South Africa. Problems of identification and the role of the English language

Term Paper, 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction: Aims of this work

2. English in South Africa
2.1 Overview: the English language in South Africa
2.2 History of the English language in South Africa

3. Sociallinguistic background: Problems of identification
3.1 What is identity?
3.2 Language Identity, Identity due to language
3.3 Language identity in a multilingual context

4. The problem of identification in South Africa

5. The status of English in South Africa today
5.1 English as a mother tongue and as a second language
5.2 The spread of English

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Solemn declaration

1. Introduction: Aims of this work

The aim of my work is to give an overview of the Egnlish language in South Africa. I would like to describe, how the English language reached South Africa, which other languages were and are there and what problems exist between those languages and probably between their ethnical groups too.

Later on I will talk about the status of English in South Africa. Who uses English? Is it used by specific social classes? In which fields of society can English be found? Is it more a mother tongue than a second language or the other way around?

All those things I will try to find out.

At the end of this work I will try to draw a conclusion and answer the question if there are real identity problems and in which way the citizens try to handle the situation.

2. English in South Africa

In this chapter I will talk about how the English language came to South Africa and how English developed there.

First of all I would like to give a small overview of English in South Africa and afterwards I will talk about the history of English in South Africa more in detail.

2.1 Overview: the English language in South Africa

The English language reached South Africa for the first time in 1795. Britain occupied the Cape of Good Hope for a strategical reason: they saw the possibility of getting to India by sea.

In Cape Town there was still a Dutch colony since 1652 and also some Frenchmen and Germans still lived there.

The white settlers mainly came from farmer- families. Therefore they called themselves “the Boers”. The language they used for communication was Dutch, which later on developed into an own, specific language. This language was a mixture of Dutch and African languages and was called “Afrikaans”.

The English language became more and more important in Cape Land since 1806, in the new republics of Natal and Transvaal as well as in the Orange Free State, because in those areas there were arguments between the Boers and Britain, which were won by Britain. In 1820 the first British settlers came and the importance of an African English developed.

In 1910, the four british colonies were joined together to the “Union of South Africa”, which had the status of a British dominion[1].

In the second half of the 19th century more British colonies arised. Out of these colonies later on developed states like Sambia in 1964, Malawi in 1966, Simbabwe in 1980, Botsuana or Lesotho. English was mostly spoken as a second language there. Nevertheless it was acknowledged as an official language in most of these countries. Only in South Africa English had to share the position of an official language with the Dutch or Afrikaans language. Not until the end of the British colonial supremacy more native languages forced the English language back to an “co-official” or “second official language” status.

However in countries like Sambia, Simbabwe and Namibia, English is the only means of communication in the official area.

2.2 History of the English language in South Africa

Now I will talk about the history of English in South Africa because I would like to show which problems raised between English speaking people and other ethnical groups, which of course spoke other languages, too.

The first British settlers, like I have already mentioned, came to Cape Land in 1820, which was conquered by Britain from the Dutch settlers. These British settlers were from different parts of Great Britain and mainly from working- class or lower middle- class. Their “Cape English” was easily be influenced by Afrikaans and was the basis for the “Extreme South African English”, like we call the English of the area around Cape Town today.

Although the British settlers just were a small group in that bigger group of whites, they immediately tried to anglicize the Boers and the whole official life in the Cape colony.

Already in 1822 they declared English as the official language in the colony. Therefore the Boers were forced to learn English. Out of this process another South African English variety arised: Afrikaans English.

Another important measure of the British settlers was the abolition of slavery in the the first half of the 19th century. Until that time, slavery was very important for the agriculture of the Boers.

Furthermore they introduced a tax system and abolished the working restrictions for black and coloured people.

The Boers considered all these measures as a threat for their existence and many of them decided to leave Cape Town and went into inland regions. They subjugated the tribes which lived there and built the republic of Natal in 1838.

The British wanted to widen their dominion and their first plan was to conquer Natal to get the predominance over the Boers. So they managed their aim and annexed Natal to their Cape colony in 1843.

The Boers did not give up and founded the four republics Potchefstroom, Lydenburg, Zoutpansberg and Utrecht, which were united in 1858 to the South African Republic (Transvaal). The British accepted their sovereignty to secure their rule over Natal.

Another republic of the Boers was founded in 1854 and was called the Orange Free State.

From 1848 until 1862 there was a huge wave of British immigrants in Natal. These settlers were different to those from Cape Land, because they mainly came from Middle England, Yorkshire and Lancashire and they were of a higher social status, that means of middle- or upper middle- class.

Their language was very orientated to the Standard English. Nevertheless arised a special variety of English, which was named Natal English. Out of this variety developed the Respectable South African English.

In addition to the British settlers came people from India, who worked on plantations and learned English next to their mother tongue. Out of this fact developed another second language variety called South African Indian English. It has some similarities with the Indian English, but both are not identical.

The British developed an economical interest in South Africa since the discovery of diamont occurrences in the Orange Free State and Transvaal, but the real “Mining Revolution” first started in 1886 when there was the discovery of gold in Transvaal.

In this time, small villages became large cities (e.g.: Johannesburg had 50.000 inhabitants in the year 1889)[2] and ports were built and connected to the mining areas by railways.

Becuase of these processes there was an increased demand for workers. Therefore many white and also black people came from all parts of South Africa. New social structures arised in the cities, because a prerequisite for professional and social advancement was the mastery of English. Industrial companies were almost exclusively led by English speaking people.

Furthermore this was a disadvantage for the Boers, because most of them came from the countryside and were not well educated. They never got the chance to learn English and therefore most of them got into a lower social group.

Often they stood on the same social level with Blacks or Coloured people, which they disdained.

The Boers began to feel more and more threatened because of the British in a political, economical, cultural and military way since the British annexed Transvaal in 1878. The first military argument betweens both sides was in 1880/1881 and had the result that Transvaal reached a limited independence.

Besides the Boers created organizations like for example “Genootskap van regte Afrikaners” or “Afrikaner Bond”, which fighted for their national identity and for equal rights for their Afrikaans language with regard to the English language.

In the 90’s there were more arguments between these two parties, because the British moved on to try to annex Transvaal. In 1899 a second war broke out. The “boer war” lasted until 1902 and one of its results was that that Transvaal and the Orange Free State became British colonies.

Nevertheless the Boers did not lose their feeling of national identity and finally they reached the right to use Dutch in schools and court since the “Peace of Vereeniging” in 1902.

For saving the economical hegemony of the white people it was necessary for the British to cooperate with the Boers. Therefore English and Dutch got equal rights and both became official languages in 1910.

The struggle for power between the British and the Boers went on. The Boers criticized, that only Dutch became equal to the English language but not Afrikaans, which was always used by the Boers. Therefore new unions of the Boers developed. The most important of these was the “Nasionale Party”[3], which came into power in 1924. This party reached the recognition of the Afrikaans as an official language instead of Dutch with the “Union Act” in 1925.

However, English remained the dominant language in South Africa.

In the course of the years there was a strong urge of African people to be dismissed from the British colonial supremacy and White people were afraid of a South Africa, ruled by Blacks. The result of this situation was the re-election of the “Nasionale Party” in 1948. Their most important measures were the realisation of the apartheid policy on the one hand and on the other hand they wanted the Black people to learn both official languages on a low linguistical level. They tried to prevent them from forming a common method of communication on the basis of the Bantu languages.

Furthermore the “Nasionale Party” wanted to support the role of Afrikaans and force back the role of English.

In 1961 South Africa became the “Republic of South Africa” and left the “Commonwealth of Nations”. The political cancellation from Great Britain caused the development of an own national standard of the English language which became in South Africa the “Respectable South African English”


[1] Dominion means, that Britain still had the power and the control over these republics.

[2] Hansen/ Carls/ Lukow (1996), Die Differenzierung des Englischen in nationale Varianten, Berlin: Schmidt. p 191

[3] ibid.p.192

Excerpt out of 25 pages


South Africa. Problems of identification and the role of the English language
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Geographical Varieties of English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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528 KB
South, Africa, Problems, English, Geographical, Varieties, English
Quote paper
Franziska Linkner (Author), 2006, South Africa. Problems of identification and the role of the English language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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