Our next guest post about South African English comes from Sarah Clive. Sarah lived in Johannesburg until she was six, then moved over to the UK. She now lives in Wells, Somerset with her two dogs. You can find her here or on her blog.
Being a bit of a word geek, I subscribe to several ‘word of the day’ emails. You can imagine my joy when my word-love and South African heritage combined, a fortnight or so back, and I found that braaivleis had reached the lofty heights of email ‘word of the day’. For those of you not in the know, braaivleis comes from the Afrikaans for roast meat: braai meaning roast and vleis meaning meat. The braai (or barbecue to the English) is uniquely South African in many respects, and even though I have lived in the UK for over 20 years, is one of those words that can’t be expunged from my vocabulary. It simply creeps back in, earning me slanted sideways glances from my British peers, as if to say ‘why are you using strange foreign words for no reason?’.
It seemed reasonable to think, when we emigrated from South Africa, that moving from one English-speaking country to another would at least mean we didn’t have to worry about the language barrier. How wrong we were. Who could have predicted that a simple trip to the supermarket for some cereal would reduce my Godmother to a gibbering wreck? When we lived back home (in South Africa) cornflakes were known as Kellogg’s. Now, I can’t remember what we called other cereals, but no matter. You can imagine the conversation, and the sense of utter confusion it generated on both sides:
Godmother: Excuse me, I’m looking for the Kellogg’s but I can’t see them.
Sales Assistant: Well, we sell lots of cereals by Kellogg’s, what were you looking for?
Godmother: I’m looking for a box of Kellogg’s, just plain old Kellogg’s.
Sales Assistant: But what Kellogg’s? Rice Crispies, Cornflakes???
Godmother: I’ve told you, just a normal box of Kellogg’s.
(and so it went on …)
We emigrated just as I was starting primary school, and I quickly learned that what I considered English, wasn’t what English kids called English. I didn’t understand felt-tips or trainers, and the English phrases felt as foreign to me as I’m sure I sounded, asking for koki pens and takkies. Just as we use brand terminology in the UK, such as hoovering the carpet, we do also in South Africa, and our koki pens are a localised version of the same phenomenon. That said, wearing trainers took some getting used to. We’d always called them tackies (or takkies) because the sole was slightly tacky (in the sticky sense) and therefore a good option for when you wanted to wear something with a bit of grip or that wasn’t likely to make much noise. I didn’t want to wear them to ‘train’, I wanted to wear them to do things in, like run and cycle and climb trees.
I had, as a child – and still have as an adult – a particular aversion to goggos, which we also called dudus or noogies. Goggos are pronounced with guttural emphasis on the ‘g’ and mean generally any kind of creepy-crawly insect. Growing up in a country where a reasonably large number of insects (and indeed arachnids) are able to cause severe discomfort if not serious illness, it was quite reasonable to give the word as unpleasant a sound as the beasties it represented. I’ve always considered that the English creepy-crawlies lacked something in its daintiness.
Even everyday expressions were different. I’d often begin replies to tricky questions with ag, which sounds a little like the Scottish och. It’s a fantastically useful word, that we don’t have an exact alternative for in English, but is almost an indication that the question has required consideration. Equally, it can stand on its own as the answer to a question. It’s the perfect general-purpose word. Both ja and yebo have liberally peppered my speech over the years. Both mean yes, ja from the Afrikaans and yebo from the Zulu, although yebo can also be used as a way of saying hello.
I have left some of my favorites for last though. Lekker is another fabulously general-purpose word, which can be used to signify approval and delight over any subject matter, from ice-cream to a member of the opposite sex. It’s quite staccato and harsh sounding for an admission of enjoyment or approval, but then that’s perhaps part of its charm. It’s short and definite and gets the point across admirably. Possibly one of the best words in South African English, though, has to be vrot, which is pronounced ‘frot’. To be honest, I didn’t actually realise that this was a South Africanism until I started writing this blog post, but it has remained a faithful friend in describing rotten or putrid food. Despite coming from the Afrikaans originally, it’s now universally accepted as a way of describing something a bit grim. There’s something oddly onomatopoeic and slightly poetic about it to my mind, and I defy anyone to come up with a better replacement.
However, there is one phrase that never seems to have found a home with me in Britain, perhaps on account of the British weather, and it’s a term that describes one of those glorious moments when the weather is doing two things at the same time that seem impossible: when it’s pouring with rain while the sun shines brightly. In South Africa, we call that a monkey’s wedding from the Zulu umshado wezinkawu (= a wedding for monkeys), although there is also a variation in Afrikaans (jakkalstrou), which refers to the meteorological phenomenon as a jackal’s wedding. There seem to be many variations on the name in many different cultures, and they particularly seem to centre around the notion of weddings, although no definitive reasoning for why this may be is known.
In all my linguistic wanderings today, I have forgotten one phrase, which has caused great confusion in my life over the years and is perhaps an appropriate one to end on, and that would be my use of home, for no matter how long I live in Britain, when I talk about back home, I can only ever mean one place. I’ll leave you to work out where that is.
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