A Discussion About South African English

A Discussion About South African English

A discussion about “South African English”

Written by Dr. Jacques du Plessis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Sometimes some minute differences could make a big difference. For example: Americans confirm their participation and interest in a conversation with regular grunts and groans. This is not that common in South Africa. In conversation South Africans listen quietly and that may seem to you that they are not "fully" participating in the conversation.

You will notice that the English spoken in South Africa is much closer to the Queen's English than to American English. After a visit to South Africa, your American friends will notice that you have been somewhere, because of the funny little things that you will insert in your language.

The term “just now” used by a South African means in a little while or soon. Now-now means immediately or very soon. So long (as in "Put the kettle on so long") colloquially means in the mean time. This term is used to initiate an action until another can start. In South Africa you might hear the phrase, "You go so long. I'll catch up now-now." Instead of "really?" you will say "is it?" pronounced izit. Many of our slang words would also be in common usage in the Commonwealth countries, but we have quite a few originals as well.

We rent a flat and not an apartment and we call the elevator a lift.

We don't talk about an automobile or a motor vehicle, it's usually a car. Yes, the bonnet is the hood and the boot is the trunk. We put our gloves in the cubbyhole. Use your flicker to go round the corner and stop at the robot, our word for traffic light. In casual conversation I will tell you how I skipped a light instead of running a light. This one is really weird: If I want to race you, I'll say "Wanna dice?" So, if you have a hot rod V-8, you will tell everybody about who you diced today. The other day I phoned the scrapyard to enquire about some second-hand spares. My friend told me that it America it is a junk yard and that I was looking for used parts. You throw a spanner in the works instead of a wrench. Then we always buy petrol instead of gasoline and we recharge a flat battery.

Take note of the word aluminium; the American spelling and pronunciation differs. Your word is aluminum.

We never call a tap a faucet. A dam in South Africa is a reservoir in the States. To refer to the dam, we speak of the dam wall. A reservoir in South Africa is the big concrete water tank on the hill.

About babies: a pacifier becomes a dummy and a stroller becomes a pram. The baby wears a nappy and not a diaper. That means that we use a serviette at the table.

Downtown we walk on the pavement and not the sidewalk. Please do not use the word kiddy corner to indicate directions. You will get some strange looks. Instead of treating you to an ice cream, we might say "I'll stick you for an ice cream" or "I'll stand you to an ice cream." A Savings & Loan would be called a Building Society, and a pharmacy is also a chemist.

Here are some pointers to save you major embarrassment. Never talk about a fanny, it's does not mean what you think, it's bad. And then don't be shocked when you hear damn or damn it. To South Africans it replaces darn it and heck. But, crap is not taken lightly, you might just as well have used the sh-word.

Do not say, "I am stuffed" after eating too much. South Africans will understand it to be that you are pregnant. Rather say, "I'm satisfied thanks," or "I've had an elegant sufficiency thank you."

A bugger is totally inappropriate and it is never used in good company. The Afrikaans word voertsek means to get lost, if I have to put it mildly. It comes from Dutch voort zeg ik, meaning: 'forth say I', but the modern-day contraction is used to chase off a dog.

We often say "cheerio" or "cheers" when we say goodbye.

The postal code is your zip code, and we post letters instead of mailing them.

Our jersey is your sweater, a tissue is a Kleenex, and a plaster is a band-aid. Autumn is used instead of fall. Most of the time we say holiday for a vacation. Older people still refer to a tickie box instead of the pay phone. The word veld is used in our English. It refers to the open prairies or fields.

Instead of saying "I beg your pardon?" you will hear "Sorry?"

Here are some common slang words:

• Tune means to tell; for example: "What did he tune you when you told him he was fired?"

• Chuck or pull relates to the performance of a car or bike (motorcycle). "My new Kawa really chucks; I'll dice any of your buddies." Other than to discard, chuck also means to throw.

• P.T. is the abbreviation for physical training, but it also means too much trouble. "It takes too much p.t. to get my licence today, I'll get it next week."

• Graze and chow are often used amongst college students "Let's go and graze." or "I'm really dik gechow." Dik is the Afrikaans word for thick, fed up, and satisfied. Dik is not a very polite word. The ge- prefix in the quote is the Afrikaans past tense indicator.

• A pozzie is your "place"; "Listen, I'll come over to your pozzie at about five, ok?"

• Lekker means cool, fun, or exciting.

• To dip out means to miss out. "He thought the party wasn't going to be lekker, so he stayed at his pozzie. Man, he really dipped out! It was the lekkerest jol in years!"

• A jol is our word for a blast. "We had a lekker jol last night." If you say "Hey cool it man, I was just jolling!" you would mean kidding or joking. A joller is a male that is irresponsible and who plays around all the time and never works seriously.

• Jippo is rich in meaning. It could mean to tamper with or to doctor something. "I jippoed his car, he'll never get away." It could also mean to try to be a free rider or to sneak out of some task; "We have to load all the hay, and if I catch anyone who tries to jippo, we will all do over-time." Stomach flue or a runny tummy is referred to as jippo guts. "Cheepers, I don't know what I ate, but I've had jippo guts for two days."

• Shame has an added meaning for sweet or cute. When we see a darling baby, we always say, "Ag shame, how cute." Shame could also be used sarcastically where sympathy was asked but not deserved e.g. You tell me a soppy story because your work is not completed and I say: "Ag shame! Now get out of here and finish your work! I want it on my desk by five!"

• Lank is an Afrikaans word meaning tall or long, but in English slang it means much. "That guy's got lank bucks."

• Skrik is also Afrikaans meaning a fright. "He gave me such a skrik."

• Larny comes from Durban on the east coast. Nobody has a proper spelling for it. It means classy or rich. "His folks are real larney, you must see their new Maserati."

• A fundi or a boffin is an expert of some kind. "He thinks he's a real fundi with bikes, but he doesn't even know where the gears are."

• The grammadulas or the bundu refers to the boonies. "Does that brother of yours still live way out there in the grammadulas."

• Exê is another Durban word and it is the Afrikaans for I say, spelled Ek sê in Afrikaans. Use it about twice in every sentence and you'll be real cool exê. "Hey man exê, what are you going to do with those books exê.

• Scheme means to think. "He schemes he is a real boffin with computers."

• A ou (Afr. pronunciation) is a guy. "Tell that ou he can't speak to the boss." Ou also means old in Afrikaans.

Only but...hey! conveys a strong opinion. "He's only but unfit hey!"

• Blind and dof means dense, stupid or unexciting. "That's was blind deal. He must be dof man. How could he accept such a blind offer?

• Sort out e.g. "You better sort yourself out!" means to straighten out or to get things in order or in line.

Cooldrink or colddrink is what Americans would call a soda, like Coke or Pepsi.

• Howzit? means “How are you?” or “How are things?”

• A braai is a barbecue (both the grill and the activity).

Here are some other things to consider when speaking to people:

• South Africans are more old fashioned and formal in their mannerisms.

• Yawning without covering your mouth, gum chewing, stretching in public, slouching, leaving your hands in your pockets while speaking to someone, or leaning against objects while speaking are all things to avoid.

• Making the victory sign with the palm of the hand towards yourself or making a fist with the thumb between the index and middle fingers are inappropriate.

• Many African cultures regard it as polite to hold out both hands when being given a gift. Doing so with one hand shows ingratitude.

• A lady is treated very much as a lady as men open doors, stand up when she enters the room or wait for her to extend her hand before they will greet her with a handshake.

• In Afrikaans circles, among close friends, women are often kissed on the lips in greeting. (Those with a strong city culture might be less comfortable doing so).

You can find out more about South African culture and the Afrikaans language at the Open Languages website, located at: