South African English

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South African English is a dialect of English spoken in South Africa and to some extent, in neighbouring countries with a large number of Anglo-Africans living in them, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe.

South African English is not unified in its pronunciation: this can be attributed to the fact that English is the mother tongue for only 40% of the white inhabitants (the remainder mostly having Afrikaans as their mother tongue) and only a tiny minority of black inhabitants of the region. The dialect can be, however, identified by many loanwords mostly from Afrikaans but increasingly also from Zulu and other African languages. Some of these words, like "trek", have seeped into general English usage.

Traditionally, white South Africans have spoken South African English, but a distinct Indian South African form of English has long existed, and an equally distinctive black South African English is developing very rapidly. Convergence between these sub-dialects can be observed but it is a slow process.

The convergence process was exposed to a humorous treatment by Robin Malan in his book 'Ah Big Yaws' written in the mid 1970's. The book is concise, and conforms more or less to the spoken dialect of Cape Town in 1974-1976, in the northern Cape Town suburbs of Bellville and Durbanville, where Malan resided, and in the University town of Stellenbosch, where he was at the time a lecturer of spoken English. This book is often considered a high point of South African written wit, and a low point for South African linguistics, although it is now considered an important cultural time-capsule, as it also gives a pocket outline of white South Africa immediately before the social and political chaos of the 1980's.

The fourth edition of the Dictionary of South African English was released in 1991.



Main article: phonemic differentiation.

South African English spoken by whites bears some resemblances in pronunciation to a mix of Australian English and British English. Afrikaans has heavily influenced only those living in Afrikaans areas.

The most noticeable difference in pronunciation is probably the flat "i", so that "six" is pronounced in a way sounding like "sucks", and "today" like "to die". This is a part of the vowel shift that has occurred in South Africa as well as New Zealand.

  • pan = /pɛn/
  • pen = /pen/
  • pin = /pɨn/
  • pun = /pan/

One difference between (white) South African English and New Zealand English is in the pronunication of 'ar' and 'ow', as in the pronunciation of the sentence 'park the car downtown'.

  • New Zealand: pahk the kah dehwn tehwn
  • South Africa: pawk the kaw dahwn tahwn

English as spoken by black South Africans is influenced by intonation and pronunciation of African languages:

  • work → weck
  • win → ween
  • car → kah
  • book → boook
  • dirty → detty
  • garden → gaddin
  • fast → fust
  • town → taun
  • broken → braucken


Main article: List of lexical differences in South African English

There are words that do not exist in British or American English, usually derived from Afrikaans or African languages. Terms in common with American and Australian English include 'freeway' (British English 'motorway') and 'bucks' meaning money (rand instead of dollar). South Africans generally refer to the different codes of football, such as soccer and rugby by those names, although some white South Africans may refer to rugby as 'football' as in some parts of Australia as well New Zealand. However, this is not common, and among most South Africans the term 'football' means soccer.


The influence of Afrikaans accounts for many idioms in South African English. Probably the most distinctive example is the use of the Afrikaans word "ja" ("a" as in "father") as a contraction of "yes" as opposed to the word "yeah" used by British, North American and Australian English speakers. (eg: "Do you want to go to a movie?" "Ja, sure")

Other idiomatic phrases influenced or taken from Afrikaans include "are you coming with?" ("are you coming with us?"), the use of "hey" at the end of a sentence (though mainly used in Gauteng province) eg: "I don't really know, hey", "she'll be here just now" instead of "she'll be here soon", "ja well, no fine" instead of "things are okay, so-so", and "hey bru. You know who I am?" instead of "excuse me but what do you think you're doing?".

Another influence is the use of the word 'comma' as in decimal comma, instead of 'point' as in decimal point. For example, a South African radio broadcaster would say "the rand closed at 7,25 [seven comma two five] against the US dollar" instead of "the rand closed at 7.25 [seven point two five] against the US dollar."

Speakers of African languages may confuse 'he', 'she' and 'it', as the third person singular is often the same. "Madam is not here. He is in England." and "Shees braucken, shees not wekking."

South African English Contributions to World English

Several South African words, usually from Afrikaans or native languages of the region, have entered world English: aardvark; apartheid; commando and trek.

English Academy of Southern Africa

The English Academy of Southern Africa (EASA) is the academy for the English language in the world, but unlike such counterparts as the Académie française, it 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, but also remains controversial among language scholars in South Africa for its strong encouragement of International English and British English against emerging Black South African varieties of English.

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