Speaking ‘South African’

As I have perhaps already conveyed in my previous three posts, South Africa is a country defined by extremes; while at times it is a place of energy, vibrancy, and tremendous beauty, at others, it warrants frustration, anger, and sadness. It seems for these reasons that one is, on a daily basis, forced to simply laugh, when warranted, and continue working away at the days tasks.  One point of amusement, at least for me, has been found among my attempts to negotiate the seemingly obscure slang that is used by literally all English speaking South Africans I meet.  To be honest, I feel at times as though Stanley Kubrick himself was playing some sort of sick prank on me (albeit language is perhaps the nicer of the apparent similarities between Johannesburg and a Clockwork Orange).  Regardless,  it is fair to say that “Sorry, what do you mean by that?” has become my new catch phrase.

This morning, amidst writing a longer post that will shortly be published to this blog, I realized that slowly but surely I too was beginning to drop certain  colloquial, and uniquely South African, phrases into my posts that, without proper explanation, are likely only to confuse and bewilder many of you. As such, I thought I would share with all of you a growing glossary of terms, phrases, and colloquialisms that I have managed to pick up and adapt to over the past two weeks, and perhaps further, provide some context into which they can be placed.

Before going into specifics, I thought I would quickly go over a quick history of language in South Africa.  For all of the Canadians reading this post, who I am sure are in the majority, we have had the shared experience of growing up in a country with two official languages.  For most of us this is likely a source of pride, although for some who, like myself, are simply awful at speaking French it can also be a source of frustration.  This is a frustration I have now swallowed in the face of South Africa’s 11 official languages, that were formally recognized in 1995 under Mandela’s new constitution. These languages are: AfrikaansEnglishNdebeleNorthern SothoSothoSwaziTswanaTsongaVendaXhosa and Zulu.  Prior to the 1994, only English and Afrikaans were official languages, although the majority of the country spoke one of the other 11 languages at home.  This essentially means that while I, with minimal interest, struggled through grade 5 French, many South African’s were working on their third or fourth language.  Sadly, I am perhaps now better at speaking English/Afrikaans slang than I am French. Regardless, while language (like all else) was and still is a politicized issue in South Africa (for more information click here), I have chosen to share with all of you some of the amusing phrases I have picked up during the last fortnight.  These phrases are common to English slang and therefore do not represent all of the words I have been trying to pick up in Zulu or Afrikaans.

Robots – Traffic Lights (a personal favorite)

Babbelas – Hangover

Howzit – How are you (For those of you that couldn’t have figured that one out)

Izit – An expression frequently used in conversations roughly meaning “Is that so?”.  Yesterday I told someone I was Canadian and found the response “Izit” rather amusing.

Braai – a popular South African version of the barbecue whereby men will typically sit around the braai, beer in hand, and cook wors (sausages) while women make salads and sides.

Bakkie – a small pickup truck, of which there are many in South Africa

Dop/Doppie – an alcoholic drink: “It’s six o’clock, time for a doppie!”

Dinges – used in place of someones name that you’ve forgotten: “When is dinges coming around?” – similar to whatsizname – Afrikaans word

Lekker – used for both “good” or “tasty” – Afrikaans word

Pasop – derived from the Afrikaans word meaning Watch out

Gogo – Grandmother (Although this seems to be used as a general name for all older women)

Baba – Grandfather (generic use for older men)

Scale – To Steal

Shame – Unlike elsewhere in the world, this is used as a broad expression of sympathy: One might see a small puppy and say “Ag, shame”.

Ag Just think of Willy from the Simpsons: “Ag, no man”

Stoep – Patio or Veranda

Shebeen – Township pub

Tackies – Running Shoes

Vrot – Rotten or smells bad

And my personal favourite and an essential ‘must know’ for any tourist here:

Just Now or Now Now:  I first encountered these phrases on my last trip to South Africa although remained confused about their application, assuming perhaps they were just slang for now, in a western sense.  This is not the case however.  Now, in the Western sense is an almost non existant concept here as nothing ever happens ‘now’ when one might need it.  Just Now, and Now Now seem to denote open and undefined periods of time between when one says something will occur and when it does.  As an example, I might say, oh I will meet you at the pub just now, where really what I mean is, I will be there at some point.  This carries over into the business world, which can be stressful to say the least.

“When can you get me those TPS reports??”

“Now now man.. or just now”

(but of course, they will only arrive next month).

This further explains point 7 from my last post re: simply breaking your watch upon arrival.

Anyway, there is no overarching objective or moral to this post. Simply try to imagine yourself sitting at a dinner table, or in a meeting, where all of these terms are being thrown about and you will see what I mean.  I am CERTAIN I will be adding more to this list. What I have written above represents but two weeks of conversation on what is a three month stay.


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Categories: Editorials and Reports


5 Comments on “Speaking ‘South African’”

  1. Henk
    June 9, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Hi JP!!! I’ve just read through your blogs, having just found your link again. It’s great to read your thoughts and observations. I’d buy a travel log from you any day – or at least borrow one from the library…. I’ve been getting updates from dad and mom along the way.
    Their account of your rugby match was quite inspirational, as is the work you’re doing at Nkosi’s Haven.
    I’ve been thinking about you lots, and mentioning your trip regularly to the kids – I also mentioned your efforts and successes with the careers classes. I look forward to hearing more from you, especially, or possibly, impressions of the country’s response to World Cup.
    I’ll keep it somewhat brief for now, except to mention that I’ve revived, again, efforts with Nicole. Metaphorical push was coming to shove and hopefully the seemingly locked door shows some light glinting from around the edges.
    I’ll post again, and longer, shortly.
    All the best to you until then,

    • June 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

      Hey Henk!

      Thanks so much for the kind words. The World Cup opens tomorrow so I am sure I will have many posts to write shortly. I have avoided buying tickets so far as the games are so expensive and I would rather buy a jersey. Regardless there is definitely a buzz in the air (and perhaps in my ear from the Vuvuzela horns).

      Talk to you soon!

  2. June 17, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

    Hi! Not sure if you remember, but you commented on my blog post about fear of crime in cape town about 6 weeks ago, right before you were moving to SA. I was just reading through my comments and thought I would stop by and say hello! how are things going for you here? having fun in vuvuhella yet?! hehe 😉

    From one canadian to another,


    • June 18, 2010 at 9:36 am #

      To be honest I am loving every minute of it; although, the Vuvuzela’s never stop in Melville. Two nights ago when Bafana lost I had the first really good night of sleep since leaving Canada. Sadly last night, after a stint in Polokwane for the Mexico/France match, my one hour of sleep before work has once again reduced me to sheer exhaustion. Well worth it nonetheless.

      Thanks so much for getting in touch. I must catch up on your blog. This whole limited bandwidth thing has probably been the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make.

      Anyway, cheers and feel free to send me a message if you are in Joburg at all before August.


      • June 18, 2010 at 10:03 am #

        hehe, i hear you on the no sleep thing. i live right beside green point stadium in cape town – it’s literally 200 meters away – and for the entire four months leading up to the first game, we had to deal with all the construction and roadwork noise in and around the stadium! every morning starting at six it was jackhammers, electrical saws, shouting…my partner is a voice actor and has a home studio, so noise is like the devil for him! anyhow, now it’s only noisy on game night here – i watch the games on tv and open my window to get the live buzz of the crowd and the announcers. great fun!

        the broadband thing is atrocious. i ended up getting into a screeching match with the owner of one of the web providers about their terrible customer service, so in exchange for me not going public about how ‘unready’ SA is to host foreign media with it’s lack of broadband to the western media prior to world cup, he gave us super fast adsl with a gigantic cap. we’re very lucky because my partner needs it for sending in voice files…

        not sure i’ll be in jo-burg any time soon, but keep in touch -i’m poking around your blog today- looks great!

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