Language is part of people – Taal is deel van volk


IsiZulu is South Africa’s biggest language, spoken by almost a quarter (23%) of the population. Our other official languages are isiXhosa (spoken by 16%), Afrikaans (13.5%), English (10%), Sesotho sa Leboa (9%), Setswana and Sesotho (both 8%), Xitsonga (4.5%), siSwati and Tshivenda (both 2.5%), and isiNdebele (2%).
Die kaarte spreek vanself, dat Afrikaans die derde grootste taalgroep in die land is.  Ons as volk het ‘n internasionale reg om ons eie leiers te kies en te regeer in ons eie gebiede – onafhanklik.   Heelwat van ons volkslede kan ook ander tale praat, as iemand Zoeloe praat, maak dit nie van daardie persoon ‘n Zoeloe nie.   Daar bestaan ook nie ‘n bevolkingsgroep soos AFRIKAANSES nie.
Map showing the distribution of first-language speakers of South Africa's 11 official languages

Boere en Afrikaners bly steeds ‘n minderheidsvolk.   Al die ander volksgroepe is almal minderhede en sommige is minder as die Boere en Afrikaners.   Gesamentlik maak hulle wel ‘n meerderheid op politieke vlak.   Alle volke is minderhede, wat liberales en kommuniste probeer saam in een pot gooi terwyl olie en water nooit kan meng nie.   Boere en Afrikaners het nes Zoeloes , Xhosa of Khoisan hul eie kultuur, identiteit, taal en tradisies.
Daar mag dalk volkslede wees wat ‘n ander taal magtig is, maar dit maak nie van daardie persoon skielik ‘n ander volksgenoot nie.  Hoekom moet ons dus, omdat ons dalk ‘n taal deel, ons kultuurerfenisse, etnisiteit, tradisies en identiteit prysgee.   Almal probeer ons ook verEngels, terwyl dit juis ‘n Britse ryk taal is.    Daar is ander onafhanklike lande wat netso ‘n klein bevolkingsgroep het.


English is an urban language of public life, widely used in the media, business and government. Out of the 4.9-million South Africans who speak English as a first language, a third (33%) are white, a quarter (24%) are black, 22% are Indian and 19% are coloured South Africans. English is widely used as a second language and common language of communication, mainly in the cities.

Afrikaans is a version of Dutch that evolved out of a South Holland dialect brought here in the 1600s. Over the centuries it has picked up many influences from African languages, as well as from European colonial languages such as English, French and German. More than half (50.2%) of Afrikaans speakers are coloured, 40% are white, 9% black and just 1% Indian.

South Africa’s nine African official languages all fall into the Southern Bantu-Makua subfamily, part of the broad and branching Niger-Congo family of languages. The languages arrived here during the great expansion of Bantu-speaking people from West Africa eastwards and southwards into the rest of the continent. The expansion began in around 3000 BCE and was largely complete by 1000 CE.

Like all languages in the Niger-Congo family they are tonal languages, in which either a high or low tone gives a word a different meaning.

The nine African languages can be broadly divided in two:

  • Nguni-Tsonga languages: isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, siSwati, Xitsonga
  • Sotho-Makua-Venda languages: Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, Tshivenda

Within the first group Xitsonga alone falls into the Tswa-Ronga subfamily, while isiZulu, isiXhosa, isNdebele and siSwati are Nguni languages.

Similarly, Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana are closely related Sotho languages, and Tshivenda something of a standalone in the Sotho-Makua-Venda subfamily.

South Africans are more than bilingual. A rough estimate based on Census 2001 first-language data and a 2002 study of second-languages speakers is that the average South African – man, woman and child – uses 2.84 languages. Obviously, many people are limited to one, and many others able to speak three, four or more languages.

English- and Afrikaans-speaking people (mostly coloured, Indian and white South Africans) tend not to have much ability in African languages, but are fairly fluent in each other’s language. Multilingualism is common among black South Africans.

For this reason, South African censuses ask people which two languages they speak. The question in the 2011 Census was:

Which two languages does (member of household) speak most often in this household?

Thirteen options were given: South Africa’s 11 official languages, plus Sign Language, and “Other”. If a person did not speak a second language, that too was recorded.

The contrast between first language and second language is shown in the maps at right. While the geographical pattern of dominant first languages neatly conforms to the facts of history and urbanisation, the picture of second languages is more complicated, more of a mess.

The second map reveals a couple of things. The first is how few South Africans speak just one language. The second is that while English is the dominant first language only in the cities – Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban – it is widely used as a second language across the country. English is spread by the media and used as a common language of communication.

But many South Africans are compelled to learn English, and often Afrikaans as well, simply to get a job and to work. These are often poorer people denied an adequate education. Elsewhere in the world the ability to speak many languages is a sign of sophistication. In South Africa, multilingualism – a complex undertaking, especially in languages from very different families – is a common achievement of the poor.

Code-switching South Africa

Language is fluid, especially in South Africa. Our languages are and have been for centuries in a constant swirl, mixed by work, migration, education, urbanisation, the places we live, friendship and marriage.

Because of this, South Africans are a code-switching people. “Code switching” simply means using more than one language in a single conversation. Every adult South African does this at some time, even if they aren’t aware of it.

Here’s an example overheard at a football match. IsiZulu is in regular type, Afrikaans in bold and English in italics:

“I-Chiefs isidle nge-referee’s ngabe ihambe sleg.
Maar why benga stopi this system ye-injury time?”

A rough translation:

“Chiefs [the football club] have won because the referee favoured them. Otherwise, they would have lost.
But why is this system of injury time not stopped?”

Two maps, the first showing the geographical distribution of first-language speakers, the second showing the geographical distribution of second-language speakers


South Africa’s Constitution recognises 11 official languages: Sepedi (also known as Sesotho sa Leboa), Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

For centuries South Africa’s official languages were European – Dutch, English, Afrikaans. African languages, spoken by at least 80% of the people, were ignored. In 1996 South Africa’s new Constitution gave official protection to all major languages.

South Africa has about 34 historically established languages. Thirty are living languages, and four extinct Khoesan languages.


Bar graph and pie chart showing South Africa's languages, according to the 2011 census. South Africa's 11 official languages are Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. Sign language and other languages are included.

The 11 languages of South Africa

Een gedagte oor “Language is part of people – Taal is deel van volk”

  1. “Afrikaans is a version of Dutch that evolved out of a South Holland dialect brought here in the 1600s”

    So incorrect. It has much of Deutsch in it. Or German as Anglophones wrongly call it.

    Afrikaans really is an indigenous African language and by no means Dutch Lite. It is spoken by well over seventeen million people globally, mostly not white.

    It became a written language when two Muslim Imams in the Bo-Kaap translated parts of the Q’Uran into a phonetic Afrikaans.


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