From the limited experience I have of hearing English spoken by South Africans or even knowing someone is South African (from real life or movies), I find it impossible to really tell when someone is speaking with the accent called South African English (SAE).

I've done some looking up at wikipedia: South African English, a summary of languages there and more in depth, but it's hard to get a real perspective. The latter says:

"Despite the fact that English is recognised as the language of commerce and science, it was spoken by only 8.2% of South Africans at home in 2001"

I expected (as is borne out by that page), that the great majority speak a native African language (Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, etc.) but I expected a bit more parity (not knowing history well otherwise) between the two colonial languages. But Afrikaans has only 13% speakers, and English only 8% (percentages are for first at-home language not including 2nd languages).

English, the country's lingua franca, is the language of business, politics, and modern communication media, but ranks sixth in home usage.

With that context in mind, what is the SAE accent? Who speaks with that accent? Presumably the descendents of English colonists speak that.

Rather the question I have is, do Afrikaners speak SAE accentless, or is there an Afrikaner accent in SAE, different from a Brit speaking SAE?

That is, did Pieter Botha or F. W. de Klerk the guy in the District 9 movie or Matt Damon in Invictus, did all these people speak SAE with the recognized average SAE accent, or did they speak it with an Afrikaner accent (since they are all Afrikaners at least by name)? My expectation is that Afrikaners and native Africans speak with English with something slightly different than an Anglo SAE accent.

  • 1
    By way of illustration, there's an interview of P.W.Botha by Cliff Saunders at vimeo.com/18611136. I think Mr Saunders does not have an Afrikaner accent, and Mr Botha does; but I'm no expert! (Mrs Botha appears towards the end of vimeo.com/18610881 and she hardly sounds South African at all)
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 19, 2012 at 22:42
  • Any advice about the down vote (from anybody)?
    – Mitch
    Jul 20, 2012 at 0:40
  • well my first thought was "duh, South Africans speak South African English", until I read the question. After I read it, however, it certainly got an upvote and an answer. So not sure on their downvote reason :/
    – Mark Mayo
    Jul 20, 2012 at 1:00

4 Answers 4


When English arrived in the country, it was (makes sense) from the English.

To over-simplify the complex non-native history, and attempt to dodge any political discussion, the English kinda chased the ex-Dutch (Afrikaans) people across the country.

As a result, there became sort of four regions of non-native speakers. The Cape (around Cape Town), Orange Free State (around Bloemfontein), Natal (Around Durban) and Traansvaal (around Johannesburg).

Because of the ports of Port Natal (now Durban) and Cape Town being more English, and the center and north being more Afrikaans, even though most of them speak English now, there are distinctly different accents, even in the same country.

These days, many non-colonist descendents may also speak it as their first language.

As a result, anyone from South Africa where they are speaking it as their first language can generally be considered to speak SAE. Of course in some cases (like myself) as you move to other countries your accent changes, so I now have a SAE/Kiwi/English/start-of-Canadian-English accent forming ;) But when I get a cold, my SAE starts becoming more pronounced...

Simplified summary:

Two main groups who generally spoke English as a 1st language - from Dutch descent (Afrikaners) and from English descent (English). They have similar 'South African' accents - as one has affected the other, but the Afrikaner accent is usually deeper, some might say harsher.

Then there are the locals / natives who were there before the Dutch/English - Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele etc. They mostly(!!) spoke their own languages, and have English as a second language (there are, however, always exceptions). They too, have different accents, but are still often recognisable to the trained ear as 'South African'.

!! - This is becoming less common after apartheid as there is more integration between the races and communities in social and work circles, and as travel around the country becomes easier and more common.


This link on Dialects and Accents of South Africa may help, as it has a variety of samples of accents explaining the speakers' backgrounds.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. Can you elaborate on those distinctly different accents in English? Is one major part of that ethnic (English/Afrikaans/multiple non-colonials)? What about urban/rural (or is that correlated with ethnicity)? What about economic (again possibly correlated)?
    – Mitch
    Jul 20, 2012 at 0:53
  • 1
    Well this is (generally) among the colonial descendents / white immigrant descendents. There's a VERY big difference between English SAE accent (some say it sounds more posh) and Afrikaans SAE accent (much thicker/stronger accent). There are then slight regional differences - thus the Cape English SAE accent is slightly different to the Natal English SAE accent. Um, urban/rural, maybe after generations - my cousins were farmers and didn't really sound any different, and you may find that high socio-economic correlates with a posher accent, but it's not a hard and fast rule.
    – Mark Mayo
    Jul 20, 2012 at 0:59
  • So, more pointedly, many ethnicities speak English in SA, as first or 2nd language. Those who are English descended I expect speak English with a distinct SAE accent. Those who are Afrikaner, do they speak English with this same SAE accent, or is it with a different, Afrikaner accent? That is, what accent (in English) was F.W. de Klerk's? For non-colonialists I expect that it is Bantu-variety accented or straight SAE (but I would be glad to find out otherwise).
    – Mitch
    Jul 20, 2012 at 20:28
  • As I said above - "There's a VERY big difference between English SAE accent and Afrikaans SAE accent". By this I mean those who are 'English' or 'Afrikaner' who speak English. I'm going to update my answer with a link I think may help with this.
    – Mark Mayo
    Jul 20, 2012 at 20:36
  • Can you tell me what variety this is? Die Antwoord, rap (don't listen to the lyrics...really.)
    – Mitch
    Jul 20, 2012 at 22:15

@mitch I can't comment due to lack of rep, but your Die Antwoord link contains an Afrikaner (rather than English) accent.

Further to your question regarding lineage of accents:

If the English accent (sometimes referred to as "posh" - i.e. not Afrikaans accented) is considered (for this discussion) to be the "base" accent, then it may be influenced by one's mother tongue or the schooling one gets. Those growing up with Afrikaner parents/family/schooling will have a lilt influenced by Afrikaans - along the lines of the Die Antwoord link you posted. Those growing up with a native background and have a mother tongue of Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana etc, will have a lilt influenced by that language.

As more integration takes place and as more children whose mother tongue is a native language attend what were predominantly English schools, so their accent is heavily influenced by their fellow students. Because English is the primary language in these schools the English accent is the one picked up by these children rather than an Afrikaans English accent. Those children who attend what were predominantly Afrikaans speaking schools will find their English accent tends towards an Afrikaans lilt.

This may be subjective, but I also suspect that as people attempt to be upwardly mobile within society, there is a tendency to choose an accent that mirrors those people one aims to imitate or follow in the footsteps of. Because an Afrikaans accent is further away from an American accent, and because English is obviously far more widely spoken than Afrikaans, people choose to imitate along a more pronounce American/British accent - leading towards the softer (as noted earlier, potentially "posh") SAE accent.


South African English varies hugely, with very few common markers across all accents. Ethnicity, gender, social class, age, education and region all have an impact on pronunciation.

SASE is very close to RP, especially for older mother-tongue speakers from around Cape Town and Johannesburg (example: Nadine Gordimer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWcxSsd8N2M).

"Model C" English (often a pejorative term) (example: Lindiwe Mazibuko — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZWaKlmPrVI) is also similar to RP, but easily distinguishable.

Heavily Afrikaans-inflected English, as spoken by the likes of FW de Klerk, is often emulated with limited success in movies, but is not really reflective of how most mother-tongue English speakers speak in South Africa. It is not as similar to the accent of a Dutch person speaking English as is often supposed, having been influenced by many other factors since the break of Afrikaans from Dutch, especially as Afrikaans is never rhotic (consider the enormous difference between continental and Canadian French accents).

Variations in SASE may be regional, too ('fish' as 'feesh' in Johannesburg or Cape Town, but 'firsh' in KwaZulu-Natal).

Not only pronunciation, but even vocabulary and syntax are variable: In a subset of 'Indian' English, "Where are you?" becomes "Where y'all are?"

  • Great perspective. To clarify, are you saying SASE and Afrikaans and English spoken by Afrikaaners are non-rhotic, and Dutch is rhotic? (also very tangentially curious, Canadian French and continental French, which is rhotic?)
    – Mitch
    Dec 6, 2012 at 13:43

To add to the other answers:

  • the sociolinguistic situation in South Africa is:
    • there are many local speakers of Bantu Languages; the majority of L0 (first) languages are these
    • the two colonial languages, Afrikaans and English, are spoken as L0 by only 13% and 8% respectively.
    • most of the population is multilingual but only starting at school age.
    • despite it's small L0 population, English is the lingua franca for school, business and the street. That is, most everybody knows some English. The colonists (for lack of a better term) tend to learn the other colonial language, the locals tend to learn English, but some learn Afrikaans.
    • there's all sorts of further complications which I will ignore ('Coloureds', Indians, mixed marriages/bilingualism in the home, urban/rural/township, etc).
  • The L0 South African English is very close to British RP (to my ear), somewhat posh sounding (non-regional British English), definitely non-rhotic.
    • the only distinguishing feature I can hear explicitly is an Australian sounding 'eh' instead of 'ae'. For example, the SAfrE (South African English, as spoken as the first language variety in South Africa) tends to say 'South Ehffrica'.
  • the L1 English (English as a second language) spoken by Afrikaners has a very distinct feel, nasally (?), sharp (yes this is non-technical and vague) and rhotic, very much like what I would expect Dutch people to sound like speaking English as a foreign language.
    • all four of the speakers (Botha, de Klerk, Matt Damon, the main character from District 9) are speaking this Afrikaner accented English.
    • also the rapper Ninja from Die Antwoord sounds like this.
    • it is a very fluent English, but still sounds like a distant accent, almost foreign, to my ear
    • The actor Sharlto Copley is 'Anglo' (I don't know what descendents of English colonists are called to distinguish them from Afrikaners). His L0 accent is SAE, not Afrikaner accented SAE which is what he uses in the movie (he plays an Afrikaner).
    • Matt Damon's L0 is GenAmE, but plays an Afrikaner in the movie.

This is my understanding of the situation, that is, I don't actually -know- anything. I would welcome any correction, especially of the sociolinguistic distinction between what I am calling SAfrE (spoken by descendents of English colonists) and what I call Afrikaner English.

From OED's blog an article on SAE, it points out that SAE is both a prestige language and lingua franca (because no African language is numerous enough, and Afrikaans is too much associated with apartheid. Tat article also pretty much covers the question here, that most everybody speaks English but the varieties of SAE accent are converging.

  • If we are talking about accents here, Matt Damon's "Lo", according to both Wikipedia and my own ears, is Eastern New England (aka: "Boston accent"), which is fairly distinctive from GenAmE. Among other things, it is non-rhotic, while GenAmE is generally considered rhotic. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_accent
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:43
  • @T.E.D.: If you actually listen to Damon's natural voice, it is GenAmE. He is well known for playing characters (like in "Good Will Hunting") with a prominent Boston accent. (also, sadly the typesetting here doesn't show it well but it is 'L-zero' not 'L-oh')
    – Mitch
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:54
  • He's from Boston, but his parents were a college professor and a stockbroker, so I wouldn't be shocked if something like GenAmE wasn't spoken in his house. However, when I hear him interviewed, what I hear is a weak Boston accent, kind of like you'd hear when an educated person with that accent is trying to make themselves understood to someone without that accent. Whether that indicates he has a native Boston that he's worked at making more General, or a native General with some Boston influences when speaking casually, I'm not sure who can say
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 23, 2012 at 20:55
  • @T.E.D. "so I wouldn't be shocked if something like GenAmE wasn't spoken in his house." this means to me that you -would- be shocked if GenAmE -were- spoken. Really? Educated family -> more likely to speak non-standard? The point of my answer to this question is this is all playing with labels and stereotypes associated with labels, and not reality. Most people in the US speak GenAmE wherever they live. (specifically, most people in Boston speak GenAmE without any accent, sure some do but not that many)
    – Mitch
    Jul 23, 2012 at 21:56
  • Sorry, that statement was meant to be a reinforcing negative (negative concord), not a cancelling one. That's my AAVE showing through. :-) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 24, 2012 at 13:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.