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A Lekker Lexicon – South African English

A hybrid variety
Sociopolitical change
Blighty or Uncle Sam?
False Friends
English - South African style
Big on borrowing
   • Afrikaans
   • African Languages
2010 Laduma!

From 11th June to 11th July 2010, the eyes of the sporting world will be firmly fixed on South Africa, as it becomes the first African nation to host the world’s biggest football tournament, the FIFA World Cup. The 2006 World Cup in Germany was one of the most extensively-viewed events in television history, and South Africa 2010 is likely to draw even bigger audiences. With the international media focused on it, South Africa is entering the world stage, and in turn its cultural and linguistic profile is hitting the spotlight. Suddenly, there’s a window of opportunity to find out more about the idiosyncrasies of South African English, and this article attempts to give an overview of its culturally-diverse lexicon.


A hybrid variety

There is no better illustration of South Africa’s complex juxtaposition of cultures than South African English. South Africa has 11 official languages. Of these, only two are Germanic (English and Afrikaans), and the rest are Bantu (indigenous African) languages. Zulu is, in fact, the most common language spoken at home, with nearly a quarter of South Africans using it. After the African language Xhosa, Afrikaans, derived from Dutch, is the third most common. English lies only sixth, but is commonly understood across the country, and functions as an accepted lingua franca. English is the language of business, politics and the media. It is a compulsory subject in all schools, and the medium of instruction in the majority of educational establishments. There’s therefore a kind of dynamic relationship between English, Afrikaans and African languages. African language-speakers will pepper their speech with words from English and Afrikaans, and English-speakers will in turn use words from Afrikaans and African languages. With many South Africans able to speak English and at least one other language, South African English is therefore something approaching a ‘hybrid’ variety of English, borrowing widely from Afrikaans and indigenous languages such as Zulu and Xhosa.


Sociopolitical change

No discussion of South-African English would be complete without some reference to its turbulent political history.

Until the fall of apartheid in 1994, Afrikaans and English were the two ‘official’ languages of South Africa. Though historically the two languages vied for supremacy, it is English, rather than Afrikaans, that prevails in the post-apartheid era. The use of Afrikaans as a public language seems to have lost momentum, partly because of English’s status as an international means of communication, but also because of the strong association between Afrikaans and the racial discrimination of the apartheid regime (the term apartheid itself is Afrikaans, meaning ‘separateness’). The South African Constitution, formulated in 1996, states that:

Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.

With indigenous languages therefore raised to official status in the new South Africa, their influence is, by contrast to Afrikaans, gaining momentum. These factors combine to make contemporary South African English a very complicated animal, whose lexicon has spent the last couple of decades responding to the country’s rapid sociopolitical changes. For example, the word apartheid itself, and terms such as resettlement camp, gave way to the language of uprising, as in, for instance, toyi-toyi (a dance expressing solidarity, used in mass demonstrations) and Apla (an abbreviation of Azanian People’s Liberation Army). Such words have, in turn, been followed by a vocabulary of post-apartheid developments such as Madiba (an informal term popularly used to refer to Nelson Mandela) and Nepad (a commonly used abbreviation for New Partnership for Africa’s Development).


Blighty or Uncle Sam?

Despite the historical influence of Britain, contemporary South African English reflects an eclectic use of both American and British varieties.

Terms in common with North American English include mom (British mum), freeway/highway (British motorway), cellphone (British mobile phone), pants (British trousers) and buck (an informal term meaning ‘South African rand’ rather than ‘US dollar’).

Commonly used British variants include petrol (US gasoline), nappy (US diaper), pavement (US sidewalk), jam (US jelly) and biscuit (US cookie).


False Friends

Native speakers of English visiting South Africa for the first time need to be aware that South African English has a number of what I’ll call ‘false friends’ – recognisable English words which have a completely different meaning to the one traditionally accepted in Britain or other varieties of English. The most common examples include:

café: not a small restaurant where you can sit with a drink and a bite to eat, but in fact a convenience store (sometimes called a corner shop in the UK) – a place where you can buy drinks, sweets and newspapers.

china: not ceramics or a vast Asian country, but a term you use in reference to a friend. Bizarrely, it’s a throwback to the influence of Cockney rhyming slang, where ‘China plate’ = ‘mate’.

circle: this refers to the raised hump of land that manages traffic, a roundabout in Britain, or a traffic circle in the US.

globe: not a round ball displaying a map of the world, but in fact a light bulb.

graze: not what hungry cows do in fields, but an informal reference to food, as in 'I’m hungry, let’s grab some graze'.

now-now not an interjection used to calm someone down, but a phrase meaning something like ‘shortly’ or ‘in a bit’.

robot: not something out of a science fiction movie, but a set of traffic lights. The etymology of the word derives from a description of early traffic lights as robot policemen, which got truncated over time.

scale: not a noun with multiple senses such as ‘weighing device’ or ‘series of musical notes’, but a transitive verb meaning simply ‘to steal’. The related adjective scaly describes someone who can’t be trusted.

shame: not a reason to feel sad or disappointed. If a South African says ‘ag shame’ when admiring a cute little baby, they mean something like ‘ah, bless’ in British English.

span: (a span of) not the length of something from side to side, but used as an informal quantifier to mean ‘a lot’, as in 'It took me a span of time to do it'.

tom: not a boy’s name or a kind of drum, but an informal word for ‘money’ or ‘cash’. This is another throwback to Cockney rhyming slang where tom is a shortened form of ‘tomfoolery’ = ‘jewellery’.

just now: not an indication that something is going to happen immediately, but that it will happen at some unstipulated time in the future, which could be hours, or even days, away!


English - South African style

There are a number of usages, both lexical and grammatical, which are recognisably English in form, but are particular to South Africa.

Bunny chow, for example, is not dried food that you put in the hutch of a family pet, but a loaf of bread filled with curry, a speciality in Durban. And no monkeys are harmed in the preparation of Monkeygland sauce, which is served with steak, and consists mainly of tomato ketchup, chutney, Worcester sauce and vinegar.

The words colddrink and cooldrink are solid noun compounds referring to fizzy drinks like Coca-Cola or Fanta, and a dumpie is a small beer in a 340ml bottle.

Slip slops, or slops, are rubber sandals worn to the beach (flip flops in the UK), and baggies are men’s loose-fitting swimming trunks, very often worn down to the knees or below.

Phrases used in an SA-specific way include fixed up, meaning something like ‘that’s good’, as in, e.g. 'I’ve booked a table for 1:30, so I’ll meet you there' 'Fixed up! '. There's also hang of, which is used informally as an emphatic phrase meaning something like ‘very’ or ‘big’ as in 'It was a hang of a problem'.

The tag is it is used as an all-purpose exclamation, and pops up in any context where really? or uh-huh? etc would be appropriate, as in, e.g. 'I’m feeling pretty hungry' 'Is it?'. In speech, this is very commonly contracted to izit. Closely related is Howzit, a traditional South African greeting roughly equivalent to saying ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s things?’.

Other modified versions of English words include chommie meaning ‘friend’ (derived from chum), and sarmie as an informal term for ‘sandwich’ (from British English sarnie).

In the world of idioms, tune (someone) grief is a combination peculiar to South Africa which means ‘cause (someone) trouble’, so if someone says: 'Look, don’t tune me grief'. They’re saying something equivalent to ‘Look, don’t hassle me’.

Variant syntactic patternings include throw with as opposed to throw at, so that the British English 'He threw a stone at Jake', would take the form 'He threw Jake with a stone'. The variant preposition is a throwback to Afrikaans, in which gooi met (meaning ‘throw at’) translates literally as ‘throw with’.


Big on borrowing

So we’ve spent some time exploring the idiosyncratic uses of English words, but what makes South African English particularly special, is its rich emphasis on loan words, words adopted from Afrikaans and indigenous languages which reflect its sociopolitical make-up, both past and present. No other variety of world English has quite such a diverse, and at the same time fully-integrated vocabulary from other languages.


A: Afrikaans
The language Afrikaans derives from 17th century Dutch, but has influences from other European and African languages. Often referred to as Cape Dutch, it was initially a spoken language used by people living in the Cape, with Dutch itself used for formal, written language.

Afrikaans was declared an official language of the Union of South Africa in 1925, gaining ground with the growth of Afrikaner nationalism, and playing an important part in minority white rule in the apartheid era.

As mentioned above, indications in recent years are that Afrikaans is gradually losing momentum in post-apartheid South Africa. However, its influence on South African English seems enduring, and there are a number of mainstream words and expressions that are so integral to the country’s linguistic make-up that they are unlikely to disappear in a hurry. Some examples include:

ag: (pronounced ‘ach’ as in the German achtung) – generally used at the beginning of a sentence, either to express resignation – as in 'Ag well, I guess that's how it is' – or to indicate irritation, as in 'Ag no man! Why did you do that?'.

bakkie: a small, open-motor truck, like a pick-up truck.

bra or bru: an informal term meaning ‘friend’, ‘mate’. Both variants derive from the Afrikaans for brother, broer.

braai: a barbecue. The word is a shortened form of Afrikaans braaivleis (meaning ‘roasted meat’).

boerewors: a traditional, spicy South African sausage made of beef or lamb (also sometimes called simply wors and often cooked on a braai).

deurmekaar: confused or muddled as in 'He's a bit deurmekaar', meaning he can't think straight and constantly makes mistakes.

dof: stupid, as in 'You’re so dof' or 'That was dof!' From the Afrikaans word for ‘dull’.

dop: an alcoholic drink as in 'Let’s have a dop'. Dop can also be used as a transitive verb meaning ‘drink alcohol’, as in 'I dopped a few beers last night'.

dwaal: a lack of concentration or focus. If someone is talking to you but your mind wanders, you can say something like 'Sorry, say that again, I was in a bit of a dwaal'.

gatvol: fed up, as in 'I'm gatvol of working in this hot sun'.

jawelnofine also ja well no fine: a non-committal exclamation which expresses something like surprise combined with resignation; the idea that things aren’t really as you’d like but you accept that there’s nothing you can do about it. The phrase is derived from a mix of Afrikaans and English.

jislaaik: an expression of surprise, as in 'Jislaaik, I can't believe I’ve won!'.

lekker: nice, good, pleasant. It is often used in association with food, as in 'That wors is lekker'.

naartjie: a tangerine or mandarin orange.

oke or ou: a colloquial reference to a man, similar to ‘guy’, ‘chap’ or ‘bloke’, as in 'Do you know that oke/ou?'.

oom: an uncle. Also used as a polite form of address for an older man, i.e. the male equivalent of tannie (see below).

pap: a special kind of thickened porridge traditionally eaten with meat at a braai. Made from finely ground corn (similar to polenta), pap is a staple of local African communities and is often eaten with a tomato and onion sauce.

pasop: an exclamation meaning ‘Beware!’ or ‘Watch out!’.

regmaker: a drink , medicine, or other remedy used to relieve a hangover. From the Afrikaans reg maker meaning ‘right maker’.

spanspek: a cantaloupe (orange-fleshed) melon. The word derives from the Afrikaans Spaanse spek, meaning ‘Spanish bacon’. The story goes that Juana Smith, the Spanish wife of 19th-century Cape Governor Harry Smith, inspired her bemused Afrikaans-speaking servants to coin the word because she insisted on eating melon for breakfast rather than bacon!

takkies or tackies: trainers or sports shoes.

tannie: used to refer to a woman. This Afrikaans word literally means ‘auntie’, but is used by Afrikaners as a sign of respect for any woman who is 10 or more years older than themselves.

veld: open, uncultivated country or grassland in Southern Africa. From the same word in Dutch, meaning ‘field’.

vrot: rotten, no good. Can be used literally or figuratively as in 'This apple / book is vrot'.

windgat: a show-off. Can also be used as an adjective to mean ‘cocky’, ‘full of oneself’.


B: African Languages
Of South Africa’s 11 official languages, nine are indigenous African languages: Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. These languages, especially Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele (often described as the Nguni languages), have had a profound and lasting influence on South African English, and with their elevated status in the new South Africa, this looks likely to continue. Some examples of indigenous words that regularly pepper South African English include:

babbelas also babalaas: a hangover, usually rather a bad one. Can also be used as an adjective to mean ‘suffering from a hangover’, as in 'I’m a bit babbelas'. The word derives from the Zulu ibhabhalazi meaning ‘after-effects of drinking’.

bonsella: a gift, reward or extra bonus. From Zulu.

donga: a dry gully or ditch (and a not infrequent feature of South Africa’s roads). From the Nguni udonga, meaning ‘wall’.

eish: an interjection expressing surprise or frustration, as in 'Eish, I can’t believe you did that!'.

gogo: grandmother, or a polite form of address for an elderly woman. From the Zulu ugogo.

indaba: a meeting, discussion or conference. From the Zulu word meaning ‘a matter for discussion’.

inyanga: a traditional herbalist and healer. From Nguni.

makoti: a bride or daughter-in-law. From the Zulu umakoti.

muti: medicine, typically traditional African medicine. From the Zulu umuthi.

fundi: an expert. From the Nguni umfundisi, meaning ‘teacher’ or ‘preacher’.

imbizo: a meeting or workshop. The word originally referred to a gathering or meeting called by a traditional leader. From the Zulu biza, meaning ‘call, summon’.

imbongi: a praise singer, poet or public orator. From Nguni.

khaya: home. From Nguni.

mampara: an idiot, a silly person. From the Sotho languages.


2010 – Laduma!

So, as soccer aficionados across the globe fix their eyes on the likes of Durban, Cape Town and ‘Joburg’, what particular South-Africanisms are they most likely to come across?

Well, it goes without saying that they’ll be watching diski, township slang for 'football'. If a favourite player takes a particularly heavy tackle, then they might hear exclamations such as eina!, used to express a feeling of pain. Hopefully, it’ll all be worth it though, when the crowd cheers laduma!, a popular way of celebrating goals at football matches (the word derives from the Zulu for ‘it thunders’). If a key player gets sent off, they might hear cries of hayi or hayibo, exclamations of disbelief or disapproval. Fans wanting to spur their team on to greater efforts might encourage them by blowing a vuvuzela, a large coloured plastic trumpet which makes the sound of a foghorn. Anyone feeling peckish when they leave the ground could indulge in a portion of slap chips – French fries, usually soft, oily and vinegar-drenched, bought in a brown paper bag (slap is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘limp’, which is how French fries are generally made in SA, so anyone who doesn’t like them that way should be sure to order them crispy). And if the right team wins, the fans might go jolling (partying, having fun), or they might decide to have a bit of a jol (a party, knees-up) back at the hotel.

As for me, I can take it or leave it as far as ‘the beautiful game’ is concerned. But even though I won’t be an avid follower of World Cup diski, this excursion into South African English might make me confident enough to admit that:

Jislaaik china, I dopped too many dumpies last night and now I have a hang of a babbelas!

(‘Oh mate, I drank too many beers last night and now I have a terrible hangover!’)



With grateful thanks to Leanne Deighton for providing feedback on this article and additional data.

They think it's all over...

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