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South African words in English – then and now (part 2)

This is the second of three blogs from Jean Branford, a world authority on the English of South Africa and author of A Dictionary of South African English.


The usual range of the South African words we use now, as part of our everyday life, pales under the spotlight of the World Cup. The country, having been working up to it for what seems a long time, is now consumed with the fever – and fervour. The old motto ‘Local is Lekker’ [good, excellent] is still around, but ‘Proudly South African’ has bloomed and every flag-adorned packet of supermarket chops bears a label saying so.

Other cries like Ayoba! [We’re proud!] and Laduma! [Thunder!] echo over the air waves, and other African expressions of appreciation like Sharp! Sweet! and Eish! are heard. Loudest are the earsplitting hoots of the vuvuzelas which augment the yelling of match spectators but are already everywhere. Soccer balls flash across the screens – and pavements – and every advertisement from bank accounts to takeaways to motor tyres has a soccer theme. The balls’ black and white hexagonal pattern has even appeared on a kaaskop [‘cheese head’, or shaven] hairdo, and on the surfaces of round buns and cakes! In recent weeks a new word diski dance has come to light, soccer steps and moves to music, actually being taught to children in schools, and performed by all ages on the television news.

For the last few years new African words in English have been proliferating. But many, of course, have been around a long time, such as names of certain animals: tsessebe, kudu, impala, inyala, oribi [antelopes] or of plants like morogo, imifino [wild spinach], intsangu [marijuana], and bangalala [an aphrodisiac].

One of the very earliest African vocabulary items to be used by Europeans is the gracious farewell greeting Hamba Kahle [Go well], first recorded in 1836 and often heard also at the end of a eulogy for the departed – and its reply Sala Kahle [Stay well]. An important concept is that of ubuntu, heard far more often since the long-awaited dismantling of apartheid – this is human-heartedness and compassion embodied in the African familial and social ethos.

There has been an opening up of a new tourism, and ‘the township experience’ [getting insight into African urban life] has gained in popularity. There are also sophisticated city restaurants specializing in African dishes. Parties of tourists are taken to stay at African guest houses and to shebeens [drinking establishments] to sample the equivalent of ‘pub culture’ and to try mqomboti [traditional beer]. They are also introduced to some African foodstuffs, such as putupap [mealie, or maize porridge], mopane worms, samp mngqusho [cooked crushed maize kernels], and even smileys/smilers, halved boiled sheeps’ heads. But they are probably not offered walkie talkies [chickens’ feet and heads].

The media within my experience have embraced the concept of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. There has been some negativity about crime, lawlessness and deprivation – including a community moved out of sight into a Blikkiesdorp [tin can village], but by and large it has been supportive. Overseas chefs are coming to Cape Town to join locals for a ‘World Cup of Food’, and there have even been posthumous showings of Floyd on Africa, one cooking in a noisy shebeen, another in the midst of a circle of inquisitive ostriches who sampled his ingredients, and upset his dishes and work station! And recently one Sky presenter conducted a group of lighties [young lads] in a World Cup between England and South Africa in a school playground, where England won 6–1.

On the whole the anticipation of the World Cup has been a great leveller and unifying force, and had led to a flowering of things African, which it is hoped will not fade away when the vuvuzelas fall silent.

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Jean Branford


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