English has been used as either an official language or a lingua franca in much of Africa since British colonists arrived there in large numbers in the 19th century. In some African countries, a significant percentage of the population already speak English as their first language; in South Africa, for example, the number of native English speakers is approximately 10 per cent. But it’s important to remember that in Africa, English is just one small part of a complex linguistic story.

How many languages?!

Some linguists estimate that as many as fifteen hundred to two thousand languages are spoken in Africa. The vast majority of these fall into one of four main African language groups. The few European languages spoken, like English, are very recent arrivals. With so many language possibilities, it’s natural that most people living in Africa speak more than one language and many speak three, four or more. Using a lingua franca like English or Swahili can be a practical option but it does put Africa’s language diversity at risk. Some of the smaller African languages are now in danger of disappearing, as people switch to languages, including English, that are understood more widely.

Colonial impact

British settlers first arrived in Africa in the late 18th century and their influence grew during the 19th century as they took control of African territories. The English language was often imposed on local people as a language of imperial power. The British colonists —mostly farmers, missionaries and miners— occupied territory and changed African place names. For example, the territory which is now known as Zimbabwe was named Rhodesia after British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The languages of other European colonists —the French, the Portuguese, and especially the Dutch— became part of Africa’s language story, too. The Afrikaans language, which developed out of Dutch, is still widely spoken in South Africa.

440 The Rainbow language Istock

Switch it up

If you’re able to speak three or four languages, why would you stick to one? The rich language heritage of Africa makes it natural to switch between languages —a phenomenon known as ‘code-switching’—, mixing words from different languages in the same sentence. Companies sometimes mix English with other languages to make their advertising campaigns more effective and attract a wider audience. For example, when advertising one of its phones in South Africa, Samsung mixed Afrikaans and English in the slogan, “Die skoonheid is in die detail”, meaning “The beauty is in the detail.” Code-switching works especially well between English and Afrikaans because the languages are quite similar.

Rainbow nation

Nelson Mandela talked of South Africa as “a rainbow nation” with a mix of colours and cultures. And the country has a rainbow of languages, too. English is an official language of South Africa but there are ten more:Zulu and Xhosa are the most widely spoken as a first language, followed by Afrikaans and, only then, English.

South African English

Is South African English (SAE) so different from English spoken in the UK or the US? Would you be able to tell the difference? Indeed, apart from the South African accent, which can be quite strong, there are certain words and expressions that make SAE a little bit special. Here are just a few:

-Howzit?: is an informal greeting equivalent to “Hi, how are you?”

Izzit? means “Really?”

- Yebo: comes from Zulu and means, “Yes”, or to be more accurate, “yes!!!”

-Lekker:, from the Dutch word meaning ‘delicious’, is now used more generally to mean good or nice.

-Robots: confusingly, are traffic lights rather than robots.

-Now now: or ‘just now’ doesn’t mean ‘now’, it means ‘soon’.