South African languages

(Mr_Fin / Flickr)

Four South African languages – including Afrikaans – “at risk of extinction”

Some South African languages are already on the precipice of extinction, whereas others are experiencing a decline in popularity.

South African languages

(Mr_Fin / Flickr)

There’s no greater example of Mzansi’s diversity than our linguistic range. There are a total of 34 South African languages that are native to this country, with 11 of them being officially adopted as our “official” tongues.

However, as learning methods change and our culture evolves, some of our spoken institutions will fall by the wayside. Sadly, there are a total of four South African languages that have been declared extinct in the last 30 years as logged by spoken word specialists Ethnologue.

Extinct South African languages

  • Seroa – Used to be popular in the Xhariep district, near the Swazi border.
  • Ungkue – A dialect that was once used near the Orange and Vaal rivers in the Northern Cape.
  • Xam – The last known Strandberg and Katkop dialects are no longer in use.
  • Xegwi – A language that was once prominent in Limpopo, but the last speaker died in 1988.

A handful of languages are now facing the same fate as these four predecessors. You may have heard of them, or they may be completely alien to you. Either way, there is something tangibly tragic about a South African language dying out – it signals the end of a culture in many ways, as knowledge is lost to the annuls of time.

We’re going to look at two categories here: Languages that are “nearly extinct”, and ones that have been identified as “decreasing” in their popularity – that includes one of the big fish, too…

South African languages that are “nearly extinct”


Just three people residing in the Northern Cape are allegedly the last trio who can fluently speak N|u. They are all aged 80 or above and face a race against time to preserve their mother tongue. They are currently trying to teach the younger generations how to speak it, but this is a difficult task – there are 112 sounds and 45 clicks to master.


It’s estimated that just 87 people are able to speak Xiri in South Africa – a language used near the Namibian border. Around 100 more people speak it in other countries, but the Cape Hottentot dialect is facing a battle to survive.

South African languages “decreasing in popularity”


Despite being one of the pillars of our linguistic community, Ethnologue believes that the number of Afrikaans speakers is dwindling. They have made the language one of the two dialects that’s suffered a decline in popularity over the years. That, despite having approximately 17 million native speakers in Mzansi.

Perhaps their calculations do add up. More institutions are turning their backs on using Afrikaans as a language of instruction. And, despite a rich cultural history, the appeal of learning Afrikaans for non-native speakers is decreasing as well. “Extinction” is still past the horizon in this case, but it will be a troubling sign for the traditionalists.


A language that borrows from both English and Afrikaans is now only officially spoken as a second language. There are no more “native speakers” of Gail, which is believed to take its roots from Polari – a dialect common amongst sea-faring and circus-travelling Brits. About 20 000 South Africans can speak Gail, to varying degrees of fluency.