This month’s first guest post about South African English is from Dawn Nell, a historian and Capetonian. You can follow her on twitter.
There’s a degree of irreverence in South African attitudes to most things, but particularly towards the English. It is something that undoubtedly has its roots in South African history, as pretty much everyone in the country from the Afrikaners to the Zulu has at some time been at war with Britain. More recently, these antagonisms have been transferred to the sports field where the rivalry is such that you’d find it hard to believe that cricket isn’t ‘a continuation of war by other means’. And you can see this (gentle) antagonism in a recent joke doing the rounds in South Africa which calls for the country to claim compensation from the British Government for all the Afrikaans words stolen by the English.
What this joke refers to, and what most people have in mind when we talk about South African words that have been absorbed into English, are words such as aardvark, trek, veld, boer, donga, and assegai; words that are a sort of lexicographic snapshot from an historical context of imperial expansion and colonial wars. To be honest, South Africans don’t necessarily hold these words in a great deal of affection and are as likely as people outside South Africa to use them; that is, on the lamentably rare occasions when one finds oneself talking about aardvarks. It’s safe to say that South African English has moved on since the days of boers and assegais.
English is just one of eleven official languages in South Africa; the others are Afrikaans, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. And there are many other languages and dialects spoken in the region that aren’t recognized officially, but have nonetheless influenced South African English, including the Khoi, Nama and San languages, Gujarati, Portuguese, ‘Fanagalo’, and Iscamtho or ‘Tsotsi Taal’. The new context in which these languages are interacting is that of a young, democratic, multiracial country in which TV ads and soap operas, tabloid newspapers, the internet, and dance music are some of the major driving forces of cultural exchange. For example, while few white South Africans speak IsiZulu, you’re unlikely to find anyone who doesn’t know that Yebo, Gogo means ‘Yes, Granny’. This is thanks to a long-running series of cell phone adverts which featured Yebo, Gogo as a catchphrase. A rival cell phone company is responsible for recently popularising the word ayoba meaning ‘cool’, although there is a healthy debate in South Africa as to where this word originates from and what it really means. One argument is that ayoba is associated with the kwaito dance scene in Jozi (that’s Johannesburg). Check out DJ Bobo’s video ‘Ayoba/Shine Forever’ if you’re wondering what I’m talking about.
Another word associated with kwaito that we’re hearing everywhere right now in South Africa is kwaai, which basically means ‘cool’. At a guess, I’d say it’s derived from the Afrikaans for ‘fierce’, but it hardly seems to matter because it just sounds good and you can draw it out to kwaaaaaai depending on how cool something is and how many characters you can spare in your sms (text) message.
Another usefully descriptive word you’ll encounter in South African English is eish, which may or may not have its origins in the IsiXhosa language. More a sound than a word, it’s usually used at the beginning of a sentence to communicate surprise or disbelief. So, someone might for example say, Eish, this music is kwaaai! And recently the meaning of eish has moved on, and it’s also being used to mean ‘brilliant’ or ‘cool’, as in, This music is the eish! I like to think that sort of sums up the South African approach to things, turning something unbelievable into something cool.Email this Post