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Culture of South Africa

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Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks English at home.
     0–20%      20–40%      40–60%      60–80%      80–100%      No population
Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: density of English home-language speakers.
     <1 /km²      1–3 /km²      3–10 /km²      10–30 /km²      30–100 /km²      100–300 /km²      300–1000 /km²      1000–3000 /km²      >3000 /km²

The term South African English (SAfrE, SAfrEng, SAE, en-ZA[1]) is applied to the first language varieties of English spoken by South Africans, with the L1 English variety spoken by Zimbabweans, Zambians and Namibians, being recognised as offshoots.

There is some social and regional variation within South African English. Social variation within South African English has been classified into three groupings:[2] Cultivated, closely approximating Received Pronunciation and associated with upper class; General, a social indicator of the middle class, and Broad, associated with the working class and/or Afrikaans descent, and closely approximating the second-language Afrikaans-English variety. This is similar to the case in Australian English.



Like Southern English, South African English is non-rhotic (except for some Afrikaans-influenced speakers, see below) and features the trap-bath split.

The two main phonological indicators of South African English are the behaviour of the vowels in kit and bath. The kit vowel tends to be "split" so that there is a clear allophonic variation between the close, front [ɪ] and a somewhat more central [ɪ̈]. The bath vowel is characteristically open and back in the General and Broad varieties of SAE. The tendency to monophthongise both /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ to [ɑː] and [aː] respectively, are also typical features of General and Broad SAE.[citation needed]

Features involving consonants include the tendency for voiceless plosives to be unaspirated in stressed word-initial environments, [tj] tune and [dj] dune tend to be realised as [tʃ] and [dʒ] respectively (See Yod-coalescence), and /h/ has a strong tendency to be voiced initially.


  • /ɪ/ as in kit is split between the realisations [ɪ] and [ɪ̈] in General, and [i] and [ɪ̈~ə] in Broad. The split is an allophonic variation, with the fronter realisation occurring near velar and palatal consonants, and the more central one occurring elsewhere. Cultivated SAE lacks this split, but this feature regarding /ɪ/ is a reliable sociolinguistic marker for South African English in general. Before [ɫ], the vowel may be further back [ɯ̈].
  • /ɛ/ as in dress is usually realised as [e], though it is lower ([ɛ]) in Broad, sometimes approaching [æ], especially before [ɫ].[citation needed] Some varieties of Broad and General SAE place this vowel higher, around raised [e] or lowered [ɪ].
  • A slightly raised [æ] is the usual realisation for /æ/ (as in trap) in Cultivated and General. In Broad varieties, it is often raised to [ɛ], so that /æ/ encroaches on /ɛ/ for some speakers.[3] A good example of this is South Africa sounds more like South Efrica.
  • /ɒ/ (as in lot) ranges from [ɒ̈] to [ɔ]. Lass (2002:115) notes a tendency towards [ʌ̈] in younger Cape Town and Natal speakers of General SAE.
  • /ʌ/ (as in strut) typically ranges from a low to mid centralised vowel ([ä] to [ɐ]) in SAE.
  • /ʊ/ (as in foot) is generally realised as high, back centralised [ʊ]. There is little variation, except that there is very little lip rounding relative to other L1 varieties of English worldwide. The pronunciation of [ʊ] with added lip-rounding is associated with Broad, but is more a feature of Afrikaans English (AfkE).
  • /iː/ (as in fleece) is a long close front vowel [iː] in all varieties. This distinguishes SAE from Australian English and New Zealand English, as the vowel is diphthongal in the latter varieties.
  • For /ɜːr/ (as in nurse), a somewhat central vowel approximating the RP [ɜː] is used in Cultivated. In General and Broad, it is more rounded, and fronter: [øː] - [ø̈ː], as in French peu.
  • /uː/ (the vowel in goose) is usually high central [ʉː] or fronter, significantly more forward than its RP equivalent [uː]. Cultivated speakers, however, produce a vowel closer to [uː]. Lass (2002:116) notes a tendency towards [yː] in younger, and especially female, General speakers.
  • Except in the Cultivated variety, /ɑː/ (the vowel in bath) is low and fully back, [ɑː]. In Broad varieties, there is a tendency to produce a shorter rounder and raised vowel, so that it becomes [ɒ~ɔ].[4][5] Cultivated speakers realise a more central version of [ɑː]. The low and fully back [ɑː] distinguishes SAE from the other Southern Hemisphere varieties.
  • In Cultivated speech, /ɔː/ (as in thought) is quite open, like RP [ɔː]. In General and Broad, it is higher, [oː]. Broad varieties also have /ɔː/ in words like cloth and loss, where /ɒ/ is otherwise typical.[6]
  • The norm for /eɪ/ (as in face) in Cultivated and General varieties is [eɪ]. Lass (2002:117) notes a tendency for the onset to be opener the further one deviates from the standard, even to [æɪ]. Broad South African English is characterised by the onset being both open and back, [ʌɪ].
  • The Cultivated SAE realisation of /aɪ/ (as in price) is close to RP [aɪ]. In General and Broad, the articulation of the first element is often monophthongised to [aː]. In Broad, the first element is somewhat back, but more forward and higher than /ɑː/, and the offglide is often retained: [ɑ̈ɪ].
  • Cultivated SAE usually realises /aʊ/ (as in mouth) as [ɑ̈ʊ], while General again follows the tendency to monophthongise diphthongs, and often has [ɑː]. Broad has a much fronter onset, and retains the offglide: [æʊ].
  • In all varieties, /ɔɪ/ (as in choice) is usually [ɔɪ]; the onset can be as low as /ɒ/ for older Cultivated SAE speakers.[7]
  • There is a tendency among some Cultivated speakers not to round the onset of /oʊ/, so that a Cultivated realisation ranges around [ɛʊ] or [œʊ]. The onset is always rounded in General varieties, usually mid-low; but the off-glide is more central, sometimes unrounded, and there is once again a tendency to monophthongise. Thus, the "normal" General pronunciations of /oʊ/ would be [œʉ], [œɤ̈] or [œː]. In Broad, the onset is much further back, and unrounded: [ʌʊ].
  • In Cultivated, /ɛə/ (as in square) is pronounced [ɛə], as it is in RP. General speakers follow the tendency to monophthongise, and usually realise the long vowel [ɛː]. Broad speakers monophthongise and raise it to [eː].
  • /ɪə/ (as in near) is usually [ɪə] in all varieties, with a tendency to monophthongisation in Broad, particularly after [j]. E.g. [njɪː] "near".
  • Words like cure are usually realised as diphthongal [ʊə] in Cultivated and General; but there is a growing trend, especially when the vowel does not occur after /j/ (sure), in General towards Broad's monophthongal [oː], perhaps slightly lower than /ɔː/. This probably accounts for the spelling of you're as your in everything from student essays to newspaper advertisements.
  • The unstressed (or secondarily stressed[8]) vowel at the end of words like happy is usually a half-long [iˑ]. Lanham (1968:8) marks this as an indicator of South African English.
  • The unstressed vowel at the end of words like letter is realised as [ə] in all varieties.
  • The unstressed vowel at the end of words like comma is usually [ə], but may be as open as [ɐ] in Cultivated SAE; and also in Broad varieties close to Afrikaans English.



/p, b, t, d, k, ɡ/ The voiced and voiceless plosives are distinctive in South African English, and voiceless plosives are generally unaspirated in all positions in Broad South African English, serving as a marker for this subvariety.[9] Other varieties aspirate a voiceless plosive before a stressed syllable. The contrast is neutralised in Broad.

Broad speakers tend to pronounce /t, d/ with some dentition.

Fricatives and Affricates

/f, v, θ, ð, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, x, h/ South African English is one of the very few varieties to have a velar fricative phoneme /x/,[10] but this is only in words borrowed from Afrikaans (e.g. gogga [xoxə] 'insect'), Khoisan (e.g. Gamtoos, the name of a river), Scots e.g. (loch) and German (e.g. Bach). Many speakers use the Afrikaans voiceless uvular fricative [χ] rather than the velar.

The tendency for /θ/ to be realised as [f] (See: Th-fronting) is a stereotypical Broad feature, but is more accurately associated with Afrikaans English.

As in many varieties of English, word-final /v, ð, z, ʒ/ are usually voiceless, and are distinguished only by the length of the preceding vowel.

In Broad varieties close to AfkE, /h/ is realised as voiced [ɦ] before a stressed vowel.


/m, n, ŋ/ The nasals are not distinctive markers for any variety of South African English; though /n/ may be dental [n̪] before dental consonants.


In Broad and some General SAE varieties, /j/ strengthens to [ɣ] before a high front vowel: yield [ɣɪːɫd].[citation needed]

/r/ is usually postalveolar or retroflex [ɹ] in Cultivated and General SAE, while Broad varieties have [ɾ] or sometimes even trilled [r]. The latter is more associated with the L2 Afrikaans English variety, though it is sometimes stigmatised as marker of Broad.[11] SAE is non-rhotic, losing postvocalic /r/, except (for some speakers) liaison between two words, when the /r/ is underlying in the first (for a while, here and there etc.) However, intrusive /r is not represented in other contexts: (law and order) [loːnoːdə]. The intervocalic hiatus that is created by the absence of linking /r/ can be broken by vowel deletion, as in the example just given; by a corresponding glide [loːwənoːdə], or by the insertion of a glottal stop: [loːʔənoːdə]. The latter is typical of Broad SAE. There is some evidence of postvocalic /r/ in some Broad Cape varieties, typically in -er suffixes (e.g. writer). This could be under the influence of Afrikaans (and it is a feature of Afrikaans English); or perhaps a remnant of (non-RP) British English from the settlers. Postvocalic /r/ appears to be entering younger people's speech under the influence of American dialects.[citation needed]

/l/ is clear [l] syllable initially, and dark (velarised) [ɫ] syllable finally. When /l/ occurs at the end of a word, but before another word beginning with a vowel, it tends to be realised as clear in Cultivated SAE.[12]

Some (particularly older) Cultivated speakers retain a distinction between /w/ and /hw/ (see wine-whine merger), but this distinction is absent from General and Broad, which has merged both to [w].



There are words that do not exist in British or American English, usually derived from Afrikaans or African languages, although, particularly in Durban, there is also an influence from Indian languages. Terms in common with North American English include 'mom' (British, Australian, and Canadian English: mum) 'freeway' or 'highway' (British English 'motorway'), 'cellphone' (British and Australian English: mobile) and 'buck' meaning money (rand, in this case, and not a dollar). South Africans generally refer to the different codes of football, such as soccer and rugby, by those names. There is a great difference between South African English dialects: in Johannesburg the local form is very strongly English-based, while its Eastern Cape counterpart has a strong Afrikaans influence. Although differences between the two are sizeable, there are many similarities.

Some words peculiar to South African English include 'takkies', 'tackie' or 'tekkie' for sneakers (American) or trainers (British), 'combi' or 'kombi' for a small van similar to a Volkswagen Kombi, 'bakkie' for a pick-up truck, 'kiff' for pleasurable, 'lekker' for nice, 'donga' for gully, 'dagga' for cannabis, 'braai' (a shortened form of 'braaivleis') for barbecue and 'jol' for party.

This lexicon influenced British English through soldiers returning from the Boer War and through returning British settlers with a significant number of Afrikaner settlers who left the Union of South Africa in 1931. South African lexicon enriched the British lexicon more by the arrival of white South African settlers of both British and Afrikaner descent who left their home country in 1994.

Contributions to English Worldwide

Several South African words, usually from Afrikaans or indigenous languages of the region, have entered world English: aardvark; apartheid; commando; veld; impala; mamba; trek and spoor.

English Academy of Southern Africa

The English Academy of Southern Africa (EASA) is the only academy for the English language in the world, but unlike such counterparts as the Académie française, it has no official connection with the government and can only attempt to advise, educate, encourage, and discourage. It was founded in 1961 by Professor Gwen Knowles-Williams of the University of Pretoria in part to defend the role of English against pressure from supporters of Afrikaans. It encourages scholarship in issues surrounding English in Africa through regular conferences, but also remains controversial among language scholars in South Africa for its strong encouragement of International English and British English against local variants.[citation needed]

Examples of South African accents

The following examples of South African accents were obtained from

See also


  1. ^ en-ZA is the language code for South African English , as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).
  2. ^ Termed "The Great Trichotomy" by Lass (2002:109ff)
  3. ^ Lanham (1967:9)
  4. ^ Lass (2002:117)
  5. ^ Lanham (1967:14)
  6. ^ Lass (2002:116)
  7. ^ Lass (2002:118)
  8. ^ See Lass (2002:119)
  9. ^ Lass (2002:120)
  10. ^ See Lass (2002:120)
  11. ^ Lass (2002:121)
  12. ^ Lass (2002:121)
  • Kortmand, Bernd, Schneider, Edgar W. (2004). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3110175320, 9783110175325

External links



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Proper noun

South African English


South African English

  1. a dialect of English spoken in South Africa and in neighbouring countries.

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