English in South Africa

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

34 Pages, Grade: 1,5


List of Contents

1) Introduction

2) The History of South Africa
2.1 Ancient History and Dutch Colonization
2.2 From the arrival of the English at the Cape until the Boer Wars
2.3 From the Union of South Africa until the Era of Apartheid
2.4 The Apartheid Era
2.5 The present day situation in South Africa

3) English in today’s South African Society
3.1 Multilingualism or English Unilateralism
3.2 English in the Media
3.3 English in Education

4) White South African English
4.1 Classification of White South African English
4.2 Phonology
4.3 Grammar
4.4 Vocabulary

5) Black South African English
5.1 Classification of Black South African English
5.2 Phonology
5.3 Grammar
5.4 Vocabulary, Discourse Patterns and Code Switching

6) Case Study: Phonological Analysis of a BSAFE speaker
6.1 The speaker and the text
6.2 Vowels
6.3 Consonants and Suprasegmental Features

7) Conclusion

8) Bibliography and Sources

1) Introduction

English came to South Africa through colonization by the end of the 18th century. Around 200 years later it is widely spoken in Africa’s most southern country although it is not the sole official language. It equally shares that status together with Afrikaans and nine African indigenous languages – at least in theory.

This paper is supposed to characterize the development and current status of the English language in South Africa. The multicultural state has an eventful and dramatic history. It is important to outline and explain that varied history in this linguistic paper because it had a major effect on language spread and development in South Africa, which has since the arrival of the Europeans never been completely linguistically homogenous. English in South Africa can not be understood without taking a closer look at more than 300 years of eventful history. Chapter two is going to give an overview of that history referring thereby to different recognized historians and their works.

After that there will be a closer look at the status of English in today’s South African society. The next chapter has three different focuses. It will take a closer look at the governmental policy of multilingualism and its outcomes in practice. Also the role of the English language in the media and education system of South Africa will be examined. The question needs to be answered, which trends for the future are becoming obvious concerning the role of English in South Africa. Will it be extended in the future or rather suffer from competition through other languages? What is today’s image of English in comparison to the other “imported” language, namely Afrikaans?

After having finished the general description of SAE there will be a closer look at its linguistic features. Two major kinds of South African Englishes will thereby be distinguished: White South African English (WSAFE) and Black South African English (BSAFE).

Both will be examined in chapters four and five. An examination of different language elements, such as phonology, vocabulary, grammar and discourse patterns will be provided to get an imagination about what is meant when talking about WSAFE or BSAFE.

The theoretical knowledge gained in chapters four and five will then be applied in a phonological analysis of a Black South African speaker of English, namely a 17 year old girl with Zulu background. The sound sample was obtained from International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) under


The interesting question is, whether the theoretical symptoms of BSAFE can be observed while listening to the speaker or whether there are differences to the typical theoretical constructs of BSAFE as being outlined in chapter five.

The paper will hopefully be able to make the interesting story that lies behind SAE more accessible to the reader and also highlight the numerous potentials but also past struggles and current potential problems of English in South Africa.

2) The History of South Africa

2.1 Ancient History and Dutch Colonization

When writing a history about South Africa and having the development of English in the country in mind, the first crucial point to start with is the colonisation of the Cape of Good Hope. Before doing so here is at least a very brief overview of what happened before the European settlers arrived and brought with them their languages.

Around 500 B.C. Bantu peoples[1] moved into South Africa, mainly in small groups by way of the Great Lakes (cf. Walker 1965: 7). Before that they had lived in the area of the River Niger Delta. In the area of what is now South Africa they lived together with the Bushmen (the so called KhoiKhoi) who intermingled with another type of Bushmen which resulted in the ethnic group of the Khoisan. The Bantu people began spreading near the coast, in the Highlands and the northeast of today’s South Africa and began to mix with the Khoisan. Because there are no written documents left, the early history of South Africa is almost exclusively based on archaeological findings and their interpretation.

The first Europeans to set foot in South Africa were the Portuguese. Shipwrecked persons reported from meetings with Xhosa[2] as soon as in late 16th century (cf. Hagemann 2001: 24). The Portuguese dominated the trade routes around the Cape of Good Hope for a few years until the Dutch East India Company decided to establish a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in order to give shelter to passing ships on their way to East Asia.[3]

In order to do so an expedition under Jan van Riebeeck reached the Cape of Good Hope on April 6 1652. That arrival has an immense importance for South African history as Ross points out: “In political and constitutional terms, the modern South African state is the lineal descendant of van Riebeeck’s settlement.” (1999: 21)

Shortly after the establishment of the settlement, Dutch farmers began to push ahead further into the interior of the country and established a farming system which could provide the settlement with agricultural goods. Together with the Dutch arrival at the Cape many other peoples from different regions were streaming into the area around the Cape of Good Hope. Germans and Scandinavians as well as French Huguenots escaping from religious suppression by King Louis XIV. (1638 – 1715). Also the Dutch brought with them a big number of slaves, mainly from Madagascar and Indonesia. Often the slaves got married to Dutch settlers and got offspring, which is the reason for the so called Cape Coloureds.[4]

The spread of Dutch settlements soon led to an inevitable crash with the indigenous KhoiKoi which was very disadvantageous for the latter. The KhoiKhoi were expelled from their traditional land and often became victims of unknown European diseases. Resistance was easily broken with the help of superior European weapon technology. The basis for today’s Coloured population in South Africa (not to mix up with the Cape Coloureds) can to a big extend be seen in a mixture between Khoisan, Europeans and imported slaves from the time of Dutch Colonisation.

2.2 From the arrival of the English at the Cape until the Boer Wars

By the end of the 18th century problems for the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope began to rise, which resulted in jeopardy and uncertainty (cf. Hepple 1967: 54). In 1795 the British made use of the Dutch weakness and conquered the Cape. That can be seen as part of their general campaign to secure their hegemony over the world’s seas, which had become primarily important during the war with revolutionary France in Europe (cf. Ross 1999: 35).

The revolutionary France had occupied all of the royalist Netherlands, which also included their colonies.

Britain saw that as a threat for their trading interests and conquered the Cape. Briefly in 1803 the colony was returned to the Dutch and became part of the Batavian Republic[5] but as soon as in 1814 the Cape was “formally surrendered to Britain” (Bowerman 2004: 931). By that time the Cape colony consisted of around 25 000 slaves, 20 000 white colonists, 15 000 Khoisan and around 1000 freed slaves. The hinterland of the colony was settled by sporadic black and white farmers.

In 1820 around 5000 people from Britain landed at the Cape and received land for farming. They were mainly working class people speaking numerous varieties of regional dialects rather than RP (Bowerman 2004: 931). They were supposed to create a puffer zone between the colony’s eastern front and rebelling Xhosa and Boers[6], which was not successful. Many of the British left their rural environment and returned to the already secure towns. Shortly after their arrival English was declared the official language in 1822 and was beginning to be learned also by blacks and Afrikaans speakers as a second language (cf. Jenkins 2003: 6).

The number of British immigrants into the colony was rising steadily and through a continuous eastwards movement of the British they got in contact with indigenous peoples. From 1815 until around 1835 there was an important period of widespread chaos and fighting between indigenous South African peoples being called Mfecane (Zulu) or Difaqane (Sesotho). The historical research describes with those terms a process of change of power between South African peoples resulting in immense killings and annihilation among the Black peoples (cf. Hagemann 2001: 24). At the same time quarrels between British and Dutch settlers were mounting which led to the so called Great Trek from 1834 – 1836.

Many Dutch settlers together with KhoiKhoi and black servants left the colony in order to gain autonomy elsewhere. Those trekkers moved further northwards and eastwards where they founded three states, the so called Boer Republics: Transvaal, the Orange Free State and the Natalia Republic.

The latter only existed for four years and was then annexed by the British, which led to a rapid increase of English speaking population already in the first half of the 19th century. Dutch became the official language in the remaining two Boer Republics with English remaining a competition (cf. Bowerman 2004: 932).

The discovery of diamond-mines was the first step towards the end of the Boer Republics. Thompson points out that “as the mineral wealth of the region became revealed, some British politicians and businesspeople came to regard its control as a matter of national importance.” (2001: 114) The British pressure for diamonds mounted in the first Boer War from 1880 until 1881. It only lasted a quarter of a year and ended with a undisputable victory of the Afrikaners who referred to it as the “War of Independence”.

The second Anglo-Boer War lasted longer and had a different course. The war began in 1899 and ended with a British victory in 1902.[7] In the “Treaty of Vereeniging” the Boers acknowledged British sovereignty and became member of the Crown Colonies. The British victory led to an increase of English speaking people streaming into the former Boer Republics.

2.3 From the Union of South Africa until the Era of Apartheid

In 1910, after four years of negotiation, the Union of South Africa was brought into life. It contained the four provinces Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (cf. Spies 1984: 374) This again increased the status of English as a first language in the area.

In World War I the Union of South Africa had a strong alliance with England against the German Empire. The former Boer War General and now Prime Minister of the Union became member of the British “Imperial War Cabinet” which was created by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945). The Union participated in substantial military actions against Germany. The situation at the outbreak of World War II was more complicated.

In spite of the alliance with Great Britain the Union was at that time governed by Barry Herzog who was the leader of the Anti-British National Party and wanted to keep the Union in a state of neutrality. He was replaced by former Prime Minister Jan Smuts who declared war on Germany after Britain had done so in 1939. The time from the foundation of the Union of South Africa until after World War II was characterized by a strong domination of the English language in the powerful political scene as well as in the growing mining industry which became home for many British home-born, upper-class businessmen. It was the prestigious Natal variety of English that became the standard for South African English with Cape colonial English and second language English spoken by Afrikaners remained rather low standard varieties (cf. Bowerman 2004: 933).

2.4 The Apartheid Era

Already during World War II the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, who was against supporting Britain, had an alliance with Nazi Germany. After the end of the war there was growing hostility between English speaking and Afrikaners, who were often impoverished. Afrikaners more and more rebelled against the domination of the English. The Nationalist Party won the election in 1948 with 41.5 % of the votes (cf. Ross 1999: 114) and began establishing a regime which is known to the world as Apartheid.[8] Until 1948 whites and Cape Coloureds were able to vote – now the permission was rejected from everybody but eligible whites. Not until 1994 coloured minorities were again allowed to participate in elections.


[1] Bantu means „people“ in many Bantu languages. Bantu is a very general term, standing for more than 400 different ethnic groups in Africa which are united by a common language family. The German linguist Wilhelm Bleek (1827-1875) first used the term in his Comparative Grammar of South African Languages, first published in 1862.

[2] The Xhosa people are a group of people of Bantu origin.

[3] The way by ship to East Asia became necessary for European traders because the Ottoman Empire had spread and threatened the way on land.

[4] Cape Coloureds are the descendants of South African imported slaves. They mainly live in the Western Cape province and most often have Afrikaans as their mother tongue.

[5] The Batavian Republic was established in the Netherlands from 1795 until 1806 as a state with French structures as role model. It became a French vassal state.

[6] Boer is the Dutch word for farmer denoting the descendants of Afrikaans-speaking farmers of the eastern Cape frontier as well as in the Orange Free State, Transvaal and Natal.

[7] The second Boer-War for the first time saw the instalment of concentration camps in which approximately 28 000 Boers and 14 000 black Africans died because of starvation, disease and exposure.

[8] Apartheid is an Afrikaans term standing for apartness or separateness. It became a watchword of the government and a world-wide term of abuse among its opponents.

Excerpt out of 34 pages


English in South Africa
University of Hannover  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Hauptseminar: English in Africa
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
635 KB
Umfangreiche und gut recherchierte Arbeit.
English, South, Africa, Hauptseminar, English, Africa
Quote paper
Joachim von Meien (Author), 2007, English in South Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/66441


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