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Languages of South Africa: Map


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South Africa has 11 official languages. They are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Southern Sotho, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda and Southern Ndebele. Less than one percent of South Africans speak any other language as their home language. Most South Africans can speak more than one language. Prior to 1994, South Africa had only two official languages, namely English and Afrikaans.

The English version of the South African constitution refers to the languages by the names in those languages, namely isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi (referring to Northern Sotho), Setswana, English, Sesotho (referring to Southern Sotho), Xitsonga, Siswati, Tshivenda and isiNdebele (referring to Southern Ndebele).

In South Africa, Southern Ndebele is simply called Ndebele, as most speakers of Northern Ndebele live in Zimbabwe. The 1993 version of the Constitution referred to Northern Sotho as Sesotho sa Leboa but in the 1996 version the language is called Sepedi. Different government departments and official bodies use different terms to denote Northern Sotho.

The main language of commerce and politics is English, notwithstanding the fact that South Africans often take pride in using their own languages for any purpose. The highest number of affluent speakers are Afrikaans and English. At various times in South Africa's history, either English or Afrikaans were labelled as the "language of the oppressor".

Etymologically speaking, the official languages include two West-Germanic languages (English and Afrikaans) and nine Bantu languages. Four are of these are Nguni languages (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) and three are Sotho-Tswana languages (Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho and Tswana). Tsonga is a Tswa-Ronga language.

Language demographics

The most common language spoken at home by South Africans is Zulu (24 percent speak Zulu at home), followed by Xhosa (18 percent), and Afrikaans (13 percent). English is only the sixth-most common home language in the country, but is understood in most urban areas and is (mainly for political reasons) the dominant language in government and the media.

The majority of South Africans speak a language from one of the two principal branches of the Bantu languages represented in South Africa: the Sotho-Tswana branch (Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tswana), or the Nguni branch (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele). For each of the two groups, the languages within that group are for the most part intelligible to a native speaker of any other language within that group.

As can be seen from the accompanying maps, the nine indigenous African languages of South Africa can be divided into two geographical zones, with Nguni languages being predominant in the south-eastern third of the country (Indian Ocean coast) and Sotho languages being predominant in the northern third of the country located further inland, as also in Botswanamarker and Lesothomarker. Gautengmarker is the most linguistically heterogeneous province, with roughly equal numbers of Nguni, Sotho and Indo-European language speakers. This has resulted in the spread of an urban argot, Tsotsitaal, in large urban townships in the province.

Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, is the most widely spoken language in the western half of the country (Western and Northern Cape). It is spoken not only by a majority of whites but also by about 90 percent of Coloured (multiracial) people in the country. Afrikaans is also spoken widely across the centre and north of the country, as a second (or third or even fourth) language by Black South Africans living in farming areas.

Other significant languages spoken in South Africa

Other languages spoken in South Africa, though not mentioned in the Constitution, include:

Fanagalo, Khoe, Lobedu , Nama, Northern Ndebele , Phuthi , San (Khoisan/Khoesan) languages, sign language and Tamil (less spoken).

South African Sign Language is a distinct though incompletely emerged national standard language which also subsumes a cluster of semi-standardised dialects. The Constitution mentions "sign language" in the generic sense rather than, as is widely believed, South African Sign Language specifically.

Lobedu has been variously claimed to be a dialect of Northern Sotho and an autonomous language. Fanagalo is a pidgin often used as a mining lingua franca.

Significant numbers of immigrants from Europe, elsewhere in Africa, and the Indian subcontinent means that a wide variety of other languages can also be found in parts of South Africa. In the older immigrant communities there are: Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Polish, Portuguese, Tamil, Urdu, Yiddish, and smaller numbers of Dutch, French and German speakers.

These non-official languages may be used in limited semi-official use where it has been determined that these languages are prevalent. More importantly, these languages have significant local functions in specific communities whose identity is tightly bound around the linguistic and cultural identity that these non-official SA languages signal.

The fastest growing non-official language is Portuguese - first spoken by white, black, and mestiço settlers and refugees from Angolamarker and Mozambiquemarker after they won independence from Portugalmarker and now by more recent immigrants from those countries again - and increasingly French, spoken by immigrants and refugees from Francophone Central Africa.

More recently, speakers of North, Central and West African languages have arrived in South Africa, mostly in the major cities, especially in Johannesburgmarker and Pretoriamarker, but also Cape Townmarker and Durbanmarker.

Extinct languages

Constitutional provisions

Chapter 1 (Founding Provisions), Section 6 (Languages) of the Constitution of South Africa is the basis for government language policy. The English text of the constitution signed by president Nelson Mandela on 16 December 1996 curiously contains the names of the languages in the language itself rather than English. Controversy surrounds the use of Sepedi as opposed to Sesotho sa Leboa (which was the wording in the 1994 interim constitution) in the text. The spelling of Venda is also incorrectly rendered as Tshivenda instead of the correct Tshivenḓa:


The 2001 census recorded the following home language speakers:
Language Speakers %
Zulu 10,677,000 23.8%
Xhosa 7,907,000 17.6%
Afrikaans 5,983,000 13.3%
Northern Sotho 4,209,000 9.4%
Tswana 3,677,000 8.2%
English 3,673,000 8.2%
Sotho 3,555,000 7.9%
Tsonga 1,992,000 4.4%
Swati 1,194,000 2.7%
Venda 1,022,000 2.3%
Ndebele 712,000 1.6%
Other languages 217,000 0.5%
Total 44,820,000 100.0%



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