South African words in English – then and now (part 1)

Posted by on June 07, 2010

It is a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Jean Branford to our blog. A distinguished lexicographer, Jean is a world authority on the English of South Africa and author of A Dictionary of South African English. This is the first of two blogs from Dr Branford.

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South African words have been around in English for a long time. In a volume of 1837 Sir James Alexander, a doughty traveller set upon by dogs, reported:

On the cry of ‘voortsuk’ [from the Dutch voort seg ik, be off I say], from the master followed by a stone, they left us.

In his next book of travels, he told of being rudely dismissed ‘by the shrill voice of an old woman, desiring me to ‘loop’ or take myself off’. The early explorers and naturalists knew that the stay-at-homes of Europe were avid for light on the unknown, so-called ‘Dark Continent’, and they obliged with sure sellers, their pages liberally top-dressed with the exotic names of its flora, fauna, peoples, and descriptions of the boers, literally ‘farmers’, the descendants of the colonists established there by the Dutch East India Company in 1652. The naturalists who hoped to, and did, bestow their own names on new species which they identified, did likewise – several well before 1800.

Today we would be unlikely to use Loop [‘Go!’ a command to a team of oxen] to order someone off, but we would certainly use Voetsek for troublesome dogs – because we don’t know another word for the purpose. ‘Shoo!’ comes to mind, but how feeble by comparison! But the names of our birds, beasts, fish and plants do, in great measure remain for the same reason.

A more general entry of South African words into English came with the Anglo-Boer War, of 1899-1902. Soldiers’ letters home and news reports brought ‘… the African veld into the parlours of Brixton and the pubs of Highgate’, as the South African writer Stuart Cloete put it, with such features of the landscape as veld [open country], krans [a steep cliff], nek [a raised ridge connecting mountains], poort [a narrow pass or defile between mountains], kloof [a narrow valley], kop/kopje [a hillock], and many more. Kipling’s war verses too, gave permanency to much of this vocabulary, including: ‘is boerbread and ’is biltong [dried meat] and ’is flask of awful dop [local brandy] – as well as a taste of the place names which clearly fascinated him. His returned Cockney Tommy even refers to ’Ackneystadt [combining Hackney in east London with stadt, city] and Thamesfontein [spring] when he vows to ‘get ’ence an’ trek south’ [journey].

The diaries of the British Settlers of 1820 showed perhaps the first truly ‘South African English’, in that they adopted and adapted words and uses, spelled as they heard them, from their Dutch neighbours. One ‘tracked with my bucks …’ [‘travelled with my goats’ from Dutch trek and bokke]. Another made ‘Tommy Larche’ for his children [tammeletjie, boiled sugar candy]; and one followed the ‘spur’ [spoor, track] of a suspected murderer. Even strange prepositional uses appeared:

… the shooting-match by your place [from Dutch biji, at]
‘… a tiger [tier, tyger, leopard] got under my wethers [sheep] and killed 8 or 9 …’ [from Dutch onder, among].

Even their regular use of ‘place’ may owe something to plaas [farm].

Lastly, not for nothing was Cape Town called the ‘Tavern of the Seas’. As the port of call of mariners from all over the known world, words from many different languages, especially French, German, Portuguese and Malay, made landing here and stayed.

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Comments (2)
  • Wonderful to hear the voice of Dr Branford..I was a student of hers and her husband Prof Branford in 1973/74/75; and those years inspired a life time of interest in linguistics. ‘Unpacking’ South Afican English gives one so much insight into the history and culture of the country and its peoples; I think more so than with most World Englishes. Words such as ‘location’ conjure up the torrid political past; ‘koek susters’, ‘mielie meel’ or ‘baoetie’ set the taste buds of every South African racing, ‘sies tog’ the empathy the people have for babies or pain suffered by others, and ‘hamba’ gets you moving. It’s illuminating that few words describing food have crept into SAE from Bantustan languages, but many from the kitchens of Malay decendants have. Ah, what a diverse language SAouth African English is, expressing the diverse culture of that country!

    Posted by Margaret James on 17th June, 2010
  • Juslaaik, Jean… narce ter ear yew ! yer words are on the page en ar ken ear yew. Reely narce.

    ther stewarts hev bin bar ther house hier. It was er lekker jol en wee cort up with news frim yr part of the

    werld. Your students were fortunate to hear the “Real Thing” in their day….. Us oldenaars need others

    to keep the whole thing rolling along before the deadening electronic media turn it “all” to platitudinous

    inanities – Long may A rich and extensive expansive “Inglis” vocab & lang. fleurit. “Chiz”. Ever D&N

    Posted by DM Morrell on 27th September, 2010
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