Saturday, September 18, 2021

Language & Phrasebook in South Africa

AfricaSouth AfricaLanguage & Phrasebook in South Africa

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, namely Afrikaans, Southern Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda and English. The majority of people who are not rural black South Africans speak English as a second language. Only about 8% of the population speaks English as a first language, almost exclusively among the white population, and ironically the proportion of English as a first language is declining, while English is already a common language among South Africans, with about 60% of the population understanding it. South African English is heavily influenced by Afrikaans. Afrikaans is also widely spoken, especially by the majority of whites and people of colour. Often Afrikaans is mistakenly referred to as ‘African’ or ‘Afrikaner’ by foreigners. This is quite incorrect, because for South Africans “Afrikaans” is the same as an indigenous African language. Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, etc. (Of course, there are thousands of languages in Africa, so no one language can be called “Afrikaans”). Afrikaans originated as a Dutch dialect in the 17th century, so Dutch speakers can understand it, and German speakers can sometimes decipher it. Other widely spoken languages are Zulu (mainly in KwaZulu-Natal – South Africa’s largest single language group) and Xhosa (mainly in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape), as well as Sotho and Venda. This changes depending on which region you are in.

A few words you might come across are:

  • eish – as in “eish, it’s hot today”, “eish, it’s expensive” or “eish, it’s too far to drive”.
  • lekker – beautiful, pleasing
  • howzit – what is it like? (usually a rhetorical question)
  • yebo – yes
  • boet, bru, china or ou – brother or man (equivalent to dude or bro).
  • koppie – a small hill (can also mean a cup)
  • Madiba – Nelson Mandela
  • Molo – Hello (in Xhosa)
  • Robot – traffic light
  • tannie – (auntie) respectful term for an older woman
  • oom – (uncle) respectful term for an older man
  • Jingle – telephone call
  • right now – sometime soon (from Afrikaans “net-nou”)
  • now now – sooner than just now! (from Afrikaans “nou-nou”, pronounced no-no)
  • braai – barbecue.
  • cheers – is used to say goodbye, but also to say thank you and for the occasional toast.
  • heita – hello
  • sharp – (usually pronounced quickly) OK
  • sure-sure is pronounced more like sho-sho – Correct, agreement, thank you
  • ayoba – a little cool
  • Zebra crossing – a zebra crossing. Named after the white and black stripes that are usually painted on zebra stripes.


In general, English spelling follows British rather than US rules; litre rather than litre, centre rather than centre, etc.