British colonizers first introduced English to the South African region in 1795, when they established a military holding operation at the Cape. The goal of this first endeavor was to gain control of a key Cape sea route, not to establish a permanent settler colony. However, the first major influx of English speakers arrived in 1820. About 5000 British settlers, mostly rural or working class, settled in the eastern Cape. Though the British were a minority colonist group (the Dutch had been in the region since 1652, when traders from the Dutch East India Company developed a post), the Cape Colony governor, Lord Charles Somerset, declared English an official language in 1822. In order to spread the influence of English in the colony, officials began to recruit British schoolmasters and Scottish clergy to occupy positions in the education and church systems. Another group of English speakers arrived from Britain in the 1840's and 1850's, along with the Natal settlers. As Roger Lass[who?] writes, these were largely "standard speakers" like retired military personnel and aristocrats. The third wave of English settlers arrived between 1875 and 1904, and brought with them a diverse variety of English dialects. These last two waves did not have as large of an influence on South African English (SAE), for "the seeds of development were already sown in 1820". However, the Natal wave brought nostalgia for British customs and helped to define the idea of a "standard". In the Apartheid Era, English and Afrikaans were the standard state languages. After 1994, nine other languages from the Bantu subfamily of Niger Kordorfanian languages achieved equal official state status.
Several South African English varieties have emerged, accompanied by varying levels of perceived social prestige. Roger Lass refers to White South African English as a system of three sub-varieties spoken primarily by White South Africans, termed the "The Great Trichotomy", that was first used to categorize Australian English varieties and subsequently applied to SAE.. In this classification, the "Cultivated" variety closely approximates England's standard Received Pronunciation and is associated with the upper class; the "General" variety is a social indicator of the middle class; and the "Broad" variety is associated with the working class, low socioeconomic status, and little education. These three sub-varieties have also been called "Conservative SAE", "Respectable SAE", and "Extreme SAE". Broad White South African English closely approximates the second-language variety of Afrikaners called Afrikaans English.
At least two sociolinguistic variants have been definitively studied on a post-creole continuum for the second-language Black South African English spoken by most Black South Africans: a high-end, prestigious "acrolect" and a more middle-ranging, mainstream "mesolect". Other varieties of South African English include Cape Flats English, originally associated with inner-city Cape Coloured speakers, and the Indian South African English of Indian South Africans.
The two main phonological indicators of South African English are the behaviour of the vowels in kit and bath. The kit vowel tends to be "split" so that there is a clear allophonic variation between the near-front [ɪ] and central [ɪ̈]. The bath vowel is characteristically open and back in the General and Broad varieties of SAE. The tendency to monophthongise both /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ to [ɑː] and [aː] respectively, are also typical features of General and Broad SAE.
Features involving consonants include the tendency for voiceless plosives to be unaspirated in stressed word-initial environments, [tj] tune and [dj] dune tend to be realised as [tʃ] and [dʒ] respectively (See Yod coalescence), and /h/ has a strong tendency to be voiced initially.
In 1913, Charles Pettman created the first South African English dictionary, entitled Africanderisms. This work sought to identify Afrikaans terms that were emerging in the English language. In 1924, the Oxford University Press published its first version of a South African English dictionary, The South African Pocket Oxford Dictionary. Subsequent editions of this dictionary have tried to take a "'broad editorial approach'" in including vocabulary terms native to South Africa, though the extent of this inclusion has been contested . Rhodes University (South Africa) and Oxford University (Great Britain) worked together to produced the 1978 Dictionary of South American English, which adopted a more conservative approach to its inclusion of terms. This dictionary did include, for the first time, what they deemed ''the jargon of townships,'" which were vocabulary terms found in Black journalism and literary circles . Dictionaries specializing in scientific jargon, such as the common names of South African plants, also emerged in the twentieth century. However, these works still often relied on Latin terminology and European pronunciation systems . As of 1992, Rajend Mesthrie had produced the only available dictionary of South African Indian English .
One expression, common especially among Afrikaans people, is to come with, as in "are they coming with?" This is influenced by the Afrikaans phrase hulle kom saam, literally 'they come together', with saam being misinterpreted as with. In Afrikaans, saamkom is a separable verb, similar to meekomen in Dutch and mitkommen in German, which is translated into English as 'to come along'. "Come with?" is also encountered in areas of the Upper Midwest of the United States, which had a large number of Scandinavian, Dutch and German immigrants, who, when speaking English, translated equivalent phrases directly from their own languages.
The South African National Census of 2011 found a total of 4,892,623 speakers of English as a first language,:23 making up 9.6% of the national population.:25 The provinces with significant English-speaking populations were the Western Cape (20.2% of the provincial population), Gauteng (13.3%) and KwaZulu-Natal (13.2%).:25
English was spoken across all ethnic groups in South Africa. The breakdown of English-speakers according to the conventional racial classifications used by Statistics South Africa is described in the following table.
|Population group||English-speakers:26||% of population group:27||% of total English-speakers|
|Indian or Asian||1,094,317||86.1||22.4|
The following examples of South African accents were obtained from George Mason University:
en-ZAis the language code for South African English, as defined by ISO standards (see ISO 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 alpha-2) and Internet standards (see IETF language tag).