I so looked forward to moving to South Africa for a myriad reasons. Not least was that after 20+ years living in countries where English was not the lingua franca, I could finally speak my mother tongue! While South Africa has 11 official languages, in the province where our farm is, English is commonly spoken, and throughout the country, it's the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial life. 

So big "Yay!" For the first time in nearly two dozen years, I could concentrate on "what" I was saying and not "how" I was going to say it..

Caught with my pants down

It didn't take long for me to understand the naivete and ignorance of that assumption. While I fancy myself well-versed in both American and British English(es), South African English is a whole 'nother kettle of mealies.

I've still got a lot of learning to do, but these are some words that had me completely befuddled and/or that I've found extremely useful. 

Essential expressions

Eish (aysh) – Expresses surprise, frustration, dismay, or outrage. "Eish! The dog just ate all our chickens in the yard!"

Jawelnofine – (ya-well-no-fine). You must say this as one, single word. The meaning found online is "Well, how about that?", but more accurately, it appears to be an expression of surprise that really means things aren't so fine, but you can't do anything about it. You just discovered that someone ate ALL the candy from the gift box you received for Your birthday. You might say, "Jawelnofine." (I would say something else, but you might say this. Not that I've ever experienced such a thing, of course).

Jol (jawl) – Jol can be a noun (a party) or a verb (to have a good time). "I just heard there's a big jol at Barb's tonight!" 

Just now – I'll never forget my first contact with this phrase. Nils and I were online gaming with an international group. The South African player said, "I can play just now." We waited. And we waited. And we waited. If a South African tells you they'll do something "just now", it could mean anywhere from a few minutes from now to several minutes to an extended period of time for which I haven't yet found the limit. It is sometime in the future, but definitely not "now." 

Lekker (lekk-irr, preferably with a nice rrrrrrrrrolling r) – Originating from Afrikaans, it means nice, good, or cool. "The concert last night was lekker, wasn't it?"

Now-now – The only time I'd ever before heard "Now now", was when it was used to comfort, as in "Now, now, don't cry." Contrary to "Just now" (see above), this means what the rest of the world means when they say "now." 

Shame – Every time I think I've got a handle on this one, I hear a slightly different usage. It can be used in the same way that Americans or British use the phrase, "Oh, that's a shame!" However, it's often used as a filler in conversation, much in the same way that Americans use, "Ah, I see!, or even "Uh huh." And then there's this other usage I heard the other day, "Oh shame!  It was a beautiful wedding!" This evidently does not mean that the person speaking was disappointed that it was a nice wedding. Basically, I think that "shame" means whatever the speaker wants it to mean at any given time.

So as not to starve to death

Nils and I are both fairly adventurous when it comes to food, so even when we don't know a word, we're not usually shy to give something a try. But for those who are more prudent:

Biltong (bill-tong) – A (in my opinion) delicious dried and salted meat. Similar to beef jerky, but in South Africa it could be made from ostrich, kudu or other red meat animal as well.

Bobotie (buh-boor-tee) – Some will tell you this is an "everything but the kitchen sink" dish, but mostly it's made with ground beef (minced meat), a lot of spices, jam or chutney, and topped with an egg sauce. I'm told it's of Malay origin. We had it once at friends', and I improvised it once at home. It's a dish I like very much – and come to think of it I might make it this weekend. Mmmmmm. 

Braai (pronounced like "eye" with a "Br" in front of it, and a long "aaa") – This is a barbecue, simple as that, with steak, boerewors (A South African sausage), and maybe chicken. A South African braai seems to consist of mainly meat and meat and meat. 

Bunny Chow - If you're American you're likely thinking Purina and what you'd feed your rabbits. I've recently learned that bunny chow in South Africa is a curry served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread. It's cheap to-go food that you'd eat on the road or when backpacking. And no, it's not curried bunny meat.

Mealie (mih-lih) – Maize or corn. Mealie is corn on the cob; mealie meal is corn meal. You'll come across this more often than you'd think; it's a staple in the South African diet.

Sarmie - A sandwich.

This and That

These are some of the words that came up early on that made both Nils and me go "Huh?" We hadn't a single, solitary clue! 

Bakkie (buck-ee) – What we Americans know as a pick-up truck.

Cozzie - I first heard this from an instructor with whom I was taking a course. She was having the class at her home and she said, "It's going to be a very hot day in Durban. Bring your cozzie." This means bathing suit or swimming costume. 

Geyser (gee-zer) - First time I heard this was in a sentence something like, "I've got two old 'geezers' on my roof." I'm not really sure about British English, but for us Americans, this would mean that there are two old men sitting on the top of this person's house. Geyser (spelled like Old Faithful Geyser) in South African English is a hot water tank or boiler.

Muti (moo-ti) – This comes from isiZulu language and means medicine. It usually refers to typically traditional African medicine, but you will hear people using it somewhat generically for medicine. 

Robot - The first time Nils and I heard this was when we were lost and had to stop and ask for directions. We were told, "You'll come to a robot and turn left, continue on past the market and at the second robot take a right." I remember that Nils rolled up his window, we both looked at each other quizzically and one of the other of us eventually said, "Did she say 'robot'???" You've probably already guessed; a robot is a traffic light.

Sangoma (sun-go-mah) – Also from isiZulu, this mean a traditional healer or diviner.

Shongololo – This is a word that you're unlikely to come across, but I like the way the word sounds and feels on the tongue. A Shongololo is a large brown millipede. The word comes from isiZulu.

Stiffy - This is also a word you're unlikely to fall upon as it's now outdated, but it's amusing. A stiffy is a 3.5 inch floppy disk. Can you imagine? "Yeah, go down to Howard in the IT department, he gets stiffies regularly." Okay, that was 6-year-old humor, I know.

Takkies – What are otherwise known as running shoes, sneakers, or trainers. Fat takkies are extra-wide tires (or tyres for British English readers).

I assure you, no matter the difficulties or misunderstandings that come up from time to time with South African English, South Africa's just so lekker! Meet a few of the friendly locals and they'll have you jolling in no time. Come and experience the country now-now! The language might confuse you, but you won't be disappointed by the country and people! 

Today, "E is for English" and this posting is part of the A to Z Challenge April 2012


12 Responses to Yes, We speak English here

  • Shannon says:

    That's so funny!  What does it say about me that my favorite one is about "stiffy"?  ;)   It's always so funny to me how a common language can be so different depending on where you are.  (I might add that since I'm not an adventurous eater, I'd probably go around your country with cans of Spam in my purse just in case I was too afraid to eat what was put in front of me.)

  • Patricia says:

    You are a very funny farm girl in the making/trying!  and I am sure that's what you need when starting out in a new country at a whole new venture … and you seem to be doing great.  Thanks for all these words and phrases ~ you know how I love this kind of thing.  Kind of giving me an idea for a blog about a friend living in South Africa learning a somewhat new language …. 

  • Thanks for the vocab lesson!  I like robot.  I may have to use it.  Makes sense in a certain way.
    <a href="http://thewarriormuse.com/">Shannon at The Warrior Muse</a>, co-host of the <a href="http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/">2012 #atozchallenge</a>!  Twitter: @AprilA2Zs

  • Julie says:

    Thanks for the elaborate vocabulary list! Our dear friends are from Capetown, so we'll  casually try to seek some of these into the conversation ! I'll have to hold onto this to use it as a reference guide! Thanks Corinne!

  • I enjoy your blog! In your profile you say that you are a country girl in the making. Have you ever visited MaryJanesFarm.com? If not, check it out. I really enjoy it! Thanks for visiting my blog – I appreciate it!

    • Corinne says:

      Sometimes "country girl in the making", sometimes "country girl in the failing" :-)

      Oh, just took at look at maryjanesfarm.com. VERY interesting. Will definitely join the chatroom. Love the concept. Thanks for this tip … and thanks again for stopping by!

  • KarenG says:

    I must share this post with my son who spent 2 years in South Africa, most of the time in Capetown, but some in Namibia. He came home with a charming accent, learned to speak several of the dialects and still uses many of the expressions. I want so much to visit there!

    • Corinne says:

      It IS called “God’s country”, and we do feel as though we’re living in our own small piece of paradise. I’m sure your son has said the same, but if you can manage it, a trip to South Africa is a must.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Prue says:

    You should try Australian! Crikey, you'd go bananas!

  • I can see a lot of dutch there :D  

    • Corinne says:

      You absolutely should. Afrikaans originates from 17th century Dutch … with a few other languages thrown in there for more spice :-)

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Hi! I'm Corinne.
After many years of meeting challenges of the corporate world as a (moderately) Type-A city gal, I embark with my DH, Nils, on a completely different adventure in living.

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