South African English is the eish

Posted by on June 03, 2010

This month’s first guest post about South African English is from Dawn Nell, a historian and Capetonian. You can follow her on twitter.

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There’s a degree of irreverence in South African attitudes to most things, but particularly towards the English. It is something that undoubtedly has its roots in South African history, as pretty much everyone in the country from the Afrikaners to the Zulu has at some time been at war with Britain.  More recently, these antagonisms have been transferred to the sports field where the rivalry is such that you’d find it hard to believe that cricket isn’t ‘a continuation of war by other means’.  And you can see this (gentle) antagonism in a recent joke doing the rounds in South Africa which calls for the country to claim compensation from the British Government for all the Afrikaans words stolen by the English.

What this joke refers to, and what most people have in mind when we talk about South African words that have been absorbed into English, are words such as aardvark, trek, veld, boer, donga, and assegai; words that are a sort of lexicographic snapshot from an historical context of imperial expansion and colonial wars. To be honest, South Africans don’t necessarily hold these words in a great deal of affection and are as likely as people outside South Africa to use them; that is, on the lamentably rare occasions when one finds oneself talking about aardvarks. It’s safe to say that South African English has moved on since the days of boers and assegais.

English is just one of eleven official languages in South Africa; the others are Afrikaans, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. And there are many other languages and dialects spoken in the region that aren’t recognized officially, but have nonetheless influenced South African English, including the Khoi, Nama and San languages, Gujarati, Portuguese, ‘Fanagalo’, and Iscamtho or ‘Tsotsi Taal’. The new context in which these languages are interacting is that of a young, democratic, multiracial country in which TV ads and soap operas, tabloid newspapers, the internet, and dance music are some of the major driving forces of cultural exchange. For example, while few white South Africans speak IsiZulu, you’re unlikely to find anyone who doesn’t know that Yebo, Gogo means ‘Yes, Granny’.  This is thanks to a long-running series of cell phone adverts which featured Yebo, Gogo as a catchphrase. A rival cell phone company is responsible for recently popularising the word ayoba meaning ‘cool’, although there is a healthy debate in South Africa as to where this word originates from and what it really means. One argument is that ayoba is associated with the kwaito dance scene in Jozi (that’s Johannesburg). Check out DJ Bobo’s video ‘Ayoba/Shine Forever’ if you’re wondering what I’m talking about.

Another word associated with kwaito that we’re hearing everywhere right now in South Africa is kwaai, which basically means ‘cool’. At a guess, I’d say it’s derived from the Afrikaans for ‘fierce’, but it hardly seems to matter because it just sounds good and you can draw it out to kwaaaaaai depending on how cool something is and how many characters you can spare in your sms (text) message.

Another usefully descriptive word you’ll encounter in South African English is eish, which may or may not have its origins in the IsiXhosa language. More a sound than a word, it’s usually used at the beginning of a sentence to communicate surprise or disbelief. So, someone might for example say, Eish, this music is kwaaai! And recently the meaning of eish has moved on, and it’s also being used to mean ‘brilliant’ or ‘cool’, as in, This music is the eish! I like to think that sort of sums up the South African approach to things, turning something unbelievable into something cool.

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Comments (8)
  • I would like to thank MacMillan for the idea of featuring articles on this topic. I knew they speak English as official language, but only after I read this article I realize I knew nothing about the slide differences mentioned above. I really enjoyed reading it. I am waiting forward to read new articles and comments on this one.

    Posted by Yova_na_Boko on 3rd June, 2010
  • […] more: South African English is the eish | Macmillan Posted in English | Tags: a-historian-and, capetonian-, English, first-guest, her-on-, […]

    Posted by South African English is the eish | Macmillan on 3rd June, 2010
  • […] for them entitled ‘South African English is the eish’ appeared. You can check it out here. from → Commentary ← defining development No comments yet Click here […]

    Posted by Macmillan Global English Guest Blog « Dawn Nell on 9th June, 2010
  • As usual, it is great fun for us to discover very interesting details on the English language, its words borrowed from other cultures, the way it is spoken in different parts of the world, and now this South African English.
    We knew there was a variety of official languages in South Africa, but we were not able to identify all those. Thanks a lot for all your information.

    On reading about “eish” and what it means to South Africans, another similar Portuguese sound/word has immediately come to my mind. We precisely use the same at the beginning of a sentence when it comes to expressing surprise or disbelief: it sounds more or less like the German “ich”… It is mostly used amongst youngsters in the Alentejo region.

    Posted by mceupc@hotmail.com on 23rd June, 2010
  • I’m afraid that I, as a South African, definitely don’t agree with Dawn Nell’s opinion of there being “a degree of irreverence in South African attitudes to most things, but particularly towards the English.”, which is a generalisation that does not hold water if your roots are partly or wholly English, as mine are, and is also an afront to those affected. It would seem that the fact never dawned on Ms Nell that South Africans with some English blood in their veins might actually be proud of this fact.

    In addition, Ms Nell should have put more thought into her statement that “It is something that undoubtedly has its roots in South African history, as pretty much everyone in the country from the Afrikaners to the Zulu has at some time been at war with Britain.”, and considered how many South Africans in fact fought in British military units during the Second World War!

    Posted by Susan Mund-Hoym on 23rd November, 2010
  • Hi Susan, Like you, I’m proud of my English South African heritage! And of course you’re absolutely right that many South Africans from across the ethnic and linguistic spectrum fought and died for Britain both in the South African Anglo Boer War and the Second World War (as well as other conflicts). Blog posts have a tendency towards oversimplification, and I’m perhaps more guilty than most, but I was trying to convey a sense of the (unusual) position that English has in South African culture, which includes the gentle ribbing that South Africans of English backgrounds still get from their fellow South Africans. The layers of conflict in South Africa’s past are of course hugely complex – the English settlers themselves even had some moments of real conflict with the British government (I’m thinking of the mid-nineteenth century and the boycotts against the government for example). One of the striking things about the position of English in South Africa, is that although English is widely-spoken, it doesn’t equate I don’t think, to it being a dominant culture, partly because it has needed to sit comfortably with its own historical legacy and a longstanding relationship with all of South Africa’s other cultures. So for me the cultural dynamism in South Africa today is explained in part by its history. I certainly hope to be an historian who pays as much attention to positive interaction in the past as much as to conflict, so I thank you for making me reflect a bit further on this!

    Posted by Dawn Nell on 24th November, 2010
  • The article put me right of track at the beginning by using that generalization. I am a proud South African of English decent. I think it would be safer to say I have more of an aversion to the 1/8th of Dutch blood I have. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in an English neighbourhood in Cape Town but I don’t remember anyone having such irreverance for the English. I think your point is already proven to be off track by the amount of people that move to England or try to move there. I know you tried to explain what you meant but I’m slightly annoyed by this blog because it’s based on generalizations not facts. I think what annoys me most is that when my American friends (I’m based in the US now for a year) are looking up something I say or for a better understanding they’re going to come across this blog and it’s not accurate. My boyfriend was the one who showed me this because I told him what a monkey’s wedding was.
    -Proud English South African living in Florida

    Posted by Kathryn Robertson on 16th July, 2011
  • I understood that “assegai” was from Berber, not Afrikaans. Wrong end of the continent.

    And “eish” is usually an expression of pain, dismay or sympathy, as in:

    “My car broke down and the people at the garage said it needs a new engine.”
    “Eish!”

    The opposite, indicating approval, agreement, or congratulation on something good, is “Sharp sharp”.

    And sometimes South Africans get verbose. Where Bits say “Thursday week”, many South Africans say “Thursdday next of next week”.

    Posted by Steve Hayes on 1st August, 2014
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