The Non-Bantu Languages of South Africa & the People Who Speak Them

South Africa is a very diverse country. These are the non-Bantu languages of South Africa as well as the people who speak them.

Oct 4, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
South African coat of arms insignia
The South African Coat of Arms, via thesouthafrican.com

 

South Africa is a large country. It is almost twice the size of Texas and has a population of over 60 million. One of the biggest aspects of the South African population is its extreme diversity. It is an aspect mirrored in the country’s motto: “! ke e: /xarra //ke”, or in English, “Diverse People Unite.” The motto appears on the coat of arms and is written in the Khoe language used by the /Xam people. Given the large number of ethnic groups, as well as South Africa’s divisive history, it was necessary to implement a new strategy of unity when the country held its first racially inclusive elections in 1994. There are 11 official languages of South Africa with another likely to be added in the near future: South African Sign Language. Having so many official languages is an attempt to create a fair and equitable society whereby all South Africans can have access to education, governmental matters, and information. It is a monumental task to present society to the citizens in all the desired languages.

 

As a result, English and Afrikaans are presented in disproportion to the numbers of home language speakers, as they are very common second or third languages that are used across the entire geographic landmass of South Africa. South Africa is a literate country, and because of the need to communicate across cultures. The average South African is able to speak 2.84 languages.

 

The South African Language Groups

south african languages map
Linguistic distribution of South Africa’s official languages, via mapsontheweb.zoom-maps.com

 

Nine of the 11 official languages in South Africa are African languages, and belong to the Bantu family of languages. This family is subdivided into the Nguni-Tsonga language group which includes five of the official languages, and the Sotho-Makua-Venda languages of which four of the official languages belong. The other two official languages, English and Afrikaans, are European, from the Germanic family of languages.

 

Although Afrikaans evolved in South Africa, it is considered European on account of it evolving from Dutch. In the northwestern part of the country extending north into Namibia and Botswana, where the country becomes arid semi-desert, there are the Khoisan languages which are completely unrelated to the Bantu languages or the Bantu parent family of the Niger-Congo language group.

 

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While the term “Bantu” is perceived in a pejorative sense in South Africa, as it was a word used by the apartheid government to denote “Black people”, it is the accepted terminology within the field of linguistics. Additionally, many other South African languages exist within and outside these main groups.

 

Afrikaans

south african languages boer soldiers
A group of Boer soldiers who fought against the British, via weaponsandwarfare.com

 

Afrikaans is a derivative of Dutch that is spoken as a home language by 9.6% (7.2 million) of the South African population. It is also the second language of over 10 million people. Being derived from Dutch, it is considered a European language and, along with English, makes up one of the two European languages that have official status in South Africa.

 

Afrikaans is somewhat mutually intelligible with Dutch, but it has undergone many changes that make it difficult for many Afrikaans and Dutch people to understand each other’s spoken tongue. The two primary groups to whom Afrikaans is the mother tongue are the Afrikaners themselves, and the Cape Coloureds (note that this term is not offensive in South Africa).

 

Despite its ancestry, the evolution of Afrikaans has made the language unique in Africa in that it is the only European language to have evolved into a new language on that continent. As a result, Afrikaans, from a non-linguistic sense of classification, is considered a true South African language by many.

 

The Afrikaners are descended from the first Dutch settlers, as well as immigrants from Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Their ancestors arrived in South Africa in 1652, soon after which they built a settlement that grew into the city of Cape Town. In the early 19th century, the Cape Colony was seized by the British and became the destination for much British immigration. The Afrikaners began to feel like second-class citizens, and many left the Cape Colony in search of land free from British control. This exodus was known as the Great Trek, which brought the Afrikaners into conflict with the Zulu.

 

blue bulls supporters
Supporters of the Blue Bulls rugby team at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria. Rugby forms an important part of the Afrikaner culture, via bullsrugby.co.za

 

After establishing the Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, the Afrikaners came into conflict with the British, fighting the First and Second Anglo-Boer Wars, the latter of which they lost. The two republics were subsumed into the British Empire. Not long after, South Africa began to win substantial independence from Britain, until finally, in 1948, the National Party, which was seen as the bulwark for Afrikaner identity, won the election and established apartheid.

 

Under apartheid, Afrikaner culture and language were elevated to the top of the political hierarchy and enjoyed decades of growth and prosperity. Apartheid, however, was never the defining feature of what it means to be an Afrikaner, as the culture existed beforehand and still exists in a powerful and vibrant fashion across the nation.

 

Afrikaner culture is very distinct, with music and food that is unlike anything else in the world. Sports play a large part in Afrikaner culture, with rugby and cricket being popular. Famous Afrikaners include Dr. Christian Barnard, who performed the world’s first successful heart transplant, politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate FW De Klerk, and actress Charlize Theron.

 

The other group in which the Afrikaans language is predominant is the Coloured people, who are descended from various ethnic groups but have developed their own distinct culture. Their ancestry is of mixed races: the original Khoi inhabitants of the Western Cape, and enslaved Malays who were brought in from the East Indies and formed a significant population group in Cape Town. As a result, the culinary traditions reflect this Malay influence.

 

south african languages cape malay
Cape Malay Muslims in the Bo-Kaap suburb of Cape Town, via yoair.com

 

Religion among the Coloured people also reflects this Malay ancestry, as many Coloured people are Muslim. The majority of Coloured people live in the Western Cape province, where they represent approximately half the province’s seven million inhabitants. The Coloured dialects of Afrikaans and English in the Western Cape show interesting, almost musical qualities with rising and falling intonations.

 

Because of the vast diversity of the Coloured population’s ancestry, the culture is highly diverse, with many different practices. The Cape Malay Coloured people are known for their tradition of being furniture makers, dressmakers, and coopers.

 

south african languages cape minstrels
Colored people in Cape Town performing during the Cape Minstrel Carnival, via Cape Town Tourism via citysightseeing.co.za

 

Cultural dishes include bobotie, which is a spiced minced meat dish topped with an egg-based topping, samosas (or samoosas in South Africa), and bredie, which is a type of tomato-based stew. Another popular food is a fish called snoek, which swims in the waters around Cape Town.

 

English

south african languages cape town
The city of Cape Town is South Africa’s second-largest city and a hub of English-speaking people, via audleytravel.com

 

English is spoken as a first language by approximately 8% and 9% of South Africans today; however, it is extremely important as a second language, as it is one of the main languages used for cross-cultural communication. South African English is recognized as a distinct dialect of English. The general accent, in many ways, uses linguistic sounds found in the English spoken in the southeast of England as well as New Zealand. The dialect of English spoken by the Cape Coloured people has no foreign analog and is unique to South Africa. The accent has a musical quality with rising and falling intonations, and the lexicon borrows heavily from Afrikaans.

 

English was brought to South Africa in 1795 when the British established a military holding operation in the Cape Colony. Complete control of the colony came about after the British defeated the Batavian (Dutch) Republic at the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806. The first wave of English settlers arrived in 1820, and thereafter, successive attempts were made to increase the anglicization of British possessions in South Africa.

 

English and Scottish schoolmasters and clergy were recruited into positions of education. English settlers also made an influx into South Africa via the Natal colony. All of South Africa eventually came under British control in 1901 after the Second Anglo-Boer War. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed, with English and Dutch being the official languages. Dutch was replaced with Afrikaans in 1925.

 

south african languages school rugby
A rugby match between two English medium schools in Cape Town, via Ben Defty, via premierinterschools.co.za

 

The British who emigrated to South Africa came from the same demographic and geographic groups as those who emigrated to New Zealand. As such, there are distinct similarities between the accents, especially with the flattening of vowel sounds.

 

Most people who speak English as a first language in South Africa are white; however, a significant part of the Cape Coloured community speaks English as their home language. English speakers are concentrated around the urban areas of major cities such as Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha).

 

South African English culture is heavily influenced by its British roots and resembles many western cultures. Nevertheless, it has distinctly South African influences that make it unique. This is usually reflected in the way people speak and their shared South African experience.

 

indian culture south africa
Indian culture in South Africa, via the Department of Arts and Culture South Africa

 

English is also spoken by a vast majority of people of Indian descent who live throughout South Africa’s urban areas, but chiefly in the city of Durban. Despite this, significant numbers of households have preserved their linguistic heritage. It is not uncommon to encounter South Asian languages such as Gujarati and Punjabi. The Indian South Africans trace their roots back to the 18th and 19th centuries when waves of indentured laborers and migrants came to South Africa from India.

 

English is also the language of choice as a second language for many other immigrants. Most of these immigrants come from African countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, and others. Significant populations of Italians and Germans also live in South Africa, along with large groups of English first-language speakers from Britain and Ireland.

 

The Khoisan Languages

jan van riebeeck khoekhoe
Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck arriving in the Cape and meeting with local Khoekhoen by Charles Davidson Bell, via nationsonline.org

 

“Khoisan” is a blanket term used to describe all the African languages in Southern Africa that are not related to the Bantu languages. Originally it was thought that these languages were all genealogically related, but it is now believed that there are three distinct language groups and two language isolates.

 

The groups are Khoe-Kwadi, Kx’a, and Tuu (also called Taa–ǃKwi). The languages are notable for their extremely high concentration of click sounds. Those who speak the Khoisan languages are spread throughout Namibia, Botswana, and in the north of South Africa in the Kalahari Desert. By far, the most widespread language in this group is KhoeKhoe, which is spoken throughout Namibia and in small groups in the South African Kalahari. There are about 200,000 speakers of this language.

 

There has been much debate and change over the years regarding the correct terminology of the languages and the people who speak them. Today, the correct ethnic designator is Khoekhoen. The term “San” is a Khoekhoe word that refers to non-pastoralist foragers with whom the Khoekhoe speakers came into contact. As such, “San” refers to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than an ethnic group.

 

Genetically, the Khoekhoen are directly descended from the oldest ethnicity on the planet. The historical Khoekhoe culture spread outwards from what is now Botswana and reached the Cape over 2,000 years ago.

 

san hunter gatherers
San hunter-gatherers, via discoverafrica.com

 

The Khoekhoen and the San are the indigenous people of South Africa, and as such, their languages can be regarded as the oldest of all the South African languages. Contact with European settlers in the southwest resulted in the loss of much territory, especially after a smallpox epidemic decimated the population, which had no natural immunity to the disease. The Bantu-language tribes migrating south also pushed the Khoekhoen and San peoples out of their traditional range. In South Africa now, the Khoekhoen live in small pockets in the northwest.

 

There is no single overarching cultural practice that one can apply to the Khoekhoen and San peoples, as they represent many diverse ethnicities and tribes. Historically, the Khoekhoe were pastoralists and had enacted a system of individual ownership, while the San shared everything. Some members of the ethnic groups making up the Khoisan peoples still practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but the majority live in urbanized areas and speak Afrikaans as their mother tongue. In South Africa, they are located mainly in the northwest of the country, where the climate is dry and arid.

 

The Non-Bantu South African Languages

 

From every aspect, the South African languages and the languages spoken in South Africa reflect the extreme diversity of the country. English and Afrikaans are spoken throughout the entire country by all ethnicities, while the Khoisan languages add a rich and ancient history to the landscape of the South African population.

 

Apart from the linguistic diversity, the ethnic diversity of those who speak these languages cannot be overstated. A prime example of this is the Cape Coloured ethnic group, arguably the most genetically diverse ethnic group in the world.



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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.