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South African English: Features and Variations

Due to its complex history, South Africa has experienced the influence of various languages and cultures. South African English is not a homogeneous language but a fascinating and diverse set of dialects.

In this blog, we will explore the different dialectal differences and features of South African English so you can gain a better understanding of what they’ll find when you visit South Africa.

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Black South African English (BSAE)

Black South African English, or BSAE, is the languafe of people whose mother tongue is an indigenous African language or dialect. It is considered a “new” English because it has emerged through formal education among second-language speakers in places where English is not the majority language.

Features of Black South African English


The main reason why Black South African English pronunciation is so distinctive has to do with vowels. In British and Australian English, there are 12 vowel phonemes, with short and long sounds for most vowels.

On the other hand, BSAE uses 5 phonemes. As a result, we can find:

/i/ in both “peak” and “pick”

/u/ in both “look” and “Luke”

/ɛ/ in words such as “track” “press” or “nurse”

/ɔ/ in both “not” or “naught”

/a/ in words such as “car” or “park”.


Additionally, many vowels that are normally diphthongs in other varieties of English are monophthongs (vowels consisting of a single sound) in BSAE. 

For example, the word “face” is not /fɛis/, but /fɛs/ in Black South African English pronunciation.

Indian South African English (ISAE)

The period of Apartheid from 1948 to 1991 contributed to the development of a separate Indian English variety, as interactions between Indian children and English-speaking individuals were scarce.

Indian South African English, or ISAE, is a variety of English spoken by South Africans whose ancestors are from India.

Features of Indian South African English


ISAE has undergone changes in recent years, particularly through the educational system’s influence, bringing it closer to the standard language. As a result, it now exhibits a distinct blend of Indian, South African, Standard British, creole, and foreign language influences in its expression of English.


The rhythm of ISAE has a syllable-timed pattern, where each syllable takes roughly the same amount of time. This differs from the stress-timed pattern of other dialects of English, where stressed syllables receive more prominence. As you can imagine, this gives an exceptional musicality to the Indian South African English accent.

White South African English (WSAE)

White South African English (WSAE) is the variety of English that the White population in South Africa speak. We can divide it into three smaller groups:

  • Cultivated English, associated with the upper class 
  • General English, associated with the middle class 
  • Broad English, associated with the working class and those who speak English as a second language.

Despite these divisions, there are a few features that all three varieties of WSAE share:

Features of White South African English


  1. Kit-Bit Split: The “kit-bit split” is one of the most distinctive features of South African English. This means that the words “kit” [kɪt] and “bit” [bət] do not rhyme. The sound [ɪ] is used in specific contexts, such as after velars (e.g., kiss, lift), after /h/ (e.g., hip), at the beginning of a word (e.g., inch), and before /ʃ/ (e.g., fish). The sound [ə] (a weak vowel close to /a/) is used in all other cases.
  2. Raised /æ/: In Cultivated and General SAE varieties, the pronunciation of /æ/ (the vowel in ‘cat’) is slightly raised, which means that it is pronounced closer to /e/. In Broad varieties, the tendency is more marked, so South Africa sounds more like “South Efrica.”

Borrowed Words

South African English incorporates words from various languages, particularly Afrikaans and local African languages. Some examples include these Afrikaans words:

  • “braai” (barbecue) 
  • “tekkies” (trainers) 
  • “braaivleis” (meat cooked on a barbecue) 
  • “biltong” (a type of dried meat) 
  • “bakkie” (a pickup truck)

All in all, South African English is a rich tapestry of dialects that reflect the country’s complex history and cultural diversity. From the emergence of Black South African English to the social variations within White South African English, each dialect adds to the vibrant linguistic landscape of the nation.

A picture of South Africa

At Listen & Learn, we believe that embracing these linguistic differences helps to celebrate the unique heritage and identity of South Africa and its people.

Would you like to learn South African English? Or perhaps, you would like to explore an African language. Whether you’re looking for Swahili lessons in Sydney or Zulu classes in Melbourne, we are here to help.   

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Listen & Learn offers courses that teach South African English and multiple African languages in every city. What’s more, our method combines audio and visual resources to help you master any language in a fun and engaging way so you can reach your personal and professional goals.

So what are you waiting for? Contact Listen & Learn today and get a personalised course based on your goals and learning preferences!