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Language diversity contributes to the vitality of “The Rainbow Nation” at the end of the African continent. Writer Ingrid Sinclair walks us through the origins of this multilingual society and offers ideas on its future.
Text: Ingrid Sinclair
Country: South Africa

erched on the southern end of the African continent, South Africa was a pivotal alternative stopover for European pioneers who were mapping the seven seas in the 16th Century.

The country’s founding is based on colonization and settlement both by people from other continents and by Africans moving south from the central part of the continent.

Today, South Africa celebrates being a multi-ethnic society, a “rainbow nation”. This colorful moniker was coined by former Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the diversity of the South African people, and former President Nelson Mandela used it to encourage a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. Mandela described South Africa as “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”.


Where there is a diversity of people, you can count on diversity of language. South Africa has no fewer than 11 official languages. In South Africa, English is the dominant language in commerce, media and government. Most South Africans have a speaking knowledge of English, but only 9.6% of the total South African population – which exceeds 50 million – call English their first language. As such, most South Africans are at least bilingual, with many people able to speak three or more of the 11 languages.

You might think that the numerous languages of southern Africa is unique, but Kobus Marais, senior lecturer of language management and language practice at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa said: “All over the world, groups of people have developed languages that are different from those of adjacent groups.”

As for how these languages developed, Marais said, “It could have been that there were many more languages, some of which have died out, or it could have been that languages just developed in parallel. It all depends on the theory of evolution of languages that you hold.”

The 11 languages

The 11 languages of South Africa, in order of mother-tongue dominance, are: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda and Ndebele. These languages can be categorized according to tribal groups and overlap some in terms of geographical distribution.

Zulu is the most common language in South Africa and, according to the 2011 census, more than 23% of the population cites it as their mother tongue. One of four Nguni languages, Zulu is the language of the largest ethnic group in South Africa and is the most widely understood, from the north to the south of the country. The second-biggest language of South Africa is Xhosa, which has been spoken by people living on the coast of southeastern Africa since long before the 1500s. Approximately 16% of the South African population uses Xhosa as a first language, and it has several regional dialects.

Because of the similarity in grammar and vocabulary, many South Africans are able to understand other ethnic languages, especially those who belong to the same groups, like the Nguni and Sotho language families. However, the languages are by no means interchangeable, and are recognized as distinct by the South African constitution and the language institutes that govern the preservation of language in all its complexity in South Africa.

What about Afrikaans?

Afrikaans is widely considered to be the youngest language in the world, although such a claim is always contentious, considering the fluidity of language. Nevertheless, it is the third most spoken language at home in South Africa, and it is completely unique to South Africa.

Afrikaans-speaking communities have been recorded as far afield as Argentina, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil, but these communities are Afrikaans emigrants and their descendents, all originating from South Africa.

Afrikaans developed from several languages – predominantly Dutch. It developed from the colony established on the southern coast of Africa by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, creating the city today known as Cape Town. More than 90% of the Afrikaans vocabulary stems from Dutch, though words from languages such as Malay, Portuguese and indigenous Khoisan have also been integrated into the language. Afrikaans- and Dutch-speaking people can usually understand each other pretty well.

Despite Afrikaans’ European roots, though, the majority of Afrikaans speakers today are not of European descent.

Apartheid and the languages

We may have come to assume that “normal” countries have only one or two languages. But, said Marais, this is not actually the norm.

“Before the development of the nation state, Europe also had many more languages, but they were suppressed for the sake of national unity. Even in Germany, there are various versions of German, which are now regarded as dialects but which were once languages. The tongue-in-cheek definition of a language is that it is a dialect with an army.”

Indeed, before the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the architects of apartheid did what they could to force the dominance of Afrikaans and English, complete with the legislative control of schooling. However, with transformation came the embracing of diversity, an approach that favors inclusion and that today informs the country’s constitution and legislation.

So why have all these languages survived despite the active efforts of the previous regime? There are several reasons, Marais said.

“The first is the fact that languages survive unless they are actively killed. Despite many colonial efforts to have monolingual states, languages have survived,” Marais said. “Secondly, missionaries contributed to the survival of South African languages because they put the languages to writing in order to translate the Bible. In fact, some scholars say that not all of what is regarded as ‘languages’ today were different languages when the missionaries came.

“Thirdly, apartheid played a huge role in this respect. By focusing on difference and by putting people in homelands, people were forced to relate to particular languages and language groups. I would say that the ‘normal’ group identity was actually strengthened by apartheid.”

South Africa Nowadays

Today, the numerous languages in South Africa present advantages and pose a unique challenge. “On the positive side, it enhances a multiplicity of views and worldviews; it gives people the opportunity for linking language to identity. It tries to build a complex society in which both diversity and unity is respected and it creates a hybrid kind of society which, in theory, is richer than ‘pure’ societies,” Marais said.

“On the negative side, it causes communication problems, it makes public communication expensive, and it could be divisive politically, that is, lead to tribalism.”

Can we expect all 11 of South Africa’s languages — even those that are only actively spoken by a fraction of a rapidly expanding population — to survive into the future? That, said Marais, is a very difficult thing to predict.

“Language death and language growth are very complex processes that are related to extremely complex factors in the language ecology. If government does not put into place legal and policy measures to enhance multilingualism, some languages may well be used in oral form only, most probably the ones with the fewest speakers first. It may even be that we develop a common language over the next two to five centuries. It will largely depend on pressure from speakers of these languages and people who are willing to put money into their development.”

Several South African institutions are invested in the survival and development of all 11 languages. According to Marais, “The Department of Basic Education has embarked on a policy where all educators should offer at least one African language. National and provincial governments are working on languages acts and languages policies. Corporate business and the media are becoming more sensitive to the multilingual nature of their clientele.”

A number of non-governmental institutes exist to facilitate the translation of texts into all 11 languages and to ensure the preservation of the lingua francas.

South Africa is a great of example of the power of diversity. While the origins of its diversity are not exactly unique, the ongoing development and celebration of that diversity certainly makes it unique in the world.

The 7 other languages

The other seven native languages in South Africa are spoken to a lesser degree, but are no less pivotal to local cultures today

  • Home language of 8% of the population.
  • The first ethnic South African language to be translated into the written form.
Northern Sotho
  • Spoken at home by 9.1% of South Africans.
  • The language contains more than 30 dialects.
  • The home language of 7.6% of the country’s population.
  • TOne of three Sotho languages, along with Northern Sotho and Tswana.
  • Spoken at home by 4.5% of the South African population.
  • The language of what is believed to be the last ethnic African group to settle in South Africa, along the northern border of the Limpopo River.
  • Spoken by 2.5% of South Africans.
  • Official language of the Kingdom of Swaziland.
  • Spoken by 2.4% of South Africans.
  • Venda people are culturally closer to the Shona of Zimbabwe than to any other South African group.
  • Home language of 2% of the population.
  • One of four Nguni languages, along with Xhosa, Zulu and Swati.


The 11 lenguages of South Africa .

South Africa is located at the southern end of the African continent and is a mixture of colonization from other continents and Africans who moved south from central Africa. Today South Africa is known as a ‘rainbow nation’, which describes the diversity of the South African people.

Because there is such a diversity of people, there is also a diversity of languages. South Africa has 11 official languages. English is the dominant language in commerce, media and government and is spoken by most South Africans. However, only a small percentage of the population consider English their first language. Most South Africans are bilingual and many speak three or more of the 11 languages.

Zulu is the most common language in South Africa, followed by Xhosa. Afrikaans is a newer language and is the third most spoken language in South Africa. It is completely unique to South Africa and is a mixture of several other languages, predominantly Dutch. Despite its European roots, most Afrikaans speakers today are not of European descent.

Apartheid separated people by their ethnicity, which forced them to relate to particular languages and language groups. In this way it actually contributed to the survival of many of these languages. Today the Department of Basic Education requires that all educational institutions offer at least one African language.



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South Africa



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11 languages of South Africa


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