English that isn’t always (More South Africanisms)

Eish, South African English cracks me up!

Eish, South African English cracks me up!

I speak French reasonably but find that I understand people best in the areas where I learnt it – in Belgium and the French Alps. Their accents, the speed at which they speak and the little colloquialisms all just mash together into something that works at a subconscious level. But take me to the south of France, where their accents are as thick and twangy as in the US south, or to Normandy with its slang, and I’m pretty lost.

And don’t even mention Paris! When in Paris I just pretend not to speak the language!

All this got me thinking again about what it’s like for English-speaking visitors to our country. Sure we speak English here in South Africa – but we also have 10 other official languages – all of which have influenced the English we speak. I’ve written before about well-known South Africanisms  – words like “lekker”, “koeksister”, “eish, “blerrie” and “bakkie” – but what of those words that look familiar, but aren’t used as they were intended?

Up here in Gauteng (and more in Jozi than Pretoria) we use things like (in no particular order):

“Bro” – I covered this in my previous post. It’s short for “brother” but really means friend. Other versions: “Boet”, “Broer” or “Bru”.

“Cherry” – Girlfriend. Or just girl in general.

Check that cherry's wild hair, hey!

Check that cherry’s wild hair, hey!

“China” – no, not the country, as you would imagine. China also means friend.

“Graze” – Eat.

“Chop” – A piece of meat, as in lamb chop. (Tjoppie would be the diminutive, with Afrikaans spelling). Chop could also be used as a derogatory term for a person acting idiotically.

“Fire” – Barbecue. Also referred to as “braai” down in these parts.

“Hundreds” – Good. Fine. Perfect (from 100%)

“Shot” – This could mean “good” or “thanks”.

Let’s put them all together: “Hey, my china, do you wanna come graze with me and my cherry later? We’ll just throw a tjoppie on the fire.” And the response, “Shot bro! Hundreds!”

And then a few more general ones:

Any know where I left my dummy?

Anyone know where I left my dummy?

“Dummy” – not a replica of a human being, or a stupid person but … a baby’s pacifier. “Honey, the baby’s playing with his dummy in the mud again,” makes so much more sense now, right?

“Abba” – not the Swedish pop group from the 1970s, but a way of carrying a baby on one’s back.

“Bagel” – an overly-materialistic, nouveau riche (Jewish) man. The male version of a kugel … from the Yiddish word for a plain pudding garnished as a delicacy.

“Tune” – to give someone lip. If you really give a person a piece of your mind you “tune them grief”.

“Acid” – Angry

“Chips” – not the snack, but used (especially by teenagers) for “look out”.  Can also refer to “slap chips” – thick-cut French fries drowned in salt and vinegar.

An elevator is a “lift”, a traffic light is a “robot” and a geyser is not a hot spring but a hot water tank found in the ceilings of most homes … We call our corner convenience stores cafés (kaf-ay, kaff-ee or kayff) and the sodas one buys there cooldrinks. Coca-cola is just straight coke.

Again, lets put some of those together: “Chips okes, the café owner’s really acid! I tuned him grief just now about his slap chips being too oily and his coke being too warm! We’ll just grab some cooldrinks from the guy selling at the robot, hey.”

Has that helped to clear the muddied waters of South African English a bit? What South Africanisms that sound like proper English but aren’t have I missed?

Still confused? I don't blame you!

Still confused? I don’t blame you!

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12 thoughts on “English that isn’t always (More South Africanisms)

    • I was just ballin’ dahn ver frog wiv me cherry* when I spots this geezer**. Well, as soon as I clapped me mincers on ‘im I knew ‘e were a grasshopper – had ‘old Bill’ written all over his boat!

      * definitely not a girl
      ** definitely not a hot water tank

  1. You inherited ‘China’ from London rhyming slang – ‘China plate’ for ‘mate’ (friend). A lot of the other words are familiar. We used to use ‘geyser’ not for the water tank itself, but for the tank and the gas heater combination. I have heard ‘robot’ for traffic light in the UK, but now that’s very rare indeed.

  2. Well, I guess it is a good thlng I only know you in writing! I have a Southern accent, but not like in the deep South. I’m from Texas, but went to school in South Carolina and Alabama, so I know how they speak. But I suppose you speak understandable English. My brother was in Ireland for a time and learned the differences there, I’ve read a lot of English novels so am familiar with some words they use, but I have a hard time with English movies. I think I would not understand what the people in South Africa are talking about if they use that kind of vocabulary.
    I think I have an idea what it would be like, though. Here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where almost everyone knows English and Spanish, people use an interesting mixture. Since I understand both, I don’t mind, and am even guilty of using some mixed words that are just more convenient. But I lived in Nicaragua about 45 years ago and we made a couple of trips to Bluefields on the east coast where the people are of African descent–I forget the history right now. They speak both English and Spanish, but use English among themselves and with anyone who speaks English. Well, I wanted them to speak Spanish to me because I couldn’t understand their English. After a few days I got used to the accent and could usually understand them.

    Very interesting post!

  3. Oh gosh. And here I thought I’d generally be okay in South Africa. I fear I might be indelibly lost while asking directions the bathroom!

  4. Pingback: SA Bloggers – English that isn’t always (More South Africanisms)

  5. There are a few i still don’t quite get: “Milk – as in “he milked that cow stukkend” (with a rock). Sick – as in cool, lekker, great: “How are you?” “sick bru”…

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