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From aardvark to Zulu: recent developments in South African English

© Royalty-Free/CorbisOur latest guest post is by Jill Wolvaardt, the Executive Director of the Dictionary Unit for South African English. The unit, based at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, has been collecting and recording English as it is used in South Africa since 1969. Jill and her colleagues have been working with us recently to improve the Macmillan Dictionary’s coverage of this important variety of English.


Where would English dictionaries have been without the aardvark to start them off? And before groceries could be ordered at the touch of a computer button, how often did you have to trek around supermarkets to buy the week’s household supplies? It’s perhaps surprising to realise how many South African words have worked their way into mainstream global English. Some, like apartheid, reflect on South Africa’s darker days, and have come to be applied more widely to other situations of societal injustice. But at least the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave the world a more positive model for building understanding between parties to a conflict.

However, there are still many expressions used in South Africa that would be unfamiliar to speakers of English from other parts of the world. As Michael Rundell mentioned in a recent post, we’ve added a good number of these to the latest update of the Macmillan Dictionary, to show some of the interesting facets that make up an English which may seem familiar – but may surprise you with its differences!

South Africa’s indigenous languages have always influenced the English spoken there. From the early years of British contact there are Khoisan words for vegetation, like the tsamma wild melon, or animals such as the gnu, that odd-looking antelope that Dutch settlers named the wildebeest. Similarly, there are many words for social customs and cultural events for which there was no English equivalent. Still today, before a marriage is agreed to, the prospective groom may be expected to pay lobola to his bride-to-be’s family.

And these days, with more inclusive attitudes to governance, consultation and discussion may take place in imbizos and indabas, originally gatherings called by the amakhosi or other leaders of the Zulu people.  Cabinet members may be summoned by the President to a lekgotla to discuss government policy; in the Sotho-Tswana languages this would once have referred to a place where people assembled for court hearings and other important meetings.

On a lighter note, some of the words may be just what a visitor needs to navigate a South African menu. Bobotie is a delicious, lightly-spiced mince dish that originates in the cuisine of Cape Town’s Malay descendants; you might accompany this with a pickle or atjar of mango or lime, another Malay culinary legacy. Many will know that the archetypal South African braai is a barbecue, and that boerewors – a robust meaty sausage, and biltong – dried beef or game, are likely to appear on their plate. However, perhaps less familiar is chesanyama, meat on the grill township style, that is as popular as street food as it is in chic new African restaurants.

Talking of townships, South African English is also enlivened by words taken from Tsotsitaal, the vibrant street language that originated among township gangsters, or tsotsis, but has developed into one of Mzansi’s unofficial lingua francas. Meanwhile the murkier side of current South African politics has led to the coining of its own –preneur word: a tenderpreneur is a public servant who benefits from the awarding of government tenders. Tenderpreneur hasn’t made it into the Macmillan Dictionary yet, but if you’re intrigued by this brief introduction to the English we speak in South Africa, visit our free online dictionary where you’ll find thousands of other fascinating examples of this rich, multicultural, vocabulary.

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Jill Wolvaardt

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