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Languages in South Africa

South Africa has 11 official languages, namely Afrikaans, Southern Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda and English. Most people other than rural black Africans speak English as a second language. Only about 8% of the population speak English as a first language, almost exclusively in the white population which is ironically declining as a first language, while it is already a lingua franca among South Africans, and about 60% of the population can understand English. South African English is heavily influenced by Afrikaans. Afrikaans is also widely spoken, especially by the majority of the white and coloured population. Often Afrikaans is incorrectly called 'afrikan' or 'african' by foreigners. Note this is very incorrect as 'African' for a South African corresponds with the native-African languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi etc. (and, of course, there are thousands of languages in Africa so no single language can be called 'African') Afrikaans has roots in 17th century Dutch dialects, so it can be understood by Dutch speakers and sometimes deciphered by German speakers. Other widely spoken languages are Zulu (mainly in KwaZulu-Natal - South Africa's largest single linguistic group) and Xhosa (mainly in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape), as well as Sotho and Venda. This changes, according to the region you are in.

A few words you may encounter are:

  • eish - as in, "eish, it's hot today", "eish, that's expensive" or "eish, that's too far to drive"
  • lekker - nice, enjoyable
  • howzit - how is it? (generally a rhetorical question)
  • yebo - yes
  • boet , bru, china or ou - brother or man (equivalent to dude or bro)
  • koppie - a small hill (can also mean a cup)
  • Madiba - Nelson Mandela
  • Molo - Hello (in Xhosa)
  • robot - traffic light
  • tannie - (auntie) respectful term for an older woman
  • oom - (uncle) respectful term for an older man
  • tinkle - phone call
  • just now - sometime soon (from Afrikaans "net-nou")
  • now now - sooner than just now! (from Afrikaans "nou-nou", pronounced no-no)
  • braai - barbecue.
  • cheers - we use this for saying good-bye, as well as saying thank you and for the occasional toast.
  • heita - hello
  • sharp - (usually pronounced quickly) OK
  • sure-sure more pronounced like sho-sho - Correct, Agreement, Thank you
  • ayoba - something cool
  • zebra crossing - a crosswalk. named for the white & black stripes that are generally painted on crosswalks.


In general, English spelling follows British rules rather than American; litre rather than liter, centre rather than center, etc.

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