“SAfrican” English

Did you know South Africa is the country with the most official languages in the world?* With 11 official languages that cover over 98% of native tongues spoken in the country it’s very linguistically diverse. In order of prevalence these languages are: Zulu (22.7%), Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.6%), Northern Sotho (9.1%), Tswana (8%), Southern Sotho (7.6%), Xitsonga (4.5%), Swati (2.5%), Tshivenda (2.4%), and Ndebele (2.1%) (note that English only arrives in 4th position; the percentages refer to speakers of the main language at home). I was in South Africa and Swaziland for a great holiday at the beginning of this month and I noticed that not everything is translated into all official languages – forms, brochures and timetables are normally only in English and Afrikaans, while for road signs it seems to vary according to location.

Afrikaans developed from the dialect spoken by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 16th century, and was considered a Dutch dialect (called ‘Cape Dutch’) until the 19th century. In 1925 it became one of the country’s official languages, and today is spoken by 6 million people.

English is spoken as a mother tongue by about 5 million people, and is the dominant language in government and media. It has undergone some changes in South Africa: new words have been appropriated from Afrikaans or indigenous African languages, while other words have changed meaning. Grammar, spelling and vocabulary tend to be more British than American. Below are some South African English words I came across during my trip; for more complete lists see the links at the bottom of the post.

  • bakkie  – a pick-up truck, a utility truck/ute.
  • biltong – dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat.

Male kudu, Kruger Park

  • bioscope – a cinema or movie theatre, originally a defunct English word that survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans word, bioskoop, but is now dated.
  • boma – a livestock enclosure, a stockade or kind of fort, or a district government office.
  • braai – an outdoor barbecue, where meat such as steak, chicken and boerewors (traditional Afrikaaner spicy sausage) are cooked, served with pap (porridge made from maize meal) and bredie (stew).
  • Howzit? – How are you?
  • Ja – commonly used for ‘yes’.
  • Jozi – the city of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, also known as Jo’burg.

Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg

  • laaitie – one’s own child, or used to refer to a young person as a lightweight or inexperienced in something particular.
  • lekker – nice, (very) good, great, cool, enjoyable, delicious or tasty.
  • naartjie – the South African word for tangerine, Citrus reticulata.
  • robots – traffic lights.
  • rondavel – literally “round hovel”, a round free-standing building with a thatched roof.
  • shebeen – an unlicensed drinking establishment (originally illegal) in black townships (large, planned settlements of blacks and coloureds, a legacy of the apartheid era and often lacking infrastructure).
  • taxi – can be a taxicab, but generally means a shared minibus used to transport a large number of people.
  • tekkies/takkies – sneakers, trainers, running shoes.

Some Afrikaans words have also entered the English language:

  • aardvark – literally means “earth pig”.
  • apartheid – literally “apart-ness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial separation, and the resulting oppression of the black majority, implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1990.
  • Boer – literally “farmer”, shortened from Trekboer; Boers were the first Dutch who trekked into the interior of the country.
  • meerkat – literally means “lake cat“.
  • rooibos – literally Afrikaans for red bush, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush.
  • spoor – is anything that shows signs of an animal, and literally means “tracks” or “footprints”.
  • springbok – literally “jumping antelope”.
  • veld – a generic term for certain wide open spaces, it comes from the Cape Dutch word veldt.
  • wildebeest – derived from Cape Dutch, literally “wild cattle”.

Wildebeest, Kruger Park

Are you South African, or have you lived in or visited South Africa? What’s your favourite word or expression? Please share in the comments below!

Further reading:

In June 2010 the Macmillan Dictionary Blog posted a series of articles as part of South African English month. You can find these articles here.

* according to the Guinness Book of Records – see here.

8 responses

  1. My favourite Sth African English word is “shame” – which has the very surprising meaning of “cute”. You might look at a baby or a kitten and say “Ag shame!” meaning “Oh, how cute!”

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  3. Thank you so much for this very interesting article, and for the links you are providing for further research. It was nice to reacquaint myself again with so many words I had previously encountered in the Wilbur Smith novels (believe that I gobbled all of them up!).

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  7. I recently saw a documentary called “Searching for Sugar Man”, about a Detroit folk singer’s popularity in South Africa. I often couldn’t tell what the South Africans were saying due to their accents.

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