Traveling to South Africa? Easy language Guide to Get Around

Updated: 02. Nov, 2022

South Africa is known as the “Rainbow Nation.” This name effectively conveys the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of the nation. South Africa has one of the world’s most complicated and diversified populations.

If you’re traveling to South Africa, you may be curious about the language used there. The truth is that you’ll probably come across numerous distinct dialects on your travels. This is because the country has 11 official languages.

These include Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, and isiZulu.

While many South African homes continue to speak their native tongues, the majority of the country’s metropolitan residents still speak English. This is because South Africa was once a part of the British Colonial Empire. Because of this, English is still often used in academic settings, official documents, the media, and casual or everyday conversations.

You will likely hear a vibrant mashup of indigenous tribal tongues, English, and Afrikaans on the streets.

Languages in South Africa

Here is a brief review of the South African languages.

Afrikaans 

It is the Dutch term for “African.” Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that emerged in South Africa in 1652 with the arrival of the first Dutch immigrants.

Afrikaans was created in Cape Town. There are still many different ethnicities living in Cape Town today. The major differences between Dutch and Afrikaans are the grammar and vocabulary. The term “regular” grammar is often used to describe Afrikaans. 

According to certain theories, Dutch-creole languages had a considerable impact on this. In addition, south-Hollandic Dutch influences may be seen in a significant amount of lexicon. Even though many of these terms seem quite distinct, the Afrikaans language incorporates elements and origins from English, Khoi, Xhosa, Asian Malay, Malagasy, San, Portuguese, and French. 

IsiZulu

This is one of the most widely spoken official languages in South Africa and is the Zulu language. IsiZulu is a dynamic language. It contains terms borrowed from English and African original languages and blends well with English code-switching. In South Africa, more than 10 million people speak IsiZulu as their first language.

IsiXhosa

IsiXhosa, a Bantu language, is the second most spoken ethnic language in South Africa. It is a Nguni language that has some Khoekhoe influence. Many people refer to it as the click-click language because most of its words have to be pronounced with a click sound. These click sounds originated from the Khoisan language.

Sesotho

Sesotho is one of the most commonly spoken South African languages. It is often referred to as the Southern Sotho language. There are over 30 consonants, plus nine vowels with five letters apiece. Additionally, nasal noises are peculiar to it. However, compared to other official South African languages, it is the simplest to grasp. About 4 million people speak Sesotho, with most of them residing in the Free States, Gauteng, Tshwane, and Johannesburg.

IsiNdebele

Sometimes people refer to IsiNdebele as an “unknown” language because few people speak it. Family lines carry this language because schools don’t teach it. Nevertheless, a Ndebele radio station was established to preserve the language. 

Sepedi

Sepedi is a language that about 4.2 million people speak in South Africa. The language is special because of its long history of being linked to fascinating South African cultures and customs.

Setswana

Setswana is a member of the Nganu-Bantu family of languages, like most of those spoken in South Africa. Mainly the Sotho languages are closest in sound to it. It is a second language for many individuals. The experts consider it the earliest Sotho language spoken in Africa, making it one of the oldest. In all, nearly 8% of the population speaks Setswana.

SiSwati

Swati is one of the native South African languages that educational institutions. Due to this, a large number of individuals can speak it as a second or third language. The Ndebele, Zulu, and Xhosa languages have more in common with the Swati language than any other group.

Tshivenda

Its native speakers are mostly from Limpopo. Tshivenda has a connection to intriguing customs with Sepedi. In addition, households of royal heritage tend to speak it the most. The Venda language employs the Latin alphabet with five additional accents, some circumflexes, and overdots. About two million individuals speak the language, of whom over one million are native speakers.

Xitsonga

One of South Africa’s oldest languages, Xitsonga, predates the arrival of most African ethnic groups in the country. It is also one of South Africa’s intricate but entertaining languages. 

Common Phrases in South Africa

Due to the diversity of languages spoken in South Africa, residents often borrow terms from one another, creating slang expressions known as “South Africanisms.” Therefore, knowing a few phrases to aid you along the road is helpful if you’re soon visiting South Africa.

Ag

In South Africa, ag is a word that indicates annoyance or resignation. 

Babbelas

This is another term for a hangover

Biltong

This popular snack in South Africa originates from dried and salted pork.

Boerewors

Boerewords is a native South African sausage. At a braai, people often consume this South African meat.

Braai

It is a common word and verb for an outside “barbecue” where meat is grilled over coals or fire. In South Africa, a braai is a common social gathering. It even has its specific national holiday, National Braai Day, which falls on September 24 in conjunction with Heritage Day.

Dop

Dop is slang for an alcoholic drink. It can also mean failing an exam. 

Dwaal

This describes someone who is not paying attention or whose thoughts are racing.

Eina

This signifies pain or soreness.

Eish

An isiZulu and isiXhosa word used to convey regret, annoyance, or even pleasurable surprise. “

Eish

Eish is a Xhosa word used daily to express astonishment, displeasure, annoyance, or remorse.

Hello, hoe gaan dit?

It means “How are you?” in Afrikaans.

Howzit?

This Afrikaans word is a common informal greeting. It is a shortened word for “how is it?” It means “How are you?” 

Indaba

Indaba is a conference or expo, which means a matter for discussion.

Jawelnofine

It is a word that means “yeah” or “well, okay.

Jol

This is a common expression meaning “club,” “party,” or “fun.”

Just Now

South Africans often say that they will accomplish something “just now.” This implies that they won’t do anything immediately but a little later. Although it seems nonsensical, in South Africa, it makes perfect sense!

Kak

It implies “bullshit.”

Kief

Kief is an Arabic-derived word. It implies wonderful, amazing, outstanding, or cool. 

Lekker

It is a word that describes something as excellent or good. 

MOLO?

This word in Xhosa means “Hello, how are you?” in Xhosa if you speak to 1 person

Pasop

This means Watch out. 

Robot

This means traffic light. 

Sawubona

This Zuku word means “Hello”. 

Shame

This is a common South African way of expressing appreciation or sympathy.

Shap Shap

It signifies that everything is fine and well.

Shebeen

Shebeen means an illicit bar. It alluded to illegal bars established in townships under apartheid and frequented mainly by black South Africans. Since then, it has gained popularity.

Shibobo

This means to humiliate a rival and make a mockery of them.

Sho’t Left

Sho’t left is a common phrase used in taxis in South Africa. When requesting a means of transport to a nearby location, a commuter would often remark, “Sho’t left, driver,”

Sisi

You can run across individuals who refer to you as Sisi without knowing who you are. Sisi is the abbreviation for sister.

Skinner

Skinner is an Afrikaans word for gossip. 

Voetsek

This term originates from Afrikaans and means “f—- off.” Not that using this phrase incorrectly may get you into trouble.

Yebo

This is a Zulu word. It means yes.

Zamalek

It is another word for the South African beer brand “Black Label.” 

Conclusion 

If you equip yourself with a good knowledge of the South African language, you will have a greater chance of enjoying your trip to the African nation. Also, having sound knowledge of South African history and culture will do you great. You’ll be able to interact with the locals on a deeper level. Additionally, doing these will present you with some extraordinary possibilities that may be absent if you arrive in the country without knowing about its languages and culture.

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