About South African English

PEREGRINE Do you … believe that there will be in the remote future a type of English known as South African English?
INCOLA Yes. I believe no human power can prevent it … The English of South Africa … will differ from England’s English…
  1909  J.W. Wessels in The State: a South African national magazine.

The extract above is the earliest recorded use of the term South African English in the archives of the Dictionary Unit for South African English (DSAE). It is part of an imaginary dialogue written by J.W. Wessels (about whom no more information is given) and was copied onto an index card stored at the DSAE. The researcher who transcribed the quotation decades ago must have been struck by the irony of the situation. Here was a fictional character “prophecying” the existence of a South African variety of English, in a citation that was about to join hundreds of thousands of others in a database dedicated to a single overarching project: recording the history of South African English, by then already widely accepted as a distinct language variety.

That project ultimately produced this dictionary, which goes far beyond recording the local words that usually spring to mind as being typically South African, such as biltong, bobotie, boerewors and braai, to take a few food-related examples from the letter B. But by 1909, the date of the first recorded explicit reference to the “future” language variety, about 2300 South African English terms had already been used in books, periodicals, diaries and private and official correspondence over the past three centuries.

High-visibility versus low-visibility words

Early English explorers, traders and later colonists needed a vocabulary for all they had not encountered before: indigenous peoples from the Attaqua in the Western Cape to the amaZulu in the east of the country; new plants and animals from the aandblom to the zebra fish; new landscapes (highveld, lowveld, or hostile baboon-rock); and newly-observed social roles and cultural practices (sangoma, imbongi, abakwetha). Some words had already died out by the early 1900s after centuries of use (e.g. tiger-wolf, an early name for the hyena) or else the word survived but the thing it referred to did not (quagga, the subspecies of zebra, now extinct). Some of the earliest South African English words are, on the other hand, still current today (e.g. dagga, the local – and official – term for marijuana, first recorded in 1670).

Less numerous than these conspicuous words but still common are those which permeate the daily English usage of South Africans without standing out for them as being unique to the country, yet these terms do not have the quite same meanings elsewhere. We refer to dams instead of lakes, for instance; to townships instead of shanties, attorneys and advocates instead of solicitors and barristers (for over a hundred Law-related terms, see here).

Defining South African English

An attorney or advocate would notice the wordplay behind the curious names of J.W. Wessel’s fictional characters, Peregrine and Incola. Both allude to terms used in South African law. Peregrinus refers to someone who is foreign to a place or comes from outside. Incola denotes a local inhabitant or resident. In essence, the dialogue shows “South African English” announcing itself through the mouth of a local inhabitant. What makes the date interesting is that the concept of a South African was about to be formalised with the proclamation of the Union of South Africa the following year in 1910.

What are the origins of South African English? A rough estimate is that it is 15% general English words with specialised local meanings, the remainder being derived from other languages, often as direct borrowings. The top five most influential languages from the 17th to 20th centuries are shown here:

Afrikaans 40%
(South African) Dutch 18%
isiZulu 6%
isiXhosa 5%
Khoi, Nama and San languages 2%

More interesting than these proportions are the individual words. The best way to explore them as they entered South African English over three centuries is to browse this dictionary and look at the Related Words or use the Filter Tools.

Need some pointers?

If you’re interested in things, you could start with a few Food and Drink terms. If you want to know where words come from, try isiZulu- or Arabic-derived words. If you’re interested in types of language, try South African English greetings or children’s language, for example.

If you came here already knowing what you want, and it is something like “colloquial names for insects and other invertebrates, derived from the Khoisan languages and first recorded after 1900”, you can find that here too: gogga.

Scholarly material

For a detailed scholarly discussion of South African English, see the archival material on the DSAE’s Articles page.