What are the official South African languages?

What are the official South African languages?

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated July 15, 2022

How many languages are spoken in South Africa, and what are they?

Well, until the mid-1990s, the official languages of South Africa were Dutch, Afrikaans and English—despite African languages being spoken by more than 80% of the population. Fortunately, 1996 brought a new constitution, which changed all of that.

Now, there are 11 official languages in South Africa, nine of which are African languages from the Bantu family. They were brought from West Africa as early as 3000 BCE. As part of the larger Niger-Congo language family, all the African languages of South Africa are tonal: Using a high or low tone changes the meaning of a word.  

Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s take a more detailed look at the official languages spoken in South Africa.

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1. Zulu (isiZulu)

Number of speakers: 27.3 million 

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Nguni

Topping our list of official South African languages is a language called Zulu, spoken most prominently in the KwaZulu-Natal province. This is a language of the Nguni, an ethnic group that makes up almost two-thirds of South Africa’s Black population. Specifically, Zulu is spoken by Central and North Nguni peoples. 

Notable features

  • Zulu is South Africa’s most widely spoken language
  • It uses clicks to represent c, x and q
  • It borrows a lot of vocabulary from English and Afrikaans

2. Xhosa (isiXhosa)

Number of speakers: 19.1 million 

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Nguni

Next up is Xhosa. You’ll find the most Xhosa speakers in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Xhosa has a variety of dialects, the standard being Ngqika. Like Zulu, it is a Nguni language.

Notable features

  • Very similar to Zulu
  • Uses click consonants

3. Afrikaans

Number of speakers: 17.2 million 

Language family: Indo-European

Language sub-family: Low Franconian

The third most widely used language in South Africa is Afrikaans, a derivative of a dialect of Dutch. 

Afrikaans started being used in South Africa under Dutch colonization. It’s the majority language in the Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces. This language is also known as Cape Dutch.  

Notable features

  • Afrikaans is a simplified version of Dutch at its core
  • It has influences from languages like Malay, Indonesian and Portuguese
  • It is considered to be a partially creole language

4. English

Number of speakers: 15.9 million 

Language family: Indo-European

Language sub-family: West Germanic

Despite being way down in fourth place on our list, English is a language of media, business and government in South Africa. The majority of English speakers are found in the Western Cape province, followed by Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

English arrived in South Africa in the late 18th century with the British occupation of the Cape of Good Hope, which had previously been colonized by the Dutch. By 1822, it was the official language of the Cape. 

Notable features

  • South African English is heavily influenced by other South African languages
  • It is also influenced by the languages of countries that were colonized by the Dutch, British and Portuguese, such as Malaysia and India

5. Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho)

Number of speakers: 13.8 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Sotho-Tswana

Sesotho sa Leboa is also sometimes known as Sepedi, which is the language’s main dialect. It’s part of the Sotho-Tswana language sub-family and is most widespread in the province of Limpopo, in the north of the country (Leboa means north), and in the Mpumalanga province.

Notable features 

  • Sesotho sa Leboa doesn’t use articles with its nouns
  • It has an abundance of proverbs and idiomatic expressions
  • It was first converted to writing by Berlin missionaries

6. Setswana

Number of speakers: 11.8 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Sotho-Tswana

The majority language of the North West province and also widely spoken in the Northern Cape, Setswana belongs to the Sotho-Tswana language sub-family. Setswana is also an official language of Botswana.

Notable features 

  • It’s closely connected to Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa) and Sesotho (Southern Sotho)
  • A slang dialect known as Pretoria Setswana is used in the city of Pretoria in the nearby Gauteng province

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7. Sesotho (Southern Sotho)

Number of speakers: 11.8 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Sotho-Tswana

Sesotho, aka Southern Sotho, is part of the Sotho-Tswana language sub-family. It’s also one of the official languages of the Kingdom of Lesotho, an independent nation located inside South Africa. 

Notable features

  • Sesotho was one of the first African languages to be written down
  • It has 35 consonants
  • Its nine vowels are represented by five letters 
  • Every Sesotho word ends with a vowel or “ng” 
  • It uses click consonants for certain words

8. Xitsonga (Tsonga)

Number of speakers: 5.7 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Tswa-Ronga

Part of the Tswa-Ronga sub-family, Xitsonga is found primarily in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. It’s also spoken in the neighboring countries of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 

Notable features

  • Xitsonga was first written in the late 19th century by Swiss missionaries
  • It has whistled sibilant sounds

9. siSwati (Swazi)

Number of speakers: 3.7 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Nguni

siSwati, aka Swazi, is a Nguni language primarily spoken in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. It’s also the national language of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), a small nation surrounded by South African countries. This Nguni language is nowhere near as widespread as the others on our list.

Notable features

  • The siSwati in the far south part of the country has a lot of Zulu influence and is considered non-standard
  • The Mpumalanga version is closer to standard, but word stress and intonation differ, having less harmonious sounds 
  • The dialect that’s spoken in the center and northern parts of Eswatini is considered the most prestigious, with a “royal style of slow, heavily stressed enunciation

10. Tshivenda (Venda)

Number of speakers: 2.9 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Sotho-Makua-Venda

Tshivenda, also known as Venda, is in the Sotho-Makua-Venda sub-family of languages. It’s mainly used in the province of Limpopo. You’ll also find some Venda speakers in neighboring Zimbabwe. 

Notable features

  • This language has several different dialects; the standard dialect is called Tshipani
  • While it’s based on the Latin alphabet, Tshivenda has five extra accented letters
  • There are seven vowel sounds represented by five letters

11. Ndebele

Number of speakers: 2.5 million

Language family: Bantu

Language sub-family: Nguni

This Nguni language has the lowest number of speakers in the country; the majority are found in the Mpumalanga province. 

Notable features

  • Ndebele’s vowel system doesn’t use diphthongs 
  • Like Zulu and Xhosa, Ndebele also uses clicks for the letters q, c and x 

Get to know the South African languages

South Africa’s 11 official languages (and about 34 languages in total) offer a window into the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity. Take some time to learn more about the history and evolution of these South African languages and the places where they’re spoken. There’s a lot more to discover! 

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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.

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