The Linguistic Situation of South Africa

The Linguistic Situation of South Africa

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When it comes to linguistics, South Africa is like a melting pot of languages. In total, South Africa has eleven major languages coming from both Africa and Europe. The major languages used are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Sesotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. In order to understand how each of these languages arrived in South Africa, we must first look at the history of people living in the country.
The first identified language spoken in the South Africa was Khoisan. This language was spoken by the indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoikhio, who lived mainly in the southern coastal regions of the country. Over the years this language has slowly faded away along with the native Khoikhio people. Today there are only a few native South Africans left who can still speak Khoisan living in the western sections of the country.
     Some time around the eighth century many Bantu tribes migrated south from central Africa into the northern territories of South Africa. Each of these Bantu tribes brought with them their own distinct Bantu language—nine of which still remain and are recognized today as official languages by the South African Government. These languages are used throughout the African population, which makes up three quarters of South Africa’s people. These languages include: Sesotho, Tsonga, Pedi, Tswana, Venda; and the Nguni group of Bantu languages: Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi, and Zulu.
     In the present, Zulu is the Bantu language with the largest number of speakers. In KwaZulu and Natal there are nine million people that speak this language. Falling right behind with seven million speakers is the language of Xhosa. Xhosa can be found around Transei, Ciskei, and on the Eastern Cape. The official language of Swaziland is Swazi with two million speakers. The last Nguni language is Ndebele, which is spoken by half a million people in some northeastern parts of South Africa. Between the four separate Nguni languages there are 12 different dialects. Pedi and Sesotho are both a part of the Sotho group of Bantu Languages and they share 11 different dialects. Pedi is the strongest language in the Sotho group. Pedi has four million speakers all over the country. Three million people in Qwaqwa and Orange Free State speak Sesotho. Tsonga, which has four dialects, has four million speakers living in Mozambique and Swaziland. Tswana spoken in Botswana has around three million speakers. Venda, spoken mainly in Transvaal, has over half a million speakers.

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     Around the seventeenth century Europeans began to settle on the southern coast of South Africa. Many of these early settlers were Dutch farmers (Boers). For a while the Boers and the native Africans often traded goods. These interactions ultimately led to the birth of a new language known today as Afrikaans. In today’s South Africa, Afrikaans is a mixture of five different languages. They are Dutch, the root language, German, English, French, and a multitude of African words. Earlier on Afrikaans was considered a dialect of Dutch, but now the language is so far advanced that a Dutch speaking person cannot understand it. In the mid-nineteenth century Afrikaans became a literary language and is now being used on the radio, in newspapers, in government and as a medium of instruction in schools.
     English was introduced to South Africa in 1814 when the British took over the country. Being that the country was under British rule, English was heavily pushed to become a predominate language. Now both Afrikaans and English equally share the role as the predominate language. Today almost all of the white population and only 50 percent of the African population is literate in either Afrikaans or English.
     There is one other language used in South Africa, which is very similar to Afrikaans; it is called Fanakalo. This language is used mainly by mine workers of South Africa and is limited in terms of vocabulary. Like Afrikaans, Fanakalo is a combination of languages. These languages include Zulu, English and Afrikaans.
By living here in the United States all of my life, I was only exposed to one main language—English. If someone came up to me right now and began to speak in any other language I probably would not understand what he or she was saying, nor would I know what language he or she was speaking in. In many other countries, like South Africa, this is not the case. Growing up in this country will expose you to a multitude of other languages. It is interesting to see how one country has many different languages.


Bibliography

Diroctorate Of Intelligence U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
Handbook of The Nations, Gale Michigan 1988


Brook, Hugh. “South Africa” Lands and Peoples
Connecticut: Grolier, 1991


Kurian, George. Encyclopedia of the First World
New York: Facts on File Inc. 1990

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