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South African English


Historical outline In 1652 the Cape of Good Hope was colonialised by Dutch navigators thus establishing the Dutch claim to this part of Africa. For 150 years the English did not disturb the colony; in 1806 however they invaded the region and brought the English language there thus initiating the dual European language tradition which exists to the present day. After the Napoleonic wars the number of permanent English settlers increased forming the group known as the ‘1820 settlers’ who represented the backbone of English settlement in South Africa. In 1822 Lord Somerset declared English the only official language of the Cape Colony. Indeed he undertook steps to facilitate the acquisition of English by all classes of society. This led to exposure of the indigenous black community to English to a far greater extent than in the remaining English colonies in Africa. This fact holds true to the present day.

Throughout the 19th century new settlements in South Africa continued. In Natal a wave of settlement occurred in the year 1848-1862 with speakers of varieties of Northern English arriving in the area.

Another kind of immigration set in during the latter half of the 19th century which was to have a lasting effect on the demographic composition of South Africa: Indians started arriving, firstly as labourers on the estates of Natal, later on in the rest of the country. The Indians accepted English as the language of communication and thus contributed to the strengthening of the language in South Africa.

The mineral revolution in the 1870’s introduced the industrial age into South Africa, leaving some of the old Cape Colonialists and the Afrikaners behind but drawing new immigrants into rapidly expanding cities such as Johannesburg. As a rule the whites formed the plutocracy of the mining-industrial society, the blacks being the labourers, of course.

At the turn of the 19th century England engaged in two wars with South Africa (known as the Boer Wars) which led to South Africa gaining a great deal of independence; it became a dominion of the British Empire in 1910, later a sovereign state within the Commonwealth and finally and an independent republic in 1961.

Nowadays one can recognise at least four main varieties of English in South Africa: Afrikaner English (the English of those South Africans whose mother language is Afrikaans), Coloured English (the kind of English used by the coloured (racially mixed, or Asiatic) portion of the population, the English of the black section of the population and of course the language of those native speakers of English. In addition there are about 1 million speakers of South African Indian English which derives from the speech of those Indian immigrants who came to Kwazulu-Natal in the late 19th century.



English-speaking white South Africans enjoy highest social prestige although this has diminished somewhat since the end of apartheid. Both English and Afrikaans are official languages in the new, post-apartheid Republic of South Africa. However there is still a language loyalty conflict, a remnant of the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902. This situation has not changed substantially since the end of apartheid (white discrimination against and segregation of blacks).

English is the first language of about 10% (ca. 2.8m) of which two thirds are white. Furthermore English is used as a lingua franca by millions and in this context co-exists with Afrikaans (mixtures of Afrikaans and English are not uncommon and termed ‘Anglikaans’) and many indigenous languages such as those of the Bantu and Khoisian groups. Since the change-over in power to a largely black government the Republic of South Africa recognises some 11 languages, including English and Afrikaans, as official languages in the country. The following description applies to General South African English.

Main linguistic features

Phonology Retraction of first element with the diphthong /ei/ , e.g. may /məɪ/. Raising of front short vowels: bat /bɛt/, bet /bɪt/, bit /bət/. This is a feature of English in general in the southern hemisphere, compare Australia and New Zealand in this respect. Schwa is frequently found for /ɪ/, e.g. pin /pən/ and in unstressed syllables, wanted /wɒntəd/. The diphthong /ai/ as in time is often quite open, i.e. [taɛm] or [ta:m]. In general, South African English is non-rhotic, i.e. /r/ is not pronounced in syllable-final position (same as Received Pronunciation).

Syntax Again the influence of Afrikaans is noticeable, e.g. in the lack of prepositions with many verbs, e.g. explain, reply, write. Deletion of verb markers and contracted forms of the verb ‘to be’ are another salient feature: You looking tired; The wife play. The word busy is often found as a progressive marker: They were busy talking together. A general purpose is it? is found: He’s gone abroad, is it? There is also a positive use of no in sentence-initial position as in How are you keeping? No, we’re well thank you.

Lexis There are obviously two main sources for loanwords in South African English: 1) Dutch or Afrikaans (the colonial variety of Dutch in South Africa), 2) native languages of the region. Dutch provides terms like kloof ‘ravine’, kraal ‘animal pen’, veld ‘unenclosed land’ and of course the term apartheid. Other characteristics consist of the use of English words in unusual contexts, such as shame in the sense of ‘a pity’.