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 African inhabitants of the region. (In addition some 94% of the 1.1 million inhabitants of Asian descent, and 19% of the 4 million Coloured, or mixed race, inhabitants are English mother tongue speakers.) The dialect can be identified, however, by the multiple loanwords drawn largely from Afrikaans, but increasingly also from Zulu and other indigenous languages as well as Greek, Portuguese and various Indian languages. Some of these words, like "trek", have seeped into general English usage throughout the globe.
The dialect was exposed to a humorous treatment by Robin Malan in his book 'Ah Big Yaws', first published in 1972. The book is concise, and conforms more or less to the spoken dialect of Cape Town in 1974–76, 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, 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 1980s.
The fourth edition of the Dictionary of South African English was released in 1991, and the Oxford Dictionary released its South African English dictionary in 2002.
The first codification and characterisation of the dialect was done in 1971 by Robin Malan, then a lecturer in English at Stellenbosch University. His monograph, called "Ah Big Yaws", was intended to be a humorous look at the Afrikaans-influenced English of white, urban Afrikaans-English speaking South Africans (WUESA's in acronym, humorously renamed 'Woozers' by Malan).
In his foreword, Malan noted that there are a lot more permutations on English Dialects in South Africa, e.g., English modified by Bantu languages such as Xhosa, Sepedi, Zulu and so forth, and noted there are many permutations where English would be a secondary, tertiary or even more remarkably a quaternary language for many speakers. He therefore confined his monograph to the dialect he had most contact with.
The book remains a vital resource for comparative linguists, as it is a 'snapshot' of the South African dialect in the 1970s, and give useful comprehension of South African terms still in use today.
With respect to phonology, South African English is closely related to Australian and New Zealand English and to the English of southeastern England, in which the Southern Hemisphere dialects have their roots. Afrikaans and Xhosa have heavily influenced only those living in largely Afrikaans or Xhosa areas.
The most noticeable feature of South African pronunciation is probably the short-i /ɪ/. This is a part of the vowel shift that has occurred in South Africa as well as New Zealand. However, while New Zealand /ɪ/ is consistently realised as a schwa-like vowel [ə], South African /ɪ/ has two different allophones, whose occurrence is predictable by phonological rule: [ɪ] as in kit and [ə] as in bit. See kit-bit split.
Another difference between South African English and New Zealand English is in the pronunciation of 'ar' and 'ow', as in the pronunciation of the sentence 'park the car downtown'.
High Rising Terminal is not a feature of South African English.
English spoken by mother-tongue speakers of Bantu languages is often influenced by intonation and pronunciation of their languages.
There are words that do not exist in British or American English, usually derived from Afrikaans or African languages, although, particularly in Durban, there is also an influence from Indian languages. Terms in common with North American English include 'freeway' or 'highway' (British English 'motorway'), 'cellphone' (British and Australian English: mobile) and 'buck' meaning money (rand, in this case, and not a dollar). South Africans generally refer to the different codes of football, such as soccer and rugby union, by those names. There is a great difference between South African English dialects: in Johannesburg the local form is very strongly English-based, while its Eastern Cape counterpart has a strong Afrikaans influence. Although differences between the two are sizeable, there are many similarities.
Some words peculiar to South African English include 'takkies', 'tackie' or 'tekkie' for sneakers (American) or trainers (British), 'combi' or 'kombi' for a small van similar to a Volkswagen Kombi, 'bakkie' for a pick-up truck, 'kiff' for pleasurable, 'lekker' for nice, 'donga' for ditch and 'jol' for party.
South African spelling has also been influenced by other sources. For example, while British English may refer to a prison as a "gaol", South Africans tend to spell the word as "jail". Other regional differences (such as the use of "s" or use of "z" in words such as "recognise" or "empathise") may vary from person to person - as a result, different forms are usually accepted regardless.
Other idiomatic phrases influenced or taken from Afrikaans include "are you coming with?" ("Are you coming with us?" also found in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast), "she'll be here just now" instead of "she'll be here soon", and "ja well, no fine" instead of "things are okay, so-so". Use of Afrikaans expletives such as "Jirre", "Donner", "Bliksem", are common among Anglo-Africans. In addition, the use of "bru" (from Afrikaans "broer") is analogue to "bro" amongst English speakers in the western US.
The use of "hey" at the end of a sentence (mainly used in Gauteng province) derives from Cape Dutch e.g.,: "Are you well, hey?" or "It's a nice day today, hey?” there is no relation to the Canadian "eh". Indians from the Gauteng town of Lenasia use "neh" at the end of a sentence, analogous to "innit"-meaning "isn't it" as used by many young British people. "Must" is sometimes used figuratively to express a desire rather than a literal command, e.g.,: "You must come by after the show" would mean, "It would be nice to meet after the show". (The use of "should" in this way is common in the United States.)
'How's it?', or 'Howzit?' is a very common informal greeting for English speaking South Africans and second language speakers of English from all backgrounds. It may derive from the informal Afrikaans greeting "Hoe's dit?" (Lit. "How's it?").