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South African English

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South African English

Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks English at home.
Geographical distribution of English in South Africa: density of English home-language speakers.

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

There is some social and regional variation within South African English. Social variation within white South African English has been classified into three groupings (Termed "The Great Trichotomy" by Roger Lass[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 closely approximating the second-language Afrikaans-English variety. This is similar to the case in Australian English.


  • Pronunciation 1
    • Vowels 1.1
    • Consonants 1.2
      • Plosives 1.2.1
      • Fricatives and affricates 1.2.2
      • Nasals 1.2.3
        • Sonorants
  • Vocabulary 2
    • Lexicon 2.1
    • Contributions to English worldwide 2.2
  • Demographics 3
  • English Academy of Southern Africa 4
  • Examples of South African accents 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Like British English in Southern England, 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.

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.


The following table is based on Bekker (2008) and Lass (2002:111–119).

IPA Lexical
Cultivated General Broad
æ æ a~æ æ~ɛ TRAP lad, bad, cat
ɑː ɑ̟ː~äː ɑː ɑː~ɒː~ɔː BATH pass, path, sample
ɒ ɒ̈ ɒ̈~ʌ̈ ɒ̈ LOT not, wasp
ɒ̈ / o̞ː ɒ̈~ʌ̈ / ɒ̈ / CLOTH off, loss, cloth[3]
ɔː o̞ː THOUGHT law, caught
ɪ ɪ ɪ i KIT kick
ɪ̈ ɪ̈~ə sit
i HAPPY city
eɪ̯ eɪ̯~ɛɪ̯~æɪ̯ ɛɪ̯~äɪ̯~ʌɪ̯ FACE date
ɛ ɛ~e e~ɪ ɛ~e~ɪ DRESS bed
ɜr əː(ɹ) ø̈ː(ɹ)~ø̞̈ː(ɹ) NURSE burn
ʌ ɐ~ä STRUT run, won
ʊ ʊ~ʊ̈ ʊ FOOT put
u̟ː ʉː~ ʉː GOOSE through, you
äɪ̯ äɪ̯~äː ɑɪ̯~ɑ̟ː PRICE my, wise
ɔɪ ɔɪ̯~ɒɪ̯ ɔɪ̯ CHOICE boy, hoist
ɛʊ̯~œʊ̯ œʉ̯~œɤ̯̈~œː ʌʊ̯ GOAT no, toe
äʊ̯ äʊ̯~äː æʊ̯~jæʊ̯ MOUTH now, trout
ɪər ɪə̯(ɹ) ɪə̯(ɹ)~ɪː(ɹ) NEAR deer, here
ɛər ɛə̯(ɹ) ɛː(ɹ) (ɹ) SQUARE mare, there
ʊər ʊə̯(ɹ) ʊə̯(ɹ)~(ɹ) (ɹ) CURE tour, moor
Cultivated General Broad Lexical
General South African monophthongs on a vowel chart.[4] Note that non-centralized /ɪ/ is not shown, and that these values are not representative of all speakers of the General variety.
  • /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].
  • /æ/ (as in trap) is usually realised as a slightly raised [æ] in Cultivated and General. In Broad varieties it is often raised to [ɛ], so that /æ/ encroaches on /ɛ/ for some speakers.[5] A good example of this is South Africa sounds more like South Efrica. This vowel shift is shared in New Zealand English and one of the notable similarities that cause American English speakers to mistake South Africans for New Zealanders. On the other hand, [a] seems to be the new prestige value in younger Johannesburg (specifically in the Northern Suburbs) speakers of General SAE.[6]
  • /ɒ/ (as in lot) is usually a quite open, centralised vowel [ɒ̈].[7] Roger Lass notes a tendency towards [ʌ̈] in younger Cape Town and Natal speakers of General SAE.[7]
  • /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 first language 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). Lass (2002:115–116) notes a tendency for younger female speakers of the General variety to pronounce a near-close central vowel [ʊ̈].
  • /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 can be a diphthong [ɪi~əi~ɐi] in the latter varieties.
  • /ɜːr/ (as in nurse), is usually pronounced as a central mid unrounded vowel [ɜ̝ː] in Cultivated.[8] In General and Broad it tends to be raised, rounded and fronted, like [ø̈ː], or somewhat lower. It's similar to the vowel in French peu.[8]
  • /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]. Roger Lass notes a tendency towards [yː] in younger, and especially female, General speakers.[8]
  • /ɑː/ (the vowel in bath) is low and fully back, [ɑː], except in the Cultivated variety. That distinguishes SAE from the other Southern Hemisphere varieties. Cultivated speakers realise a more central vowel - [ɑ̈ː]. In Broad varieties however, there is a tendency to produce a shorter rounder and raised vowel, so that it becomes [ɒ~ɔ].[9][10]
  • In Cultivated speech, /ɔː/ (as in thought) is quite open, like RP [ɔː].[8] In General and Broad, it is higher, [oː].[8] Broad varieties also have /ɔː/ in words like cloth and loss, at least partially preserving the lot-cloth split.[8]
  • The norm for /eɪ/ (as in face) in Cultivated and General varieties is [eɪ]. Roger Lass 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].[9]
An example of the PRICE-MOUTH crossover on a vowel chart (Cockney, from Mott (2012:77))
  • The Cultivated SAE realisation of /aɪ/ (as in price) is close to RP [aɪ].[9] In General and Broad, the articulation of the first element is often monophthongised to [äː],[9] similar to Southern American English. Broad speakers can instead pronounce a diphthong with a back onset - [ɑɪ],[9] similar to Broad Australian English or Estuary English.
  • Cultivated SAE usually realises /aʊ/ (as in mouth) as [ɑ̈ʊ], while General again follows the tendency to monophthongise diphthongs, and often has [äː].[11] Broad has a much fronter onset, and most often retains the offglide: [æʊ].[11] This, along with a back onset of /aɪ/ is termed 'PRICE-MOUTH crossover'.[9] Some Broad speakers may even realise /aʊ/ as [jæʊ], especially after /n/ and /h/, with the possibility of deleting the latter, like in house [hjæʊs]~[jæʊs].[11]
  • In all varieties, /ɔɪ/ (as in choice) is usually [ɔɪ]; the onset can be as low as /ɒ/ for older Cultivated SAE speakers.[12]
  • 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], very similar to Cockney.
  • 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/.
  • The unstressed (or secondarily stressed[13]) 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.[14] 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/,[14] but this is only in words borrowed from Khoi/San 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].

/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 second language Afrikaans English variety, though it is sometimes stigmatised as marker of Broad.[15] 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.

/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.[15]

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 languages of Africa such as Afrikaans or Zulu, although, particularly in Durban, there is also an influence from Indian languages and slang developed by subcultures, particularly surfers. Terms in common with North American English include 'mom' (most British and Australian 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).

One of the most noticeable traits of South African English-speakers is the strong tendency to use the Afrikaans 'ja' [='yes'] in any situation where other English-speakers would say 'yes', 'yeah' or 'Well, ...'. The parallel is extended to the expression 'ja-nee' [literally, 'yes-no'; indicating a partial agreement or acknowledgement of a point] which becomes 'Ja, no, ...'. Such usage is widely acceptable, although it is understood to be incorrect English and would not be used in strictly formal contexts, such as in court or in a job interview.

South Africans are also known for their irregular use of the word 'now'. Particularly, 'just now' is taken to mean 'in a while' or 'later' (up to a few hours' time) rather than 'this very minute', for which a South African would say 'right now'. 'Now now' is relatively more immediate, implying a delay of a few minutes to around half an hour. The word 'just' also has a looser meaning than in British English when applied to location; expressions such as 'just there', or 'just around the corner' are not taken to imply a precise point.

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, 'robot' for a traffic light, 'dagga' for cannabis, 'braai' for barbecue and 'jol' for party. South Africans generally refer to the different codes of football, such as soccer and rugby, by those names.

There is some 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.

Contributions to English worldwide

Several South African words, usually from Afrikaans or other indigenous languages of the region, have entered world English: those relating to human activity include apartheid; commando and trek and those relating to indigenous flora and fauna include veld; vlei; spoor; aardvark; impala; mamba; boomslang; meerkat and wildebeest.

Recent films such as District 9 have also brought South African and Southern African English to a global audience, as have television personalities like Austin Stevens.

Large numbers of the British diaspora and other South African English speakers now live in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and some Persian Gulf states and may have influenced their host community's dialects to some degree. South African English and its slang also has a substantial presence in neighbouring countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. English accents vary considerably depending on region and local ethnic influences.


The South African National Census of 2011 found a total of 4,892,623 speakers of English as a first language,[16]:23 making up 9.6% of the national population.[16]:25 The provinces with significant English-speaking populations were the Western Cape (20.2% of the provincial population), Gauteng (13.3%) and KwaZulu-Natal (13.2%).[16]:25

English was spoken across all ethnic groups in South Africa. The breakdown of English-speakers according to the conventional racial classifications used by Statistics South Africa is described in the following table.

"Population group" English-speakers[16]:26 % of population group[16]:27 % of total English-speakers
Black African 1,167,913 2.9 23.9
Coloured 945,847 20.8 19.3
Indian or Asian 1,094,317 86.1 22.4
White 1,603,575 35.9 32.8
Other 80,971 29.5 1.7
Total 4,892,623 9.6 100.0

English Academy of Southern Africa

The English Academy of Southern Africa (EASA) 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.

In July 2010, the English Academy of Southern Africa launched an online magazine, Teaching English Today, for academic discussion related to English and teaching English as a subject in schools.

Examples of South African accents

(The following examples of South African accents were obtained from

  • Native English: Male (Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Native English: Female (Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Native English: Male (Port Elizabeth, South Africa)
  • Native English: Male (Nigel, South Africa)

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. ^ Lass (2002:109ff)
  3. ^ Lass (2002:116), "Certain words where the vowel is followed by a voiceless fricative may have either (long) THOUGHT or (short) LOT: this is quite variable, and different speakers may have quite different distributions. (Wells has a separate class, CLOTH, for such items.) In general, the more conservative the style or lect, the less likely the CLOTH words (e.g. off, soft, cloth, wrath, loss, Austria, Austin are to have THOUGHT; though most varieties have it in off."
  4. ^ "Rodrik Wade, MA Thesis, Ch 4: Structural characteristics of Zulu English".  Some symbols were changed to better reflect the actual pronunciation.
  5. ^ Lanham (1967:9)
  6. ^ Bekker (2008:83–84) "More recently, Bekker and Eley (2007) conducted an acoustic analysis of the monophthongs of GenSAE, using data elicited from two sets of subjects: young females from private schools in Johannesburg and young females from public schools in East London. Results suggest that a lowered TRAP vowel is a new prestige value, particularly for the Johannesburg area, and more specifically for one of the more wealthy areas of Johannesburg; the so-called ‘Northern Suburbs’ (...)."
  7. ^ a b Lass (2002:115)
  8. ^ a b c d e f Lass (2002:116)
  9. ^ a b c d e f Lass (2002:117)
  10. ^ Lanham (1967:14)
  11. ^ a b c Lass (2002:117–118)
  12. ^ Lass (2002:118)
  13. ^ Lass (2002:119)
  14. ^ a b Lass (2002:120)
  15. ^ a b Lass (2002:121)
  16. ^ a b c d e Census 2011: Census in brief. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012.  


  • Bekker, Ian (2008), The vowels of South African English 
  • Lanham, Len W. (1967), The pronunciation of South African English, Cape Town: Balkema 
  • Lass, Roger (2002), "South African English", in Mesthrie, Rajend, Language in South Africa, Cambridge University Press,  
  • Mott, Brian (2012), "Traditional Cockney and popular London speech", Dialectologia (RACO (Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert)) 9: 69–94,  

Further reading

  • Kortmand, Bernd, Schneider, Edgar W. (2004). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-017532-5

External links

  • English Academy of South Africa
  • Picard, Brig (Dr) J. H, SM, MM. "English for the South African Armed Forces" at the Wayback Machine (archived June 22, 2008)
  • Zimbabwean Slang Dictionary
  • "Surfrikan", South African surfing slang
  • The influence of Afrikaans on SA English (in Dutch)
  • The Expat Portal RSA Slang
  • Several Samples of The Dialect
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