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SOUTH AFRICAN ENGLISH Short forms SAfrE, SAE. The English language as used in the Republic of South Africa, the first language of c. 10% (about 2.7m) of the total population of the RSA. About two-thirds of this 10% are white, and most of the rest Indian or ‘Coloured’ (mixed African and European descent). To a small but important African élite, English is a ‘second first language’, and it is spoken fluently by many Afrikaners. As a LINGUA FRANCA, it is used with varying degrees of proficiency by millions whose mother tongue is not English. Until 1994, with AFRIKAANS, it was one of the two official languages; in that year, nine indigenous languages became official: Ndebele, Pedi, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. In the following discussion, South African English focuses primarily on the usage of South Africans for whom English is their first language.


The Dutch settlement at the Cape dates from 1652. When the British seized the colony in 1795, they moved into a long-established DUTCH-speaking community with its own culture, administration, and patterns of relationship with the black and Khoisan peoples of the subcontinent. The Dutch community was already diglossic, for example using standard DUTCH for religious and governmental purposes and local varieties known variously as Cape Dutch, colonial Dutch, South African Dutch, or simply the taal (‘the language’) as dialects of ‘hearth and home’. These were later, between 1875 and 1925, standardized as Afrikaans. Since the end of the 18c, many speakers of English in southern Africa have been in close contact with Dutch/Afrikaans people (with many intermarriages), and less closely with speakers of BANTU and Khoisan languages. Competent bilinguals (for example, in English and Dutch, or Xhosa and English) have been numerous and influential, and conditions have favoured complex CODE-MIXING AND CODE-SWITCHING. There is also a large body of published English writings by non-English authors.


(1) SAfrE is typically nonrhotic, but may become RHOTIC or partially so in speakers strongly influenced by AFRIKAANS ENGLISH. These may have final postvocalic /r/ and a medial /r/ as trill or tap. Lanham has observed an initial obstruent (fricative) /r/, in such phrases as red, red rose, in older speakers in the Eastern Cape. (2) Variations in ACCENT depend usually on education, social class, domicile (rural or urban), and accommodation to speakers of varieties different from one's own. (3) Conservative middle-class accents remain close to RP, though typically with the lowering and retraction (in certain phonetic contexts) of the vowel in RP bit, pin to a position approaching that of SCHWA /ə/, in varying degrees. The vowel of RP goose is often central rather than back. (4) Salient features of ‘broader’ accents include the following renderings: the vowel of RP trap as ‘trep’ (Afrikaans/Dutch and the southern Bantu languages lacking a vowel of the trap quality); the long back vowel of RP car in a higher and more rounded version as in the stereotype ‘pork the car’; diphthong reductions as in fair hair as /feː heː/, and the vowel of RP price in a glideless or nearly glideless version, so that kite may resemble cart. (5) In a class of LOANWORDS from Afrikaans, such as the interjection ga (/xa/) expressing disgust, and gedoente (fuss, bustle), most speakers use a borrowed velar or palatal fricative like the sound in ScoE loch. In another loan class, of words such as bakkie (light delivery van) and pap (porridge), there is a vowel between those of RP but and hot. The precise extent of Afrikaans influence on the sound system and other aspects of SAfrE is a matter of controversy. In many cases, such as the vowel of the trap class, there seem to have been convergent influences from English settler dialects, Dutch/Afrikaans, and in some cases African languages.


The syntax of formal SAfrE is close to that of the international standard. Colloquial SAfrE, however, has many features, such as: (1) Sentence initiators such as affirmative no, as in How are you?—No, I'm fine, probably from Dutch/Afrikaans, and the emphatic aikona as in Aikona fish (‘No fish today’), of Nguni (Bantu) origin. The common informal phrase ja well no fine (yes well no fine) has been adopted in solid written form as an affectionate expression of ridicule (jawellnofine) for broad SAfrE usage, and has served to name a South African television programme. (2) The suffixed phrase and them, as in We saw Billy and them in town (‘Billy and the others’), a form found also in Caribbean varieties. (3) Busy as a progressive marker with stative verbs, as in We were busy waiting for him, and often with a nonanimate subject, as in The rinderpest was busy decimating their herds. (4) The all-purpose response is it?, as in She had a baby last week.—Is it?, heard also in Singapore and Malaysia, but closely parallel in use to Afrikaans Is dit? (5) Extensive use of Afrikaans ‘modal adverbs’, such as sommer (‘just’) in We were sommer standing around.


SAfrE has borrowed freely. A rough estimate of source languages for distinctively South African words is: Dutch/Afrikaans 50%, English 30%, African languages 10%, other languages 10%. The most recent years show an increasing proportion of items of English or African-language origin. Most of the SAfrE items best known internationally, such as Afrikaner, boer, trek, and veld, are of Dutch/Afrikaans origin. An exception is concentration camp, coined by the British during the second Anglo-Boer War. In most domains, such as landscape and topography, there is likely to be: (1) A high proportion of ‘common words’ borrowed directly from Dutch/Afrikaans, such as drift ford (1795), kloof deep valley or ravine (1731), land a cultivated stretch, usually fenced (from Cape Dutch), and veld open country (1835). (2) A number of ‘English’ items translated or partially translated from Dutch or Afrikaans, such as backveld back country, outback, from Dutch achterveld. (3) Some words of English origin that have acquired new senses, such as location, originally, as in Australia, an area allocated to white settlers, later ‘a district set aside for Blacks’, and still later ‘a segregated urban area for Blacks’, typically with strongly unfavourable connotations (as in ‘the usual mess, the location, of sacking and paraffin tins’: Dan Jacobson). In this sense, location has largely given way to the equally euphemistic township. (4) A sprinkling of items of African-language origin: for example, karroo semi-desert (Khoi, 1776), donga an eroded watercourse, usually dry (Nguni). (5) A few words reflecting South Africa's cosmopolitanism, past and present, such as kraal an African or Khoikhoi village, an enclosure for cattle (probably from PORTUGUESE curral: compare SPANISH corral).

Most topic areas reflect the wide range of peoples and cultures of past and present-day South Africa. Thus, among trees are the flowering keurboom (South African Dutch, 1731), the hardwoods stinkwood and yellow-wood (translating Dutch stinkhout and geolhout) and silver tree, an English coinage dating from early travellers' accounts of the Cape (Dutch: wittebome white trees). Among living creatures are the antelopes eland (Dutch: elk), kudu (probably Khoisan), impala (Zulu), and tssebe (Tswana). Human types range from the predikant or dominee (Dutch/Afrikaans: minister of the Dutch Reformed Church) through the sangoma (Nguni: diviner) to the ducktails (Teddy boys) of the streets of the 1960s. Artefacts range from the traditional kaross (Khoisan via Afrikaans: skin blanket) through the Cape cart (mistranslating Afrikaans kapkar hooded cart) to the ubiquitous bakkie (from Afrikaans: basin or other container), a light truck, now a symbol of virile open-air life. Liquor ranges from traditional Nguni tshwala brewed with malted grain or maize (formerly Kaffir beer, now often sorghum beer) to mampoer, a brandy distilled from peaches and other soft fruits, possibly named after the Sotho chief Mampuru. Mahog(a) is brandy as served in township shebeens (many now legalized as taverns) and possibly from English mahogany. Foods include boerewors (Afrikaans: boer sausage), a centrepiece of a braaivleis (Afrikaans: barbecue), and sosaties (curried kebabs, probably from Malay). At outdoor parties, the focal dish may be potjiekos (Afrikaans), a stew with ingredients to taste, made in a three-legged pot over an open fire. African township culture has generated an enormous vocabulary that includes matchbox a small standardized dwelling, spot a shebeen or tavern, boere (‘boers’) the police, and tsotsi an African street thug (of uncertain origin). Much of the vast government vocabulary of apartheid remains in use, such as group area an area set apart for a particular racial group, and resettlement, sometimes forcible, of people into such areas. ‘Resistance vocabulary’ includes the rallying cry Amandla (ngawethu) ‘Power (is ours)’, from Nguni, and the more recent Viva!, perhaps from Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, comrade in the specialized sense of ‘political activist, usually young’, and necklace (execution by igniting a petrol-filled tyre hung round the victim's neck). Two items of special interest are muti and larney. The first, from Zulu, originally designated traditional African medicines and other remedies, but has passed into general white colloquial use as in The pharmacist gave me a special muti for this. Lahnee, of unknown origin, appeared first in IndE in general colloquial use, usually as larney, meaning ‘smart, pretentious’, as in a hell of a larney wedding. See AFRICAN ENGLISH.


The place-names of South Africa reflect mixed linguistic origins over some 300 years, and are mainly of three kinds:

1. African.

The complex African heritage includes names from the earlier Khoisan (Bushman, Hottentot) languages (such as Namib, the name of a desert, providing the base for the Latinized Namibia, the neighbouring country formerly known as South West Africa) and the later and more widely distributed Bantu languages, including Zulu and Xhosa. Zulu names include Amanzimtoti (‘sweet water’), Khayelitsha (‘new home’), and Majuba (‘doves’), also as a hybrid form Majuba Hill, the site of a battle between Zulus and British in 1882. The prefix Kwa (‘place of’) is common, as in KwaZulu (‘place of the people of heaven’, replacing the Anglo-hybrid Zululand) and KwaMashu (‘Mashu's place’). The use of an internal capital letter in such names is distinctive; the prefix Um occurs with the names of rivers, as in Umfolozi, Umhlanga, and Umkomazi, but without such a capital. African-language town names include Lusikisiki, Qumbu, Tabankulu, Tsolo, and Umtata.

2. Afrikaans.

The Afrikaans language shares many place-name elements with Dutch, the European language from which it derives. These include berg as in Drakensberg (‘dragon's mountain’), burg as in Johannesburg (‘John's city’), dorp as in Krugersdorp (‘Kruger's town’), drift (‘ford’) as in the hybrid Rorke's Drift, kloof as in Groenkloof (‘green ravine’), rand as in Witwatersrand (‘white water ridge’) and Randburg (‘ridge city’), and stad as in Kaapstad (‘cape town’). Names of cities include those derived from Dutch and other European associations, as with Frankfort and Utrecht, and commemorating Afrikaner leaders, as with the Latin Pretoria (the South African capital, named for Andries Pretorius), Pietermaritzburg (after the Voortrekker leaders Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz), and Piet Retief.

3. English.

Place-names in English are far outnumbered by those in both the regional African languages and Afrikaans, settlers from the British Isles having arrived at a point when a topographical naming system was largely in place. Cape Town is a direct translation of Afrikaans Kaapstad, and both forms are in regular everyday use, and distinctively English names follow the general pattern found elsewhere in territories formerly governed from Great Britain: transferred British names, often adapted, as with Bedford, East London, Margate, and Sutherland, and commemorative names, such as Durban (formerly D'Urban, after a governor of that name), Ladysmith, Lambert's Bay, Marydale, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, George (after King George III), King Williams Town, Prince Albert Road, and Uniondale. Hybridization occurs, between English and Zulu in Mhlanga Rocks and English and Afrikaans in Fraserburg (an Afrikaans adaptations of Scottish Fraserburgh).

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