging, mainstream "mesolect". Other varieties of South African English include Cape Flats English, originally associated with inner-city Cape Coloured speakers, and the Indian South African English of Indian South Africans. Further offshoots include the first-language English varieties spoken by Zimbabweans, Zambians, Swazilanders and Namibians.


Like English in southern England, such as London, South African English is non-rhotic (except for some Afrikaans-influenced speakers, see below) and features the trap–bath split.

The two main phonological indicators of South African English are the behaviour of the vowels in kit and bath. The kit vowel tends to be "split" so that there is a clear allophonic variation between the close, front [ɪ] and a somewhat more central [ɪ̈]. The bath vowel is characteristically open and back in the General and Broad varieties of SAE. The tendency to monophthongise both /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ to [ɑː] and [aː] respectively, are also typical features of General and Broad SAE.

Features involving consonants include the tendency for voiceless plosives to be unaspirated in stressed word-initial environments, [tj] tune and [dj] dune tend to be realised as [tʃ] and [dʒ] respectively (See Yod coalescence), and /h/ has a strong tendency to be voiced initially.


General South African monophthongs on a vowel chart.[3] Note that non-centralized /ɪ/ is not shown, and that these values are not representative of all speakers of the General variety.

/ɪ/ (the KIT vowel)

/i/ (the HAPPY vowel)

/iː/ (the FLEECE vowel)

/ʊ/ (the FOOT vowel)

/uː/ (the GOOSE vowel)

/e/ (the DRESS vowel)

/ə/ (the COMMA vowel)

/ər/ (the LETTER vowel)

/ɜː/ (the NURSE vowel)

/ɔː/ (the THOUGHT vowel)

/æ/ (the TRAP vowel)

/ʌ/ (the STRUT vowel)

/ɑː/ (the BATH vowel)

/ɒ/ (the LOT vowel)

/ɪə/ (the NEAR vowel)

/ʊə/ (the CURE vowel)

/eə/ (the SQUARE vowel)

/eɪ/ (the FACE vowel)

/əʊ/ (the GOAT vowel)

/ɔɪ/ (the CHOICE vowel)

/aɪ/ (the PRICE vowel)

/aʊ/ (the MOUTH vowel)



The plosive phonemes of South African English are /p, b, t, d, k, ɡ/.

Fricatives and affricates

The fricative and affricate phonemes of South African English are /f, v, θ, ð, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, x, h, tʃ, dʒ/.


The sonorant phonemes of South African English are /m, (hw), w, n, l, r, j, ŋ/.


There are words that do not exist in British or American English, usually derived from languages of Africa such as Afrikaans or Zulu, although, particularly in Durban, there is also an influence from Indian languages and slang developed by subcultures, particularly surfers. Terms in common with North American English include 'mom' (most British and Australian English: mum), 'freeway' or 'highway' (British English 'motorway'), 'cellphone' (British and Australian English: mobile), and 'buck' meaning money (rand, in this case, not a dollar).

One of the most noticeable traits of South African English-speakers is the strong tendency to use the Afrikaans 'ja' [='yes'] in any situation where other English-speakers would say 'yes', 'yeah' or 'Well, ...'. The parallel is extended to the expression 'ja-nee' [literally, 'yes-no'; indicating a partial agreement or acknowledgement of a point] which becomes 'Ja, no, ...'. Such usage is widely acceptable, although it is understood to be incorrect English and would not be used in strictly formal contexts, such as in court or in a job interview.

South Africans are also known for their irregular use of the word 'now'. Particularly, 'just now' is taken to mean 'in a while' or 'later' (up to a few hours' time) rather than 'this very minute', for which a South African would say 'right now'. 'Now now' is relatively more immediate, implying a delay of a few minutes to around half an hour. The word 'just' also has a looser meaning than in British English when applied to location; expressions such as 'just there', or 'just around the corner' are not taken to imply a precise point.

Another expression is to 'come with', as in 'are they coming with?'[21] This is influenced by the Afrikaans phrase hulle kom saam, literally 'they come together', with saam being misinterpreted as 'with'.[22] In Afrikaans, saamkom is a separable verb, similar to meekomen in Dutch and mitkommen in German, which is translated into English as 'to come along'.[23] 'Come with?' is also encountered in areas of the Upper Midwest of the United States, which had a large number of Scandinavian, Dutch and German immigrants, who, when speaking English, translated equivalent phrases directly from their own languages.[24]

Some words peculiar to South African English include 'takkies', 'tackie' or 'tekkie' for sneakers (American) or trainers (British), 'combi' or 'kombi' for a small van similar to a Volkswagen Kombi, 'bakkie' for a pick-up truck, 'kiff' for pleasurable, 'lekker' for nice, 'donga' for gully, 'robot' for a traffic light, 'dagga' for cannabis, 'braai' for barbecue and 'jol' for party. South Africans generally refer to the different codes of football, such as soccer and rugby, by those names.

There is some difference between South African English dialects: in Johannesburg the local form is very strongly English-based, while its Eastern Cape counterpart has a strong Afrikaans influence. Although differences between the two are sizeable, there are many similarities.

Contributions to English worldwide

Several South African words, usually from Afrikaans or other indigenous languages of the region, have entered world English: those relating to human activity include apartheid; commando and trek and those relating to indigenous flora and fauna include veld; vlei; spoor; aardvark; impala; mamba; boomslang; meerkat and wildebeest.

Recent films such as District 9 have also brought South African and Southern African English to a global audience, as have television personalities like Die Antwoord, Austin Stevens and Trevor Noah.

Large numbers of the British diaspora and other South African English speakers now live in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and some Persian Gulf states and may have influenced their host community's dialects to some degree. South African English and its slang also has a substantial presence in neighbouring countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. English accents vary considerably depending on region and local ethnic influences.


The South African National Census of 2011 found a total of 4,892,623 speakers of English as a first language,[25]:23 making up 9.6% of the national population.[25]:25 The provinces with significant English-speaking populations were the Western Cape (20.2% of the provincial population), Gauteng (13.3%) and KwaZulu-Natal (13.2%).[25]:25

English was spoken across all ethnic groups in South Africa. The breakdown of English-speakers according to the conventional racial classifications used by Statistics South Africa is described in the following table.

Population group English-speakers[25]:26 % of population group[25]:27 % of total English-speakers
Black African 1,167,913 2.9 23.9
Coloured 945,847 20.8 19.3
Indian or Asian 1,094,317 86.1 22.4
White 1,603,575 35.9 32.8
Other 80,971 29.5 1.7
Total 4,892,623 9.6 100.0

English Academy of Southern Africa

The English Academy of Southern Africa (EASA) has no official connection with the government and can only attempt to advise, educate, encourage, and discourage. It was founded in 1961 by Professor Gwen Knowles-Williams of the University of Pretoria in part to defend the role of English against pressure from supporters of Afrikaans. It encourages scholarship in issues surrounding English in Africa through regular conferences.

In July 2010, the English Academy of Southern Africa launched an online magazine, Teaching English Today, for academic discussion related to English and teaching English as a subject in schools.

Examples of South African accents

The following examples of South African accents were obtained from George Mason University:

See also


  1. en-ZA is the language code for South African English, as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).
  2. Lass (2002), p. 109.
  3. "Rodrik Wade, MA Thesis, Ch 4: Structural characteristics of Zulu English". Archived from the original on 17 May 2008. Some symbols were changed to better reflect the actual pronunciation.
  4. Bowerman (2004), p. 936.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Van Rooy (2004), pp. 945 and 947.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Bowerman (2004), p. 939.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Bowerman (2004), p. 937.
  8. Bowerman (2004), pp. 936–937.
  9. Bowerman (2004), pp. 937–938.
  10. Bekker (2008:83–84) "More recently, Bekker and Eley (2007) conducted an acoustic analysis of the monophthongs of GenSAE, using data elicited from two sets of subjects: young females from private schools in Johannesburg and young females from public schools in East London. Results suggest that a lowered TRAP vowel is a new prestige value, particularly for the Johannesburg area, and more specifically for one of the more wealthy areas of Johannesburg; the so-called ‘Northern Suburbs’ (...)."
  11. 1 2 3 Collins & Mees (2013), p. 194.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Bowerman (2004), p. 938.
  13. Bowerman (2004), pp. 938–939.
  14. Van Rooy (2004), p. 945.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Lass (2002), p. 120.
  16. Mesthrie (2004), p. 960.
  17. 1 2 3 4 Lass (2002), p. 122.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Bowerman (2004), p. 940.
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Lass (2002), p. 121.
  20. Finn (2004), p. 976.
  21. Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Rajend Mesthrie, Mouton de Gruyter, 2008, page 475
  22. A handbook of varieties of English: a multimedia reference tool. Morphology and syntax, Volume 2, Bernd Kortmann, Mouton de Gruyter, 2004, page 951
  23. Pharos Tweetalige skoolwoordeboek/Pharos Bilingual school dictionary, Pharos Dictionaries, Pharos, 2014
  24. What's with 'come with'?, Chicago Tribune, December 8, 2010
  25. 1 2 3 4 5 Census 2011: Census in brief (PDF). Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012. ISBN 9780621413885.


  • Bekker, Ian (2008). The vowels of South African English (PDF) (Ph.D.). North-West University, Potchefstroom. 
  • Bowerman, Sean (2004), "White South African English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive, A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 931–942, ISBN 3-11-017532-0 
  • Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2013) [First published 2003], Practical Phonetics and Phonology: A Resource Book for Students (3rd ed.), Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-50650-2 
  • de Gruyter, Walter (2008). Africa, South and Southeast Asia (Ph.D.). 
  • Finn, Peter (2004), "Cape Flats English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive, A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 934–984, ISBN 3-11-017532-0 
  • Lanham, Len W. (1967), The pronunciation of South African English, Cape Town: Balkema 
  • Lass, Roger (2002), "South African English", in Mesthrie, Rajend, Language in South Africa, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521791052 
  • Mesthrie, Rajend (2004), "Indian South African English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive, A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 953–963, ISBN 3-11-017532-0 
  • Mott, Brian (2012), "Traditional Cockney and popular London speech", Dialectologia, RACO (Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert), 9: 69–94, ISSN 2013-2247 
  • van Rooy, Bertus (2004), "Black South African English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive, A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 943–952, ISBN 3-11-017532-0 

Further reading

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