South African languages: Exploring the languages of South Africa

July 2, 2021
South African languages: Exploring the languages of South Africa

I’ve really enjoyed writing about languages in Africa recently, so I thought it was high time to put the languages of South Africa under the spotlight. South African language is a fascinating topic, not least because the country is home to an impressive 11 official languages. And that’s just part of the South Africa language story. There are also many languages in the country that don’t have official status, all of which contribute to South Africa’s immense linguistic diversity. 

If you’d like to know more about African languages in general, then click the link below. If you’re ready 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 Origins of the Languages of South Africa

South African language dates back further than language in almost every other location on Earth. That’s because Africa (most likely East Africa) was the birthplace of modern humans. Historians believe that there were humans in South Africa over 100,000 years ago, providing some idea of just how long the country’s linguistic heritage is. 

The Fascinating History of Language in South Africa 

Clearly, over such a vast 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 Southern Africa. 

Indigenous Languages

Sadly, we are likely to see !Orakobab and Nǁng join the ranks of South Africa’s lost languages very soon, if they haven’t already become extinct. !Orakobab was noted to have just six native speakers back in 2008, while Nǁng had only five in 2013. 

Thankfully, the South African language Khoekhoegowab is faring somewhat better. Also called Nama and Damara, the language has around 167,000 native speakers currently, spread across both South African and Namibia (where it is a national language and used in public administration as well as education up to university level). In South Africa, Khoekhoegowab is used for radio shows, but is not classed as one of the country’s 11 official languages.  

Colonial Languages 

From the 13th century onwards, the South Africa language map began to be influenced by native tongues from Europe. Portuguese explorers, in particular, were determined to navigate their way around Africa in order to find a new route to China. They began exploring the African coast in the 13th century and continued to do so in both 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 had rather more 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 grow in earnest. 

The English vied with the Dutch for control of South African resources, meaning that both nations were at pains to establish their languages in South Africa, often at the expense of the languages already in existence there. When the colonisers discovered gold and diamonds in South Africa in the 19th century, the linguistic invasion intensified. 

South African Language Families

South African languages can be grouped into two families: Niger-Congo languages and Indo-European languages. I want to take a quick look at these groupings, before I explore the official languages of South Africa (SA) in more detail. 


SA official languages include nine native African tongues. These all come under the Niger-Congo language family but can be split into subgroups within that. IsiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, siSwati, Xitsonga are all Nguni-Tsonga languages, while Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana and Tshivenḓa are classed as Sotho-Makua-Venda languages. 

The languages can be further subdivided. IsiZulu, isiXhosa, isNdebele and siSwati are all Nguni languages, while Xitsonga is a Tswa-Ronga tongue. Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana, meanwhile, are all Sotho-Tswana languages, while Tshivenḓa sits off to one side on the South African language tree. 


South Africa’s imported languages – English and Afrikaans – are both from the Indo-European language group. Both sit within the West Germanic branch of that group of languages. 

The Most Common Language in South Africa 

What language is spoken in South Africa more than any other? Zulu. Called isiZulu in South African English and with well over 11.5 million speakers, Zulu is the most common language in South Africa. It 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. 

The 11 Official Languages in South Africa

What are the official languages of South Africa? The 11 official languages of South Africa, in order of number of speakers, are:

• Zulu

• Xhosa

• Afrikaans

• English

• Sesotho sa Leboa

• Setswana

• Sesotho

• Tsonga

• Swati

• Tshivenḓa

• Ndebele

These 11 languages were signed into the Constitution of South Africa on 16 December 1996, by President Nelson Mandela. 

Let’s explore each official language of South Africa in turn. As a side note, if you’re looking to learn a new language rather than just read about it, why not check out the link below?

Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn in 2020


The most widely spoken of the official languages of South Africa (when ranked by number of native speakers), Zulu is a Southern Bantu language. Speakers are clustered in the KwaZulu-Natal province in southeastern South Africa. Interestingly, the standard Zulu that is used in schools differs somewhat from urban Zulu, which you’re more likely to hear spoken in city streets. One key difference is that standard Zulu tends to create words for new items and concepts (such as umakhalekhukhwini for mobile phone/cell phone), while urban Zulu adopts English loan words and derivations of them instead (icell). 


The second most widely spoken language of South Africa is Xhosa. Also called isiXhosa, this Nguni Bantu language has more than 8.1 million native speakers in South Africa, as well as some 11 million second language speakers. 

Xhosa is a click language, with around 10% of basic vocabulary containing one of three distinct click consonants. That makes it one of the most click-heavy Bantu languages. 

In geographic terms, Xhosa speakers can be found mainly in the southeast of South Africa, though sizeable populations also exist in Cape Town and other major cities. 


One result of the colonisation of South Africa was the birth of Afrikaans. Originally a much-looked-down-upon form of Dutch used to communicate with servants in the colonies, it 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 is the third most natively spoken SA language. It’s 6.8 million speakers are dotted across South Africa, with particularly dense concentrations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and other major cities.  


Fourth on the list of the main languages in South Africa is English, with just shy of 4.9 million speakers. English is used as the language of government in South Africa and extensively in the media, but just 9.6% of the population speaks it at home. 

South African English has a number of different 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. 

Location-wise, English speakers in South Africa are concentrated around urban and coastal areas across the country. Though spoken as a first language by under 10% of the population, English is widely spoken as a second language and thus is often used for communication. 

Sesotho sa Leboa

Another South Africa official language is Sesotho sa Leboa, also known as Northern Sotho. 4.6 million South Africans speak Sesotho sa Leboa as their first language, meaning there are almost as many Sesotho sa Leboa speakers in South Africa as English speakers. 

Sesotho sa Leboa speakers are found mainly in northeastern South Africa. Their main dialect is Sepedi and some people even use this as a synecdoche to refer to the language as a whole, however many Sesotho sa Leboa speakers object to this.  


Setwsana is spoken mainly in northern South Africa, as well as in Cape Town, with a few pockets of speakers dotted around other areas of the country too. In total, South Africa is home to over 4 million native Setswana speakers. 

Also called Tswana, this Bantu language is spoken mainly in northwestern South Africa, including in the city of Pretoria. There, the language contains so much slang that it is known as Pretoria Sotho. That version of Setswana is the principal language of Pretoria and is unique to the city. Outside of Pretoria, Setswana speakers can be found in the Gauteng, Northern Cape and North West provinces. 


Sesotho is a South African language with over 3.8 million first language speakers in South Africa. It is also spoken in Lesotho, where it is the national language, and Zimbabwe. 

Sesotho (or Sotho) has much in common linguistically with Setswana. Interestingly, the language has almost no discernible dialect variation, despite being spoken throughout much of central South Africa, as well as in Cape Town and areas to the west of the country. 


Tsonga, also called Xitsonga, has over 2.2 million native speakers in South Africa. It is mutually intelligible with the Tswa and Ronga languages of Mozambique and is also recognised as an official language in Zimbabwe, where it is called Shangani. 

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


Another of the official SA languages, Swati (also called Swazi, and called siSwati by its speakers) has just short of 1.3 million native speakers in South Africa. Speakers are concentrated in the northeast of South Africa, with few elsewhere in the country. 


Tshivenḓa, which i salso referred to as Venḓa is another of South Africa’s Bantu languages. With 1.2 million speakers, it is the tenth most spoken of all South African languages. Clusters of speakers are found mainly in the Johannesburg area and in the far northeast. 


The last on our list of official South Africa languages is Ndebele. Another language that uses clicks for consonants, Ndebele has just under 1.1 million first language speakers in South Africa. Most live in and around Johannesburg, while Ndebele speakers can also be found in Cape Town and along the southeastern coast. 

Zimbabwe is home to Ndebele speakers as well, but the Zimbabwean version is a separate language to the South African language. 

The Complete List of Languages in South Africa 

How many languages are spoken in South Africa altogether? Some 36 languages are spoken there, which between them include a range of dialects and variations. In addition to the 11 South African languages named as official languages in the Constitution, the country is home to: 

• Khoekhoegowab

• !Orakobab

• Xirikobab

• N|uuki

• !Xunthali

• Khwedam

• SiPhuthi

• IsiHlubi

• SiBhaca

• SiLala 

• SiNhlangwini (IsiZansi)

• SiNrebele (SiSumayela)

• IsiMpondo/IsiMpondro

• IsiMpondomise/IsiMpromse/Isimpomse

• KheLobedu

• SePulana

• HiPai

• SeKutswe

• SeṰokwa

• SeHananwa

• SiThonga

• SiLaNgomane

• SheKgalagari

• XiRhonga

• SeKopa (Sekgaga)

The Cultural Importance of South African Languages 

The mix of languages spoken in South Africa is of huge cultural significance. The use of language is intertwined with matters of history, race, politics and much, much more. 

Today, South Africa is such a linguistic melting pot that the vast majority of the population speaks at least two languages. In fact, the average South African speaks 2.84 languages. Often, one language is used in the home and another at work, in education or in other formal settings. And often, languages are mixed even within the same conversation, with speakers code-switching without necessarily realising they are doing so. 


I’ve looked at the languages of South African from different angles in this article, so I hope you’ve found it useful. To recap, I’ve covered: 

• A glimpse of some of South Africa’s oldest languages

• What language in South Africa has more speakers than any other (Zulu)

• What the 11 official South African languages are 

• A complete list of languages in South Africa

• A look at which languages are spoken in which areas of the country

Do you speak more than one South African language? If so, we’d love to hear about which language you speak in which setting. Leave a comment to share your experiences! 

Finally, if you’re hungry for more, why not click the link below to head over to my post on the languages of Nigeria? 

Read more: The Languages of Nigeria


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