South Africa has 11 official languages. South Africa also recognises eight non-official languages as "national languages". Of the official languages, two are Indo-European languages — English and Afrikaans — while the other nine are languages of the Bantu family (within Africa's largest phylum, Niger-Congo).
The most common language spoken at home by South Africans is Zulu (24 percent speak Zulu at home), followed by Xhosa (18 percent), and Afrikaans (13 percent). English is only the sixth-most common home language in the country, but is understood in most urban areas and is the dominant language in government and the media.
The majority of South Africans speak a language from one of the two principal branches of the Bantu languages represented in South Africa: the Sotho-Tswana branch (Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tswana), or the Nguni branch (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele). For each of the two groups, the languages within that group are for the most part intelligible to a native speaker of any other language within that group.
As can be seen from the accompanying maps, the nine indigenous African languages of South Africa can be divided into two geographical zones, with Nguni languages being predominant in the south-eastern third of the country (Indian Ocean coast) and Sotho languages being predominant in the northern third of the country located further inland, as also in Botswana and Lesotho. Gauteng is the most linguistically heterogeneous province, with roughly equal numbers of Nguni, Sotho and Indo-European language speakers. This has resulted in the spread of an urban argot, Tsotsitaal, in large urban townships in the province.
Venda and Tsonga are neither Nguni nor Sotho-Tswana languages.
Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, is the most widely spoken language in the western third of the country (Western and Northern Cape). It is spoken not only by a majority of whites but also by about 90 percent of Coloured (multiracial) people in the country. Afrikaans is also spoken widely across the centre and north of the country, as a second (or third or even fourth) language by Black South Africans living in farming areas.
In reality, the membership of this additional list above is very varied. South African Sign Language is an utterly distinct though incompletely emerged national standard language which also subsumes a cluster of semi-standardised dialects. The Constitution mentions "sign language" in the generic sense rather than, as is widely believed, South African Sign Language specifically. Another four can properly be termed languages (Northern Ndebele, Phuthi, Khoe, and Nama). San (Khoesan) is an imprecisely named cluster of languages. Lobedu has been claimed to be a dialect of Northern Sotho, but is perhaps more accurately classed as an autonomous language. Fanagalo is a semi-stable pidgin of uncertain contemporary status.
Significant numbers of immigrants from Europe, elsewhere in Africa, and the Indian subcontinent means that a wide variety of other languages can also be found in parts of South Africa. In the older immigrant communities there are: Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Polish, Portuguese, Tamil, Urdu, Yiddish, and smaller numbers of French and German speakers.
These non-official languages may be used in limited semi-official use where it has been determined that these languages are prevalent. More importantly, these languages have significant local functions in specific communities whose identity is tightly bound around the linguistic and cultural identity that these non-official SA languages signal.
Of the listed non-official languages, the fastest growing are perhaps Portuguese - first spoken by white settlers and black and mestiço settlers and refugees from Angola and Mozambique after they won independence from Portugal and now by more recent immigrants from those countries again - and increasingly French, spoken by immigrants and refugees from Francophone Central Africa. Finally, more recently, many thousands of speakers of North, Central and West African languages have arrived in South Africa, mostly in the major cities, especially in Johannesburg and Pretoria, but also Cape Town and Durban.
Chapter 1 (Founding Provisions), Section 6 (Languages) of the Constitution of South Africa is the basis for government language policy. The English text of the constitution signed by president Nelson Mandela on 16 December 1996 curiously contains the names of the languages in the language of the language itself rather than English. Controversy surrounds the use of Sepedi as opposed to Sesotho sa Leboa (which was the wording in the 1994 interim constitution) in the text. The spelling of Venda is also incorrectly rendered as Tshivenda instead of the correct Tshivenḓa:
- # The official languages of the Republic are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.
- # Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.
- #(a) The national government and provincial governments may use any particular official languages for the purposes of government, taking into account usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances and the balance of the needs and preferences of the population as a whole or in the province concerned; but the national government and each provincial government must use at least two official languages.
(b) Municipalities must take into account the language usage and preferences of their residents.
- # The national government and provincial governments, by legislative and other measures, must regulate and monitor their use of official languages. Without detracting from the provisions of subsection (2), all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably.
- # A Pan South African Language Board established by national legislation must
(a) promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of -
(i) all official languages;
(ii) the Khoi, Nama and San languages; and
(iii) sign language; and
(b) promote and ensure respect for -
(i) all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa, including German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Portuguese, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu; and
(ii) Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and other languages used for religious purposes in South Africa.
|Zulu||10 677 000||23.8%|
|Xhosa||7 907 000||17.6%|
|Afrikaans||5 983 000||13.3%|
|Northern Sotho||4 209 000||9.4%|
|Tswana||3 677 000||8.2%|
|English||3 673 000||8.2%|
|Sotho||3 555 000||7.9%|
|Tsonga||1 992 000||4.4%|
|Swati||1 194 000||2.7%|
|Venda||1 022 000||2.3%|
|Other languages||217 000||0.5%|
|Total||44 820 000||100.0%|