Language Diversity: Exploring the Most Widely Spoken South African Languages

Language Diversity: Exploring the Most Widely Spoken South African Languages

Language and culture…. these two terms are the most important identity parameters in South Africa. With a population of around 60,790,987 million people speaking more than 30 languages, South Africa is considered the most multicultural and multiethnic country on the African continent. It is known as the “rainbow nation” where people from different races are connecting and appreciating the culture of one another. 

While the country recognizes 11 official languages, some languages are more widely spoken than others. Each language carries its distinct history, traditions, and cultural practices. In this blog post, we will walk you through some of the most widely spoken languages in South Africa highlighting their historical and cultural characteristics. 

Unveiling the Language Diversity of South Africa

Before delving into some of the official South African languages, let’s first give you a closer look at how the South African languages revived once again after centuries of apartheid and cultural resilience. 

Over the past centuries, the South African indigenous languages were ignored although they are spoken by more than 80% of the total population. Attention was only given to the languages that were brought to the country by colonization such as Dutch, English, and Afrikaans. 

However, in 1996, the new South African constitution brought the indigenous African languages into life again by recognizing 11 languages to be the official languages of South Africa among which 8 indigenous African languages. These languages are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. The new constitution also emphasized that all the 11 official languages should be treated equitably. This, in turn, has strengthened South Africans’ sense of belonging, community, and identity.

Now, we will shine a spotlight on some of the most spoken South African languages.

IsiZulu

It is the biggest language in South Africa and is spoken by over 15.13 million people who form a quarter of the South African population. IsiZulu is also referred to as “Zulu” and is related to the Nguni group of Bantu languages. It is a popular language that more than 50% of the South African population can understand and communicate in. Moreover, some languages adopted some words from Zulu such as English. 

Isizulu is mainly spoken in KwaZulu-Natal, the coastal South African province which is the home of the Zulu people. However, you can also find Zulu speakers in Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

The first Bible in Zulu was written in 1883. Also, John Dube wrote the first Zulu novel titled “Insila kaShaka” which was followed by many valuable literary works that reflected the beauty of the language and its cultural heritage.

Dialects

There are two main dialects of Isizulu which are Lala and Qwabe. They are known as rural dialects since they are widespread in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Culture

Being the largest ethnic group in South Africa, the Zulu people call themselves “the people of heaven.” According to the Zulu culture, women’s clothing differs according to marital status. For instance, a single Zulu woman often wears skirts made out of grass or beaded cotton strings, while a married woman prefers to wear long dresses that cover her full body.

 

The Zulu people are also known for their unique dance and music which include drums. Different types of dances in the Zulu culture refer to different occasions such as the hunting dance that shows the bravery of hunters. 

 Xhosa

Xhosa, also known as Isixhosa, is the second most widely spoken language in South Africa with about 10.11 million speakers. Originally, the word “Xhosa” was taken from the Khoisan language and means “angry men”. Like Zulu, Xhosa belongs to the Bantu family of languages and is a representative of the southwestern Nguni family. 

Most of the Xhosa-speaking population exists in the Eastern Cape where the language is taught in schools. However, if you visit Cape Town, the Western Cape, or Gauteng, you will also find many Xhosa speakers. 

Xhosa is known for its unique click sounds, which are a distinctive feature of the language. These tongue-clicking sounds date back to the indigenous Khoisan people, who used to involve different clicks in their speech and language. The clicking consonants of the Xhosa language are aggressive and uncommon, making the language one of the most difficult languages to learn in South Africa.

Dialects

Xhosa has several dialects such as Gcaleka, Bhaca, Ngqika, Thembu, Mpondomise, Mfengu, Mpondo and Bomvana.

Culture

The Xhosa or the red-blanked people, as many call them, are divided into clans and tribes such as the Pondo, Bomvana, and Thembu. 

The Xhosa prefer wearing cotton-woven clothes. For women, they usually wear white dresses and headdresses with colours that differ according to the areas they come from.

In the Xhosa culture, stick fighting is men’s favourite art. They learn it from a young age to defend their families and tribes. 

Afrikaans

Afrikaans is the third most spoken language in South Africa, with approximately 6.57 million speakers. Also known as cape Dutch, Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that developed the Dutch vernacular of South Holland. The European settlers used this vernacular as a way to communicate easily with their African slaves in Southwestern Africa. 

Over the centuries, Afrikaans home language was affected by several languages including Malay, Portuguese, and indigenous African languages. Until the early 20th century, Afrikaans was regarded as one of the Dutch dialects. However, it became a separate language in 1925.

Afrikaans has played a significant role in South African history, particularly during the apartheid era, when it was used as the language of the government and education system. Today, Afrikaans continues to be an important language in various domains, including literature, media, and music. Furthermore, Afrikaans translators are now more required than ever before to translate Afrikaans valuable written works into various languages.

Dialects

Afrikaans has a large number of varieties and dialects, the most important of which are:

  • Cape Afrikaans
  • East Cape Afrikaans
  • Orange River Afrikaans

Culture

The Afrikaans culture is a mix between the indigenous African cultures and the European cultures of immigrants.

Afrikaners tend to reflect their cultural aspects in their dance, music, and festivals. They have deep respect and appreciation for their history and tradition. As for sports, they prefer playing rugby, cricket, and golf. 

English

English is widely spoken in South Africa and serves as a lingua franca for communication between different language groups. It is the fourth most spoken language in the country, with around 4.8 million speakers. English was introduced during the colonial period and has remained a dominant language in business, government, and education. Proficiency in English is often seen as a valuable skill for employment and upward mobility.

Of course, South African English is distinguished from standard English as it is impacted by accents from other languages. Furthermore, it has many borrowed words from other indigenous languages. For example, it has words borrowed from Zulu like “ubantu” which means “humanity” and “indaba” which means “conference.” 

Putting It All Together

The most spoken languages in South Africa, including Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English, play a significant role in shaping the country’s cultural landscape. While these languages differ in their historical origins and cultural implications, they all contribute to the vibrant tapestry of South African society.

Afrolingo is a leading translation agency in South Africa that provides top-notch language services for almost all African languages. Our team of professionals combine the power of technology with their expertise and knowledge to deliver language services that meet your business requirements. Do not hesitate and talk to our experts today!