Fanagalo, the Language of South Africa’s Mines, Gets the Shaft

For at least the past century, miners in South Africa have spoken a unique language all their own, called Fanagalo. The mines were multicultural places where workers from different regions needed to learn to communicate with each other quickly. Fanagalo is a pidgin, not really a full-fledged language, that was based on Zulu and was easy for everyone to learn.  It has about 2,000 words. Approximately 75% of them are Zulu, and the rest are a mix of English, Portuguese and other African languages like Xhosa.

According to Monocle Magazine, it is the only known pidgin that is based on a non-colonial language.

However, the communication barriers that existed before are not nearly as much of a problem now, and the next generation of miners feels that Fanagalo has outlived its usefulness. According to South African news site, the National Union of Mineworkers is requesting that the language be phased out  due to safety concerns, though some older miners would still prefer to use it.

Union spokesman Lesiba Seshoka explained:

“As far as communication is concerned, any language can be used, with preference for the indigenous language where the mine is based. For example, if a mine is based in Limpopo, Pedi can be used as a form of communication.”

Seshoka added that the use of Fanagalo also limits the personal growth of the miners:

“It is hindering progress as far as training in adult basic education and training is concerned. I mean, it inculcates a different culture in the mines. Mineworkers are ordinary people who lead ordinary lives, we can’t have a place where people operate their own language.”

After all, if you’re going to learn another language, shouldn’t it be something you can use outside of the mines or to further your career?

7 replies
  1. Robert
    Robert says:

    Wow – this is the first example I’ve seen of a language developing amongst a particular subsection of society. I’d be interested in hearing of more examples of this if you have any.

  2. D. Heafield
    D. Heafield says:

    You have to remember that in the mines of S. Africa( or indeed any mine anywhere) safety is of paramount importance , if a rock starts to fall it’s going to kill you …….no second chances.

    underground in S. Africa you could be working with up to 20 + nationalities and all with their own language , and I need to be able to shout ” look out the Rocks falling” and be understood immediately and not have to think does he speak English, Afrikaans, Polish, Zulu, Xhosa etc. To warn him of the danger … hence the need for a common language.

    So when that rock starts to fall Y

  3. Gawie Mynhardt
    Gawie Mynhardt says:

    Hi, I’m doing research on problems in SA schools. SA invests alot of money into education, yet there is no fruits to show. One of the reasons could be the multi language conundrum, especially for Gr. R to 3’s, where most of those kids classes are in English or Afrikaans. Some children must therefore learn to read in a language that is not their home language. My research showed that if a child can read and comprehend in his/her home language, switching over to English is much easier. Up in Africa, Swahili is used in schools, to accommodate all those different cultures. By comparison, their success rate in schools is far better than SA. I wondered why Fanagalo can’t be developed for these purposes in our educational system, since it serves as a relative good starting point?

    • miranda
      miranda says:

      yeah that is true. i speak zulu and its very hard to teach a child in their own natuve tongue since most words are not found in our vocab. we even had to find a new word for aids and condom, it was part of us catching up with the modern times so you can only imagine teaching photosynthesis in zulu. but with time we will get there and even teach at higher levels 🙂

  4. Missy
    Missy says:

    I was born in South Africa in the mid 80’s, and my British parents lived in Rustenburg for about 4 years. My father was a foreman in the platinum mine and learnt fanagalo. It’s a language of commands and when I asked my father what ‘thank you’ was in fanagalo, he didn’t know but he could remember commands. It wasn’t only used in the mines, although that’s where you were most likely to hear it, it was also used by people who provided services and our gardener used to speak to my father in fanagalo. Although it was a language of commands, it was also a sign of respect from white people in the time of apartheid.

  5. Kris_BLØ1
    Kris_BLØ1 says:

    Firstly i have to say:
    i am not a historian or a linguist & my comments are based on a combination of – my limited knowledge, understanding & logical conclusions regarding thìs topic

    ** @ D. Heafield **
    when a rock is falling
    (using your example)
    there is most definately not enough time to shout “lookout, a rock is falling”…
    in such a situation, the most effective warning would be shouting a single word (or sound) & pointing at the hazard…
    & with so many nationalities working together,
    expecting èvèrybody to only communicate in english (for example)
    which most of them barely understand (nor speak) would be impractical & cause far more misunderstandings & confusion…

    As far as i know, Fanagalo’s flexibility is exactly what makes it such a useful & practical form of communication…

    ** @ Missy **
    Your comment is very interesting, but not quite accurate…
    it’s possible that –
    because Your father was a foreman, he mainly spoke Fanagalo when giving orders/commands & thus for hìs purposes it was only a
    “language of commands”,
    but i can tell You with 100% certainty that there are ways of expressing gratitude & appreciation in Fanagalo…

    – it’s been many years since i last heard anybody speak Fanagalo,
    (( so i might be mistaken –
    but i think “Tà” & “Shó” were commonly used to say “Thanks” ))


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  1. […] English (Yiddish poet Frankel Fram; SA literature). And then we have that wonderful language spoken on the mines but which never fully developed – Fanagalo. (song by Thys giving a basic flavour of the […]

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