The pronunciation of South African English

As a result of apartheid, there is no single, reasonably uniform South African English accent. With some exceptions, communities lived and were educated separately according to ethnic background until the 1990s. There were thus many varieties—white English-speaking SAE, white Afrikaans-speaking South African English, black African South African English, Indian South African English, Coloured South African English. But things are changing: with urban children of all backgrounds now being educated together, ethnically determined differences in South African English are tending to break down.

The South African English of English-speakers is often confused with Australian or New Zealand English. There are some common characteristics: New Zealand English and South African English both centralize the /I/ vowel, saying ‘pin’ as what sounds like ‘pun’ (while Australians tend towards ‘peen’). All three varieties pronounce other vowels further forward in the mouth than British speakers, so ‘penny’ sounds like ‘pinny’, ‘bad’ like ‘bed’, and ‘bed’ like ‘bid’. Unlike in British English, South African English consonants are pronounced crisply: glottal stops, as in ‘bu’er’ for ‘butter’, are not common.

Amongst English-speakers there is a range of pronunciation from educated ‘RP South African English’ to strongly accented South African English. Until about the 1970s, the British standard was viewed as the acme. But the variations in accent have come into their own with a growth in consciousness of, and pride in, South Africanism — local music, local products, local words, and local accents. The phrase ‘local is lekker’ (nice) sums this up.

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