South African English

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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, Swazilanders 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.


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.[citation needed]

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
Diaphoneme 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
Diaphoneme 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]. Especially in Cape Town the KIT vowel has merged almost completely with the STRUT vowel thus when a person says he is 'busy' this is heard as 'buzzy.'
  • /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.



The plosive phonemes of South African English are /p, b, t, d, k, ɡ/.

  • Voicing of the plosives is contrastive in South African English.[14]
  • In Broad White South African English, voiceless plosives tend to be unaspirated in all positions, which serves as a marker of this subvariety.[14][15] This is usually thought to be an Afrikaans influence.[15]
  • General and Cultivated varieties aspirate /p, t, k/ before a stressed syllable, unless they are followed by an /s/ within the same syllable.[14][15]
  • /t, d/ are normally alveolar.[15] In the Broad variety, they tend to be dental [, ].[14][15] This pronunciation also occurs in older speakers of the Jewish subvariety of Cultivated SAE.[15]

Fricatives and affricates[edit]

The fricative and affricate phonemes of South African English are /f, v, θ, ð, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, x, h, tʃ, dʒ/.

  • /x/ occurs only in words borrowed from Afrikaans and Khoisan, such as gogga /ˈxɒxə/ 'insect'. Many speakers realize /x/ as uvular [χ], a sound which is more common in Afrikaans.[14]
  • /θ/ may be realized as [f] in Broad varieties (see Th-fronting), but it is more accurate to say that it is a feature of Afrikaans English.[14][15] This is especially common word-finally.[15]
  • /v, ð, z, ʒ/ in word-final position tend to be voiceless. They contrast with /f, θ, s, ʃ/ by the presence or lack of pre-fortis clipping.[14]
  • In General and Cultivated varieties, intervocalic /h/ (as in ahead) may be voiced [ɦ].[16]
  • There is not a full agreement about the voicing of /h/ in Broad varieties:
    • Lass (2002) states that:
      • Voiced [ɦ] is the normal realization of /h/ in Broad varieties.[16]
      • It is often deleted, e.g. in word-initial stressed syllables (as in house), but at least as often it just sounds as if it were deleted, when it is actually retained. The vowel that follows the [ɦ] allophone in the word-initial syllable often carries a low or low rising tone, which in rapid speech can be the only trace of the deleted /h/. This creates potentially minimal tonal pairs like oh (neutral [ʌʊ˧] or high falling [ʌʊ˦˥˩]) vs. hoe (low [ʌʊ˨] or low rising [ʌʊ˩˨]).[16]
    • Bowerman (2004) states that in Broad varieties close to Afrikaans English, /h/ is voiced [ɦ] before a stressed vowel.[14]


The sonorant phonemes of South African English are /m, (hw), w, n, l, r, j, ŋ/.

  • General and Broad varieties have a wine–whine merger. but some speakers of Cultivated SAE (particularly the elderly) still distinguish /hw/ from /w/.[17][18]
  • /n/ is normally alveolar, but it has an optional dental allophone [] before dental consonants.[15][17]
  • /l/ has two allophones:
  • In Cultivated and General varieties, /r/ is an approximant, usually postalveolar or (less commonly)[15] retroflex.[15][17] In emphatic speech, Cultivated speakers may realize /r/ as a (often long) trill [r].[18] Older speakers of the Cultivated variety may realize intervocalic /r/ as a tap [ɾ], a feature which is becoming increasingly rare.[18]
  • Broad SAE realizes /r/ as a tap [ɾ], sometimes even as a trill [r] - a pronunciation which is at times stigmatised as a marker of this variety.[17][18] The trill [r] is more commonly considered a feature of the second language Afrikaans English variety.[17][18]
  • Another possible realization of /r/ is uvular trill [ʀ], which has been reported to occur in the Cape Flats dialect.[19]
  • South African English is non-rhotic, except for some Broad varieties spoken in the Cape Province (typically in -er suffixes, as in writer). It appears that postvocalic /r/ is entering the speech of younger people under the influence of American English.[17][18]
  • There is not a full agreement about intrusive /r/ (as in law and order) in South African English:
    • Lass (2002) states that it is rare, and some speakers with linking /r/ never use the intrusive /r/.[16]
    • Bowerman (2004) states that it is absent from this variety.[17]
  • In contexts where many British and Australian accents use the intrusive /r/, speakers of South African English who do not use the intrusive /r/ create an intervocalic hiatus. Phonetically, it can be realized in three ways:[17]
    • Vowel deletion: [loːnoːdə];[17]
    • Adding a semivowel corresponding to the preceding vowel: [loːwənoːdə];[17]
    • Inserting a glottal stop: [loːʔənoːdə]. This is typical of Broad varieties.[17]
  • Before a high front vowel, /j/ is foritified to [ɣ] in Broad and some of the General varieties.[17]



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[edit]

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,[20]:23 making up 9.6% of the national population.[20]: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%).[20]: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[20]:26  % of population group[20]: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[edit]

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[edit]

(The following examples of South African accents were obtained from

See also[edit]



  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 c d e f g h Bowerman (2004), p. 939.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lass (2002), p. 120.
  16. ^ a b c d Lass (2002), p. 122.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Bowerman (2004), p. 940.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lass (2002), p. 121.
  19. ^ Finn (2004), p. 976.
  20. ^ a b c d e Census 2011: Census in brief (PDF). Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012. ISBN 9780621413885. 


  • Bekker, Ian (2008). The vowels of South African English (PDF) (Ph.D.). North-West University, Potchefstroom. 
  • Bowerman, Sean (2004), "White South African English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive, A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 931–942, ISBN 3-11-017532-0 
  • Finn, Peter (2004), "Cape Flats English: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive, A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 934–984, ISBN 3-11-017532-0 
  • 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, ISBN 9780521791052 
  • Mott, Brian (2012), "Traditional Cockney and popular London speech", Dialectologia (RACO (Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert)) 9: 69–94, ISSN 2013-2247 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]