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Mother Tongue – the 11 official languages of SA (Part One)

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In attempt to recognise all of its citizens, South Africa has no less than 11 official languages. As in many countries though, English is the main language spoken.

Most official documents are provided in English and your host at your Cape Town self-catering accommodation is likely to communicate in this language. However, English is the first language of only 8% of the population.

The Mother City is one of the most diverse destinations in the Rainbow Nation of South Africa. Here’s what to say if you run into someone who speaks one of the other recognised languages.


Most of the residents of Cape Town speak this wonderfully expressive language, which is similar to Dutch in some ways. If you listen to a public rendition of the SA National anthem the Afrikaans part is always the loudest – everybody knows it.

Many Afrikaans colloquialisms have been adopted’ by South Africa’s other languages and are widely used by all races. These are words like ‘braai (barbecue)’, ‘babelaas (hangover)’ and ‘lekker (nice)’. The Cape Malay people have adopted particularly expressive and humorous terms in Afrikaans.

We are indebted to the Afrikaners for many delicious culinary creations such as biltong, boerewors, melktert and koeksusters.

When you come across an Afrikaans speaking person you can greet them with ‘goeie dag’ which means ‘good day’.


Xhosa, or isiXhosa, is widely spoken in the Eastern and Western Cape and is often understood by native speakers of Zulu and Siswati. The Xhosa language is instantly recognisable by the clicking sound which is integrated into the words. The sound is difficult to emulate (unless you are familiar with the clucking sound used to urge horses forward).

Xhosa can be difficult to learn as very few words sound the way they look when written. The same word can have several different meanings depending on the circumstances and the way it is pronounced.

Like most of the African tribes, Xhosa speakers can work wonders with putu (maize meal porridge), spinach and meat stews.

To greet a Xhosa person, you say “Molo”.


Kwa-Zulu Natal is known as the Kingdom of the Zulu which is South Africa’s largest ethnic group. The language is widely spoken and understood all over South Africa and many Zulu terms such as ‘angazi (I don’t know) and ‘eish (wow)’ have been incorporated into South African English.

The traditional Zulu greeting is Sawubona (hello), followed by ‘unjani (how are you)’ and ‘ngiyapila (I am fine)’. The language is similar to Xhosa with regard to attaching meaning to words.

More to Come

Read our next instalment of South Africa’s official languages to find out more. Better still, book your Cape Town self-catering accommodation and come and find out for yourself.

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