South African languages: Exploring the languages of South Africa

February 5, 2024
South African languages: Exploring the languages of South Africa

I always look forward to writing about languages in Africa, so I thought I should put the languages of South Africa under the spotlight. South African languages generate many fascinating discussion topics. For example, South Africa acknowledges 11 official languages, but many other languages do not enjoy the same status. All South African languages contribute to the nation’s immense linguistic diversity. 

If you want to learn more about all African languages, click the link below. If you prefer to take a deep dive into the languages in South Africa, read on. 

Read more: African Languages: A Detailed Look into the Languages of Africa

The Fascinating Origins and History of Languages in South Africa 

The origin of language in South Africa dates back further than every other location on Earth because the African continent served as the birthplace of modern humans. Historians believe humans first migrated to South Africa between 130,000 and 260,000 years ago, which provides some perspective on the length of the country’s linguistic heritage. 

Over such a long period of time, many languages have come and gone. However, we can still see ancient linguistic traces in some of the indigenous languages spoken in South Africa today. Khoekhoegowab, !Orakobab, Nǁng, N|uuki, !Xunthali, and Khwedam are some of the oldest languages in South Africa. 

South African Language Families

South African languages are classified into two families: Niger-Congo and Indo-European languages. Let’s take a quick look at these language families before we explore the official languages of South Africa in more detail. 


South Africa’s official languages include nine native African tongues. They all fit into the Niger-Congo language family but are split into subgroups. The Nguni-Tsonga language subgroup includes IsiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, siSwati, and Xitsonga. The Sotho-Makua-Venda language subgroup contains Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, and Tshivenḓa.

These languages then divide into even smaller groups. For example, locals consider IsiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele, and siSwati as Nguni languages, but Xitsonga remains the lone Tswa-Ronga tongue. Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, and Setswana classify as Sotho-Tswana languages, while Tshivenḓa sits off to one side as a Venda language. 


South Africa’s imported languages, English and Afrikaans, fall into the Indo-European language family. Both languages rest on the West Germanic branch of the Germanic language family.

Colonial Languages 

From the 13th century onwards, South Africa’s linguistic map received influence from the native tongues of Europe. Portuguese explorers wished to navigate around South Africa to find a new route to China. They started exploring the African coast in the 13th century and continued through the 14th and 15th centuries, finally rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. 

While Portugal’s explorers focused mainly on mapping the coastline, representatives of the Dutch East India Company harbored greedy intentions when they founded a trading post in Cape Town in 1652. With the establishment of the Dutch Cape Colony, the influence of European languages in South Africa began to expand in earnest. 

The English and Dutch vied for control of South African resources and worked toward establishing their languages in South Africa, often at the expense of native South African languages. In the 19th century, the colonists discovered gold and diamonds in South Africa, and the linguistic invasion intensified.

Other Indigenous South African Languages

Unfortunately, !Orakobab and Nǁng will join the ranks of South Africa’s lost languages soon. !Orakobab had just six native speakers in 2008, while Nǁng had only five in 2013. They live in separate villages, so the languages do not see daily use.

Thankfully, Khoekhoegowab has fared somewhat better. Also called Nama and Damara, the language has around 167,000 native speakers spread across South Africa and Namibia. Namibia named it a national language and uses it in public administration and education up to the university level. In South Africa, Khoekhoegowab is used on radio shows but does not enjoy the same status as the country’s 11 official languages.  

The 11 Official Languages in South Africa

What languages are spoken in South Africa? What are the official languages of South Africa? While English serves as the language of business and official settings, South Africa boasts a remarkable linguistic diversity. The country recognizes 11 official languages, including African languages like Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho, as well as Afrikaans and English. To give you a quick overview of the 11 languages spoken in South Africa, check out the list below:

1. Zulu
2. Xhosa
3. Afrikaans
4. English
5. Sesotho sa Leboa
6. Setswana
7. Sesotho
8. Tsonga
9. Swati
10. Tshivenḓa
11. Ndebele

Former President Nelson Mandela signed these 11 languages into the Constitution of South Africa on December 16, 1996. Let’s explore each official language of South Africa in turn.

As a side note, if you want to learn a new language, check out the link below!

Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn in 2020

1. Zulu – Most Commonly Used Language in South Africa

What language is spoken in South Africa more than any other? Zulu, or isiZulu in South African English, is the most widely used native language of South Africa, spoken by 22.7% of the population at home and understood by around 50% of the population. 

Most speakers of this Southern Bantu language live in the KwaZulu-Natal province in southeastern South Africa. The standard Zulu used in schools differs from urban Zulu, which you will hear on the city streets. Speakers of standard Zulu create words for new items and concepts, like umakhalekhukhwini for cell phones, while urban Zulu speakers adopt English loan words or form derivations, like icell. 

Discover our Zulu translation services and start expanding your business in South Africa.

2. Xhosa

Xhosa serves as the second most widely spoken language of South Africa. Also called isiXhosa, this Nguni Bantu language has more than 8.1 million native speakers in South Africa and 11 million second-language speakers. 

A click language with about 10% of its basic vocabulary containing one of three distinct click consonants, Xhosa remains one of the most click-heavy Bantu languages. 

In geographic terms, most Xhosa speakers live in southeast South Africa, though sizable populations also exist in Cape Town and other major cities. 

Discover our Xhosa translation services and start expanding your business in South Africa.

3. Afrikaans

The birth of Afrikaans resulted from the colonization of South Africa. But what is Afrikaans? Initially seen as a “low” form of Dutch, Afrikaans allowed colonists to communicate with servants. The language took on a greater significance as Dutch colonists tried to assert their dominance in the race to plunder South Africa’s natural resources.

Today, Afrikaans remains the third-most natively spoken South African language. Its 6.8 million speakers dot the country, with dense concentrations in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and other major cities.  

4. English – The Fourth Most Commonly Used Language

With about 4.9 million speakers, English serves as the language of the government in South Africa. Although the media uses it extensively, only 9.6% of the population speaks it at home. 

South African English has several varieties, including three distinct White South African English variants, two Black South African English variants, Indian South African English, Cape Flats English, and Anglophone Coloured English. 

English speakers in South Africa live in urban and coastal areas. Though spoken as a first language by under 10% of the population, English serves as a lingua franca for many South Africans. 

5. Sesotho sa Leboa

Sesotho sa Leboa, also known as Northern Sotho, is another South African official language. Over 4.6 million South Africans speak Sesotho sa Leboa as their first language – almost as many English speakers in South Africa. 

Most Sesotho sa Leboa speakers reside in northeastern South Africa and speak Sepedi as their main dialect. Some South Africans even use “Sepedi” as a synecdoche for Sesotho sa Leboa. However, many locals object to this.  

6. Setswana

People mainly speak Setswana in northern South Africa, Cape Town, and other regions. In total, over four million native Setswana speakers dwell in South Africa. 

Also called Tswana, this Bantu language is used in northwestern South Africa, including the capital city of Pretoria. In Pretoria, the language contains so much slang that locals call it Pretoria Sotho. Outside Pretoria, Setswana speakers live in the Gauteng, Northern Cape, and North West provinces. 

7. Sesotho

Sesotho has over 3.8 million first-language speakers in South Africa. People also speak it in Zimbabwe and Lesotho, where it is the national language. 

Sesotho, or Sotho, shares many features with Setswana. However, Sesotho has almost no dialectal variation despite its use in much of central South Africa, Cape Town, and western parts of the country.

8. Tsonga

Tsonga, also called Xitsonga, has over 2.2 million native speakers in South Africa. Mutually intelligible with Mozambique’s Tswa and Ronga languages, Tsonga enjoys recognition as an official language in Zimbabwe, where citizens call it Shangani. 

Tsonga speakers live in northeastern South Africa, with clusters of speakers in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gaza Province, Maputo Province, Maputo City, Chiredzi District, and Mwenenzi District. 

9. Swati

Swati, also called Swazi and siSwati, has about 1.3 million native speakers in South Africa. Swati speakers reside in northeast South Africa, with few found elsewhere.

10. Tshivenḓa 

Over 1.2 million people speak Tshivenḓa, or Venḓa, making it the tenth most popular South African language. Two groups of Tshivenḓa speakers make their homes in Johannesburg and the far northeast. 

11. Ndebele

Ndebele takes the last spot on our list of official South African languages. Another language that uses clicks for some consonants, Ndebele has under 1.1 million first-language speakers in South Africa. Most live in and around Johannesburg, Cape Town, and the southeastern coast. 

Ndebele speakers dwell in Zimbabwe too, but Zimbabwean Ndebele represents a separate language from the South African version. 

Other South African Language – A Complete List

How many languages are spoken in South Africa altogether? People speak at least 36 languages in South Africa, including a range of dialects and variations. In addition to the 11 official South African languages, you will find the following tongues.


Numbers of Speakers




Orange River, Great Namaland, Damaraland


6 (dormant)

Bloemfontein and Kimberley



Bloemfontein and Kimberley


3 (dormant)

Olifantshoek and Upington



Northern South Africa



Northern South Africa



Eswatini and Mpumalanga Province



Orange River



Southeast of Lesotho



KwaZulu-Natal province

SiNhlangwini (IsiZansi)


KZN South Coast, Bulwer, Ixopo, and Mzimkhulu

SiNrebele (SiSumayela)


Northeast of Southern Ndebele



Eastern Cape



Eastern Cape









Eastern Mpumalanga


















Botswana Border



Mozambique Border

SeKopa (Sekgaga)


Sekhukhune District


Cultural Importance – South Africa as a Melting Pot 

The mix of languages spoken in South Africa proves culturally significant. The use of language intertwines with history, race, politics, and more. 

Most South Africans speak at least two languages because South Africa represents a linguistic melting pot. More accurately, the average South African speaks 2.84 out of 11 official languages. Often, a person will speak one language at home and another at work, in education, or in other formal settings. Speakers will mix languages within the same conversation without realizing it. 


Now that we have looked at the languages of South Africa from different angles, let’s recap. We caught a glimpse of South Africa’s oldest languages, discovered which language in South Africa has the most speakers, and examined the 11 official South African languages. We also perused a complete list of languages in South Africa, including the areas of the country in which they see the most use. 

Do you speak more than one South African language? If so, we would love to hear which languages you speak and where you speak them. Leave a comment to share your experiences! 

Finally, if you want more information on African tongues, click the link below to head over to my post on the languages of Nigeria. 

Read more: The Languages of Nigeria

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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