Kellogg’s, braais and a monkey’s wedding

Posted by on June 09, 2010

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.

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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.

Tot siens!

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Comments (17)
  • I loved this post, thanks!

    The brand-becomes-description element must be global. Back home it was Kleenex for tissues. Takkies are ‘sneakers’ (not good for grip but good for creeping around), felt tip pens are called ‘Sharpies’ etc. I especially like ‘monkey’s wedding’. Although not weather, I think I’ll use this to describe Britian’s new coalition government.

    SR

    Posted by Shane R on 9th June, 2010
  • […] small hiccups and differences but it’d be an easy process for all that. Despite some of the linguistic quirks I’ve been talking about over on the Macmillan Dictionary blog (yeah, see that shameless plug? Follow the linky…) there is a something that gets left over, […]

    Posted by Elemental Grace » Blog Archive » A Marriage of Two Very Different Cultures on 9th June, 2010
  • […] you’re all lovely!) have managed to provide posts about Irish English, Scottish English and South African English – I know some of my talented readers can pull an American English post out of the bag! […]

    Posted by Of drugs, scowls and books « Second Hand Shopper on 22nd June, 2010
  • This blog entry is great. I’ve been living in Italy for 6 years now and I often use words like “ja” and “vrot” and “ag” not to mention ” ag shame” much to the consternation of my Italian students. Would love to teach them more SA English words and phrases, but then I don’t think it’ll be aprreciated. Maybe lessons should be created showing the different versions of English and not only British/American , Although these two versions of English are the most common I think it could be interesting and even useful to students learning English as a foreign/second language. Especially now that English is the “official” global language in business.

    Posted by martie van der vliet on 22nd June, 2010
  • Dear Sarah, I was delighted by your article. It has been a long time since I have read such a juicy narrative. Your memories and recollections would turn into a great book.
    Thanks for enlightening my day.
    Priscila

    Posted by Priscila Laterza on 23rd June, 2010
  • Thanks for the article. A couple of discrepancies though- creepy crawlies are called nunus not dudus or as you quite rightly said goggos, a word not invented by English speakers based on sound but originates from Zulu. Talking of creepy crawlies, it is worth mentioning the wonderful sounding shongololo which all other English speakers know as the millipede, a word which also originates from Zulu.
    When it was time for bed my parents would say “go dudu” which evidently evolved from the French “faire doudou”. I’m not sure that this is typically South African though.

    Posted by Kyle on 23rd June, 2010
  • In South Africa in 2010, new words are being absorbed from sources other than Afrikaans. One such word, derived from the years of Black “struggle”, is “cadre”. A million years ago when I was in school, this word described a cell or group of people involved in some common political purpose. It is now used as interchangeable with the formerly Communist “comrade” – “He is an ANC cadre” where perhaps I would have used the word “supporter”.
    The word “pupil” is now obsolete, replaced by “learner”, and over the next few months I will start to list the “politically correct” versions which are now used more and more in news programmes, newspapers and magazines. There was a certain cosiness or comfort about the absorption of descriptive Afrikaans words into English – what is happening now is not so much the adoption of words from Zulu or Sotho but from colder political sources. I do not mind being called “gogo” which unlike “goggo” is not an insect but a grandmother, but I am not comfortable with being called an “educator” rather than a teacher.

    Posted by Heather Kleynhans on 13th August, 2010
  • THANK YOU for a heartwarming article! Living in Germany for over 23 years, the situations which you described are oh so familiar to me. And having taught English for the past 7 years to mainly German adults, I can only say they are delighted – in the middle of a business English lesson – when a South Africanism slips out, which at that moment requires a detailed explanation.

    Posted by Susan Mund-Hoym on 23rd November, 2010
  • I came back from the Cape in 1983 aged 6. Reading this made me smile as I too used the same words for things. I’ve never been back home since, sadly, though my parents have visited. But look forward to a time when I can. Am really proud that both my children, Yorkshire born and Gloucestershire raised still use their Mum’s “odd” word! Goggos being their favourite! I lost my accent pretty sharpish with the B side of Spitting Image’s Chicken Song being around at the time…….. but a few words remain! 😀

    Posted by Lucy Beal on 30th November, 2010
  • Although I’m a refugee from East Africa (Kenya) we have many words in common with SA, takkies for one, and I have great difficulty in finding an English equivalent for many of the words sometimes. In Kenya we used a lot of Swahili words in our everyday conversations and it’s really difficult to stop the habit. I have never fathomed why people don’t understand me when I’ve said it’s a Monkeys’ Wedding, when there is rain and sunshine together. I thought everyone knew what it meant. lol

    Posted by Lala Woods on 10th June, 2011
  • Have you ever tried to SMS in the UK? I had a lot of puzzled looks until my daughter said:’ Oh, you mean TEXT!’

    Posted by Freestone, Margaret on 7th November, 2011
  • I speak English very fluently having been born in SA and lived in Zimbabwe for many years before returning “home” to SA. There is one word of Afrikaans that just HAS NOT a decent comparison in English, and that is GATVOL. It covers one’s utter frustration in so many things!

    Posted by Maureen Bryden on 21st April, 2012
  • JA WELL NO FINE.nothing more south african than that ek se

    Posted by NEIL EARDLEY on 22nd April, 2012
  • Yes, well….what can I say. English is not always English as I found out when I first arrived in the UK. Who remembers the old removable computer discs, viz. the 5in and then later the harder 3.5in ones. I remember calling the bigger ones ‘floppy’s’ in SA, since they were, well…floppy, and the smaller harder ones ‘stiffies’. Not so in the UK as I embarrassingly remember when asking if ‘anyone had a stiffy’ for me in the large open plan accountants office I first started working in here. Oh dear…..

    But I still call my sneakers takkies and have introduced a lot of my friends to braaivleis, boerewors and biltong.

    Posted by British South African on 22nd April, 2012
  • As a South African living in Australia I found this delightful article after trying to explain to an Aussie colleague the origin of “Monkey’s Wedding”.

    Reading about other quintessentially South African words that have no (or poor) alternatives in our adopted countries, another one often springs to mind when huddled on crowded commuter trains between Brisbane and the Gold Coast in cold & flu weather – “SIS!” The closest local version is “Eww!” which, again, does not quite convey the “onomatopoeic and slightly poetic” expression of disgust at the level of snorting, sniffing and sneezing that goes on.

    Posted by Dave McPherson on 9th July, 2012
  • Wonderful stuff. After 30 years in the UK it all still seems so familiar and right. Braai is, of course, increasingly used in the Britain as fashion for cooking meat in the rain has grown. But when you burn your fingers, do you say “eina”? And then there is “aikonwa” when someone ism’t doing it right.

    Posted by Clive on 10th July, 2012
  • I am sure corn flakes were post toasties in my days of SA

    Posted by Alan Oaten on 27th December, 2012
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